Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Anastasia Day

Gardens (Public)

More than three centuries of private and public efforts have given the Philadelphia area the highest concentration of public gardens in the United States. Although William Penn (1644-1718) originally envisioned five squares dotting his metropolis, the energies of private citizens initially cultivated the plants, gardens, and landscapes of Philadelphia. From these beginnings, public gardens became larger, more numerous, and varied, establishing the region as a place of importance in American horticultural history. 

The notion of a designed, urban public garden did not exist when Penn founded Philadelphia in the seventeenth century. His vision for a “greene country towne” held no provision for public parks or gardens. Instead, this characterization referred to the private use of land within the original city. Penn envisioned a system of large lots of a minimum of half an acre, with the house placed “in the middle of its platt, . . . so there may be ground on each side for Gardens or Orchards, or fields.” In this way, he sought to make his town green.

Penn set aside public land in the form of Philadelphia’s five squares, but, with the exception of the Central Square, they were not to be used as gardens but rather “as the Moor-fields in London.” While “walks” traversed them, London’s Moorfields primarily served as a multipurpose landscape where, for example, plague victims were buried and rival guilds met in battle. Similar uses predominated in Philadelphia’s squares before they became sites of city gardens beginning in the late eighteenth century. Militia drilled there; the squares later named Washington and Franklin held burial grounds; and Washington Square hosted a livestock auction. Clay was mined from the square later named Rittenhouse, and the square later named Logan was the site of public executions. Trash was dumped in them all.

Gardens of the Wealthy

[caption id="attachment_17775" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Bartram's Garden showing a man standing next to the trunk of a large tree Botanist and horticulturalist John Bartram founded one of the city's first arboretums on his estate in Kingsessing. It is home to some of the oldest trees in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

A number of wealthy Philadelphians did create gardens in their large city lots, as well as at their country estates outside the original city limits, and many Philadelphians visited these gardens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. John Bartram (1699-1777) and his son William Bartram (1739-1823), two of the continent’s most prominent botanists, were the first of a series of Philadelphia plantsmen to create demonstration gardens and nurseries. The first early gardens fully accessible to the (paying) public in the city, however, were associated with entertainment and refreshment rather than science and education. These included the “Cherry Garden” in the area that later became known as Society Hill and “Spring Garden,” which was accessed by boat up Pegg’s Run (roughly at Callowhill Street). John Fanning Watson (1779-1860) recorded that the early “Cheese-cake-house” garden, on the west side of Fourth Street north of Arch, featured fruit trees, “arbours and summer-houses.”

One of the best known of these early public gardens was at Gray’s Inn on the west side of the Schuylkill River near the point later crossed by Gray’s Ferry Avenue. Visitors to Gray’s Gardens, located on the main route south out of the city, wrote rapturously of their experiences there before and during the period of the American Revolution. They enjoyed musical entertainment and food and toured the extensive greenhouse, a series of summerhouses and other garden structures, and meandering walks. In the early nineteenth century, merchant Henry Pratt’s (1761-1838) Lemon Hill estate northwest of Philadelphia overlooking the Schuylkill River likewise opened its doors to the ticketed public. After Pratt’s death, the estate hosted public Sangerfests (German celebrations) until bought by the city in 1855 for Fairmount Park.

The development of the first truly public garden within the city began in 1784, when Englishman Samuel Vaughan (1720-1802) began a campaign to transform the State House Yard (later Independence Square). A close associate of Benjamin Franklin, Vaughan was an enthusiastic supporter of the young republic and its new cultural institutions and organizations, particularly the American Philosophical Society. It is no accident that the creation of the permanent home for the Philosophical Society in the State House Yard coincided with Vaughan's work to make a garden there. One of Vaughan’s goals was to plant a collection of American trees, an ambition echoed in other early gardens. In a landscape featuring serpentine gravel walks and artificial mounds, with Windsor chairs and benches provided for visitors, the State House Garden’s plantings included one hundred American elms. The site became a political emblem of the advancement of the young American civilization.

