Map of Philadelphia and parts adjacent, Nicholas Scull, 1777. From the American Philosophical Society
Springettsbury, a rare surviving garden plan, 1740, Historical Society of Pennsylvania
The Gardens at Springettsbury
We admire the gardens in Matthias Baldwin Park. Now that the rains have stopped, everything is green, lush, and blooming. There was once another garden that was the talk of Philadelphia in the 1700's. People walked and rode in carriages to see it. That was the garden of Thomas Penn at Springettsbury Manor House (20th - 21st and Hamilton Sts., currently City View Condominiums. See article on Neighborhood History).
This garden was a game changer for landscape gardening in colonial America. It pushed aside and bent the old rules of garden theory and design from the 1600's and created a new look for the 1700's. The players in this story were William Penn, Thomas Penn, James Alexander, and the English country estates.
William Penn loved the country. "The country life is to be preferred for there we see the works of God but in cities little else but the works of men." During the years that Penn was in Pennsylvania, he set up Pennsbury, an agricultural plantation of 6,500 acres, 25 miles from Philadelphia. However, Penn soon found that he needed a house closer to the City; not in the City itself as he always rented when he stayed in Philadelphia, but a country seat directly outside the City. He found it in what was to be the Matthias Baldwin Park area, 300 acres for his family country estate. It showed signs of a long ago abandoned native Indian settlement.
It was his son Thomas Penn, arriving from England in 1732, who constructed a modest manor house and pleasure garden at what is now 20th & Hamilton Streets. You could say the son completed the father's dreams. Not exactly. The two men could not have been more different. While William Penn was a devout Quaker until old age and debt wore him down, Thomas Penn left the Quaker faith and became a member of the Anglican Church. He loved city living and enjoyed earthly pleasures. However, unable to secure a house in Philadelphia, he altered his plans.
Originally, Thomas Penn had no intention of living permanently in Springettsbury country estate. He envisioned himself visiting the Manor on weekends and during the summer. He did not want to farm the land. He had no interest in plainness and a simple country life but there he was in the country, in a boring small house. To salvage some of his expectations, Thomas Penn threw himself into making a showcase of his gardens at Springettsbury. He employed James Alexander, a newly arrived Scot who brought with him the latest ideas of landscape theory from the country estates near London. He was the first professional gardener in America. With the help of a slave family of 6, he laid out the gardens in 1737-1740.
James Alexander and Thomas Penn were of one mind. They both tired of the Italian mannerism in garden design that had been popular in the 1600's. This design called for symmetry, terraces, elaborate fountains, islands, grottos, and embroidered parterres, which were garden beds laid out in geometric forms that resembled embroidery and carpets. Garden squares predominated. Every walk was straight and every plant and tree stood in a direct line. Everything was orderly. There would be a forecourt, possibly two.
Their new plan embraced the latest natural landscape design that had taken hold in the English country estates. In the 1700's, the straight lines of the 1600's gave way to serpentine paths of gravel or grass that led the visitor from one vista to another with an element of surprise. The landscape was never meant to be viewed as a painting but entered into as a participant. This was the opposite of before, when all of the garden was open to view. Instead, in the 1700's sight lines led to an eye catcher or "borrowed scenery" such as the corner of a building, just enough to give a hint of the whole, a concept borrowed from the Chinese.
At Springettsbury there were two vistas, one facing the Schuylkill River, the other a long north-south axis just west of present day 20th Street. It led down to the Callowhill Cut and enabled the visitor to look for two miles south to the beginning of Gray's Ferry Road on the south edge of Philadelphia. Going north it led to a small valley and ended at a stream, probably Anonymous Creek (See Hidden Creeks). Traces of this avenue were still visible as late as 1796.
There were several walks. A spacious one led to the house. Pine trees lined a walk to a fish pond. Another walk lined with Hawthorne hedges wound under elm trees.
Formal gardens were planted in a semi-circle enclosed with fences, painted benches, and ornamental gates. Spruce hedges were clipped into topiary figures. There was a kitchen garden, an orchard, and a pruned wilderness woodland, fashionable in England at the time. A greenhouse, one of the first in America, held boxes of orange, lemon, lime, and citron trees that were brought outside during the summer and arranged in groups of five for a quincunx pattern. Visitors found it charming.
A deer park was located in the east of the property in a fenced wood that extended to a stream, probably Minnow Run (see Hidden Creeks) and a marsh. Thomas Penn did not like the local deer so he imported English "fallow deer" for his park. It was a harebrained idea that caused him a lot of trouble and money. Peter Kalim, a Swedish scientist who came to Philadelphia in 1748 said the native Pennsylvania deer "do not seem to be a different species from the European stag." Penn even hired a huntsman.
Neither the father William Penn nor son Thomas had success with their vineyard venture. Before his departure, William Penn was able to plant a vineyard in Fairmount, leaving it under the care of a French vintner. It was continued by Thomas Penn under the care of a German vigneroon but the wine was always bitter and the vines withered. James Alexander, the professional gardener, discovered delicious grapes from a hybrid that grew near the swampy edge of the Schuylkill River.
There was nothing like the garden of Springettsbury in Pennsylvania. It had an immediate impact. In 1741 Thomas Penn left Philadelphia under duress for England. He was able to manage the gardens and house from afar giving instructions to Alexander and the trusted black servant Virgil Warden and his wife. In 1815, Deborah Logan wrote, "Passing one day by the old manor Springettsbury. I think it was the prettiest old-fashioned garden that I was ever in."
Notes and papers from Harry Kyriakodis.
The Philadelphia Country House; architecture and landscape in colonial America, by Mark Reinberger & Elizabeth McLean. John Hopkins University Press, c2015.
Vanished Gardens, by Sharon White, c2008.