A descendant of Nicholas Waln, one of the original Pennsylvania settlers to come to Philadelphia with William Penn in 1682, Joseph Waln Ryerss built his opulent summer retreat, Burholme, on 85 acres of land in 1859. Like his Waln ancestors, Joseph was involved in trade with China, Japan, and England. In addition, he served as president of the Tioga Railroad. Joseph continued the family penchant for acquiring exotic objects from the Orient with the newly constructed Burholme serving as a worthy setting. According to family tradition, “Burholme” means “home in a wooded setting.”
When Joseph died in 1868, he willed Burholme to his second wife, Anne, and, upon her death, his son Robert. Robert obtained a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but never practiced law. He preferred to travel and collected more treasures to be displayed at Burholme. Upon Joseph’s death, Robert and his stepmother Anne moved to Burholme and made it their year-round residence, building a back parlor and library.
The Ryerss – especially Anne – had a great love of animals and were active in the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Philadelphia, and the Ryerss Farm for Aged and Ill Equines, a retirement home for horses now located near Pottstown. Some of the Ryerss pets were buried with their headstones under a tree on the west side of the mansion; this pet graveyard exists to this day.
Eight months before he died at the age of 65, Robert shocked Philadelphia society by marrying his housekeeper of many years, Mary Ann Reed.
Childless, Robert left Mary Ann a comfortable annuity and Burholme for her lifetime. The will stipulated that upon Mary Ann’s death the estate was to be turned over to the City of Philadelphia to be used as a park, library, and museum. “Free to the people forever.” Robert Ryerss also provided for the purchase of new books and the maintenance of the house and grounds.
Three years after Robert’s death, Mary Ann married the Reverend John G. Bawn, a local Episcopalian minister. Mary Ann Ryerss Bawn turned the property over to the City of Philadelphia in 1905, and moved with her second husband to a home in the area. The Ryerss Museum & Library was opened to the public in 1910 under the administration of the Fairmount Park Commission.
In the meantime, Mary Ann and her second husband continued the Ryerss tradition of traveling around the world, and collected a substantial amount of art and artifacts from many countries, including a large number from China, Japan, and India. Upon Mary Ann’s untimely death in China in 1916, Revered Bawn returned to Philadelphia. Realizing that Mary’s acquisitions would not fit in the museum, he petitioned the city to build an extension on to the museum, and in 1923 the rear galleries were added to display a truly vast number of objects collected from all corners of the world.