The State House Garden

The State House Garden set an important precedent for reviving Penn’s original squares as the city’s development moved west from the Delaware River in the pre-Civil War period. A public garden in Center Square surrounded Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s pumping house for the short-lived Chestnut Street Waterworks. Southeast (later Washington) Square followed in the 1810s and became the centerpiece of an elite neighborhood, much as Southwest (Rittenhouse) Square did after mid-century. The garden in Franklin Square, established in the 1830s, featured a fountain supplied by the new Fairmount Water Works; the contemporary press marveled at the technological ingenuity of it. Many of these reinventions of Penn’s squares were the product of efforts from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, founded in 1827. In 1829, the society hosted the first Philadelphia Flower Show in Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street, where twenty-five of Philadelphia’s elite gardeners showed their finest specimens.

[caption id="attachment_17752" align="alignright" width="300"]An engraving of Horticulture Hall, a large glass and iron building in the Moorish style, from 1876 A botanical garden was one of the centerpieces of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. It was located in Horticultural Hall, a massive glass and iron greenhouse in Fairmount Park. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The horticultural transformation of Fairmount Park in anticipation of the 1876 Centennial celebration of American independence ushered in a new generation of public landscapes. The Garden of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia opened to the public on July 1, 1874. Although it became known simply as the Philadelphia Zoo, it was originally conceptualized as a botanic garden hosting a zoological collection. Two years later, the Centennial Exhibition also promoted Philadelphia’s gardening skills. More than 20,000 trees, shrubs, and decorative hedges were planted over the exhibition’s 285 acres in Fairmount Park. The Colonial Revival that the Centennial helped to popularize led to a return to orthogonal geometry in “formal” gardens, not only in Fairmont Park of Philadelphia, but across the nation.

Horticultural Hall, a huge glass and iron structure and one of the two permanent buildings constructed for the Centennial, housed exotic and rare botanical specimens from around the world as well as indigenous American plants. It continued to serve as a conservatory until Hurricane Hazel ravaged it in 1954; the city razed the building the following year. For the 1976 Bicentennial, the city built a new Fairmount Park Horticulture Center on the site, complete with indoor greenhouses and outdoor perennial, annual, vegetable, and demonstration gardens.

First Large-Scale Japanese Gardens

[caption id="attachment_17754" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park replaced an early Japanese garden centered on the site of the Nio-mon Temple Gate after it was destroyed by fire. The house was erected in 1958 and remains one of the park's signature attractions. (Photograph by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Another legacy of the Centennial was one of the first large-scale Japanese gardens in the United States, a teahouse and garden exhibit created by the Japanese government in West Fairmount Park. After the Centennial, these features remained, later joined by the Nio-mon Temple Gate, which was moved from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. After the gate burned down in 1955, it was replaced three years later by Pine Breeze Villa, or Shofuso, a gift from Japan to the United States. From its roots at the Centennial, this garden influenced American taste. It helped start a vogue for Japanese gardens in landed American estates and inspired appreciation for foreign gardening styles.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Philadelphians revived or invented gardens as numerous colonial-era estates became public historic sites. In 1888, the City of Philadelphia purchased Bartram’s Garden, which had remained in private hands till that time. The garden, the oldest surviving botanic garden in the United States, still holds a number of historic trees planted by the Bartrams, including the oldest ginkgo tree in the nation. Other historic estate gardens became public under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. For example, in 1957 the state acquired the Highlands Mansion and Gardens in Fort Washington, a late eighteenth-century Georgian mansion with two acres of grounds.

[caption id="attachment_17753" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the Swan Pond at Morris Arboretum, showing swans and a classical-style folly The Morris Arboretum began as the private gardens of local businessman John T. Morris's summer estate. The estate was purchased by the University of Pennsylvania in 1932 and now contains over ten thousand specimens. (Photograph by M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The trend of turning estate gardens into public sites continued throughout the Philadelphia region over the twentieth century. In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania purchased the Morris family’s Compton Estate in Chestnut Hill and then reopened it as the Morris Arboretum. In southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, a group of DuPont family estates also opened for visitors, notably Longwood Gardens in Chester County, which opened to the public after the death of Pierre S. DuPont (1870-1954), and sixty acres of naturalistic gardens at the nearby Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Other historic DuPont estates nearby include the Mt. Cuba Center, a preserve of the indigenous flora of the Appalachian piedmont; Nemours Mansion & Gardens, famed for its formal French gardens; and the Hagley Museum and Library, with original mansion gardens along the Brandywine River.

