Judge William Lewis was the builder and first occupant of Strawberry Mansion.
Judge Lewis built his new country home in 1789, naming it “Summerville.” Built in the early American architectural style known as the Federal style, it incorporates elements of Classical architectural detailing with the English Georgian style. Other typical features of a Federal interior are columns or square columns called “pilasters” and entryways with fanlights over doorways, such as the traceried lunettes at Strawberry Mansion.
William Lewis was born in Edgemont, Pennsylvania on February 13, 1750, to a family of Welsh ancestry that arrived in the United States in 1683. He was raised and educated in keeping with the Quaker faith and was especially fond of foreign languages – he would learn to speak five over the course of his life.
Lewis was admitted to the bar twice, once before the American Revolution in 1773 and once after in 1776. Known for constantly smoking cigars and possessing what has been called “distinguished ugliness,” Lewis was also a friend of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.
Judge Lewis played a principal role in drafting and initiating the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” in 1780. This act marks the first legal motion towards abolition in the United States.
Lewis also served in various public service positions. In 1787, he was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature. George Washington appointed Lewis to two Federal Judicial positions.
In 1789, Judge Lewis served as First Attorney of the United States District Court. It was during his tenure as a lawyer that he was hailed as a champion of the underdog, whereby he defended many Quaker pacifists accused of treason during the American Revolution. In 1791, he served a one-year tenure as Judge of the United States District Court. 1791 would also mark the year that Judge Lewis was admitted to the Supreme Court Bar.
Judge Lewis kept another residence in Center City where he also maintained his law office. Known as “Fort Wilson,” it was located at the southwest corner of 3rd and Walnut Streets.
Upon his passing, Philadelphia mourned the loss of one of their greatest sons. In an excerpt taken from his obituary in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser from Thursday August 19, 1819, the author describes Judge Lewis thusly:
“A statesman of the Revolution, jealous of liberty himself, he wished its enjoyment to all, and while many around him were trafficking in their fellowmen, Lewis was engaged in breaking their shackles asunder – long may the citizens of Pennsylvania hold his memory in reverence, as an enlightened statesman, a profound Lawyer, and a useful Citizen – and to few is the state indebted more than to William Lewis for her freedom from that diabolical crime of holding part of her Citizens in Slavery to the rest…The memory of this just man shall be blessed.”