In May 2013, the American Public Gardens Association recognized the City of Philadelphia as “America’s Garden Capital” for National Public Gardens Day. Indeed, by the early twenty-first century Philadelphia had the highest concentration of public gardens of any area in the United States, with thirty public gardens within a thirty-mile radius. While part of this abundance sprang from Philadelphia’s original city plan, the number of private mansions turned to public gardens showed that the region’s interest in gardening extended beyond the limits of William Penn’s “greene country towne.”

Anastasia Day is a doctoral student and Hagley Fellow in the History Department of the University of Delaware. She studies environment, technology, and food, primarily in the American twentieth century. Her dissertation is on Victory Gardens in World War II.

Emily T. Cooperman is an architectural and landscape historian and historic preservation consultant. She serves as the principal of ARCH Preservation Consulting and as a senior consultant for Preservation Design Partnership. Her published work includes, with Lea Carson Sherk, William Birch: Picturing the American Scene (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).


The Philadelphia area is a recognized “hearth” of early American arboretums. Starting almost exclusively within a tight-knit community of Quaker botanists with a reverence for nature, early Philadelphia arboretums left a legacy of emphasis on native plants. Over time, the region’s arboretums also encompassed English naturalistic designs showcasing North American species and increasingly global perspectives, especially a focus on Asian and Japanese landscape design and plants.

Arboretums have much in common with botanical gardens, but are defined by their emphasis on woody plants, including trees, shrubs, and vines. Both botanic gardens and arboretums, however, are distinguished by an educational or scientific purpose along with aesthetic and recreational functions.

[caption id="attachment_11451" align="alignright" width="189"]page from Arbustrum American, 1785, by Humphry Marshall Title page from Arbustrum American, 1785, by Humphry Marshall. (Google eBook)[/caption]

A complex network of Quaker botanists and dendrologists (those who study wooded plants) were at the heart of early arboretums in the Philadelphia area. In 1773, Humphry Marshall (1722-1801) established the first arboretum in the United States on his Marshallton, Pennsylvania, estate. A Quaker stonemason by trade, he was cousin to fellow Quaker John Bartram (1699-1777), founder of the first botanical garden in America. While Marshall’s arboretum showcased both native and European plants, his focus was on North American flora. In 1785, Marshall published Arbustrum  Americanum, the first treatise on woody plants published in the United States. Some scholarship suggests this early and persistent Quaker affinity for native flora over transplanted exotics can be traced to religious beliefs about stewardship over God’s creation.

Quaker Arboretums, a Family Affair

A surprising number of these early Quaker arboretums were family affairs. In 1798, Quaker twins Joshua and Samuel Pierce began an arboretum known as Pierce Park. This arboretum was notable for how it epitomized early arboretums as scientific collections; the trees were laid out in straight rows by taxonomy. Humphry Marshall advised the brothers in their collecting. Some Pierce trees survived into the twentieth century at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, through the intervention of Pierre S. du Pont, who purchased the property in 1906 to save it from timber companies. In 1825, two more Quaker brothers founded what would become the Tyler Arboretum: Jacob (b. 1814) and Minshall Painter (b. 1801). The two brothers, networking with Marshall, Bartram, and other Quaker dendrophiles, quickly gathered more than a thousand tree types. By the early twenty-first century the arboretum, the oldest extant arboretum on the East Coast, still held twenty original “Painter” trees, including the largest giant sequoia in Pennsylvania. In 1944, descendant Laura Tyler bequeathed Painter Arboretum to a board of directors and the property became the nonprofit Tyler Aboretum.

[caption id="attachment_11378" align="alignright" width="300"]a drawn map of awbury's rose garden Awbury’s Rose Garden, built in the late nineteenth century and pictured here on a map, exemplifies the structure of a traditional English garden. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the mid-nineteenth century, as the United States suffered anxiety over its cultural relationship with Europe, English garden designers became viewed as necessary to validate the aesthetic and scientific worth of an arboretum. No wonder, then, that the English gardener William Carvill was hired to design the (Quaker) Haverford College Arboretum in 1834. He incorporated sweeping vistas, while also expressing Quaker values of community and individuality within his English-style designs. The arboretum boasts a descendant of the American elm under which, by tradition, William Penn signed a treaty with the Native Americans. Likewise, the English-trained William Saunders (1822-1900) consulted on the master plans of Awbury Arboretum in the 1870s, before going on to design Gettysburg Cemetery and the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C. Awbury also shared Quaker roots with Haverford’s arboretum; Quaker businessman Henry Cope, inspired by visiting the Woodlands estate in West Philadelphia, founded Awbury in 1852 in Germantown. After housing eight generations of Copes, Awbury became a formal public arboretum in 1916 and turned nonprofit in 1984.

Distinct from the Philadelphian lineage of Quaker botanists, another slightly later thread of arboriculture focused on international collections and global diversity. Closely following Humphry Marshall’s seminal publication on local fauna, William Hamilton (1749-1813) began planting trees at the Woodlands in 1786. Hamilton was an aristocratic Anglophile in his tastes and arboricultural practices. He introduced the Norway maple to North America, gave John Bartram a ginkgo sapling that became the oldest ginkgo on the continent, and voraciously collected globally diverse trees. He also shared a Quaker passion for North American plants, successfully petitioning for seeds from the Lewis and Clark expedition, although he displayed them in English naturalistic-style landscapes, with sweeping vistas punctuated by clusters of trees. In 1840, the Woodlands became a public cemetery to preserve his arboricultural legacy.

[caption id="attachment_11381" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of fall foliage and a fountain The Morris family traveled the world extensively and continued adorning their property with new and exotic species, including these colorful Asian Spice Bushes. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

This non-Quaker strain of international dendrology was revived and brought to prominence in the 1876 Centennial Arboretum, still standing in Fairmount Park in the early twenty-first century. The Centennial Arboretum picked up where the international collector William Hamilton left off, showcasing trees from all over the globe, to much acclaim and imitation. Shofosu, the Japanese teahouse and garden at the Centennial Arboretum, influenced Western arboretum design and collections, arguably up to the addition of two Japanese gardens to Haverford College Arboretum in 1990 and 2004.

Barnes Foundation Arboretum

International collecting also became the focus of the Barnes Foundation Arboretum, initially developed by Captain Joseph Lapsley Wilson (1844-1928) beginning in 1880. Purchased by the Barnes Foundation in 1922, the arboretum boasts over 3,000 varieties of woody plants, including katsura trees, European beeches, Japanese raisin trees, and ginkgos. Also influenced by the Centennial Arboretum, in 1887 Quaker siblings John and Lydia Morris broke with the dominant Quaker precedent and began planting exotic trees. Their Compton estate grew in 1912 with the addition of “English Park,” made up almost exclusively of Chinese specimens, and a “Japanese Overlook” rock garden installed following the “Japanese Hill and Water Garden” addition of 1905. Known as Morris Arboretum since the University of Pennsylvania purchased it in 1932, the siblings’ estate became the official arboretum of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

More recent arboretums, informed by restoration ecology, have renewed emphases on native plants. The Jenkins Arboretum, founded in 1976 in Devon, took the southeastern Pennsylvania hardwood forest as its starting palette and specializes in eastern North American trees together with thousands of azaleas and rhododendrons. Similarly, the Lewis W. Barton Arboretum and Nature Preserve at Medford Leas, founded in 1981 in Medford, New Jersey, features New Jersey flood plain natives as well as global specimens. Tellingly, Medford Leas is a Quaker senior living community and receives guidance from the Quaker-founded Morris Arboretum. The Quaker strain of native gardening never died; even at the height of the exoticism craze in 1929, the Scott Arboretum of the Quaker Swarthmore College was designed to emphasize Eastern Pennsylvanian climate and ecology.

The roots of Greater Philadelphia’s arboretums run deep. In the region, arboretums display the influence of Quaker reverence toward nature, late nineteenth-century Anglophilia, Centennial celebrations of international collections, and an ever-growing focus on public education.

Anastasia Day is a Ph.D.-track fellow in the Hagley Program in the History of Industrialization at the University of Delaware. Her research interests include gender, consumption, technology, and environmental history.

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