Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.
The 1731 John Bartram House with its new cedar shake roof. Pete Prown/John Bartram Association

The 1731 John Bartram House with its new cedar shake roof. Pete Prown/John Bartram Association

Sitting on 45 acres of pastoral landscape, the Colonial-era house at Bartram’s Garden has long been recognized as a Philadelphia architectural landmark and one of the first historic buildings preserved as a public park in Pennsylvania. John Bartram (1699-1777), the first American-born botanist, began construction shortly after he purchased the farm of 102 acres in the fall of 1728 in what was then rural Kingsessing Township, today known as Southwest Philadelphia. By 1731 Bartram completed the first phase of his design, a two-story “hall and parlor” house. Never entirely satisfied, the botanist continued to enlarge and remodel the stone structure throughout his life.

Major construction projects have been in progress over the past two years at Bartram’s Garden, a National Historic Landmark site. The house has undergone extensive repairs, and a combination of historic and archaeological research has led to the reconstruction of a long-abandoned part of the historic garden, originally designed and planted at the conclusion of the War of 1812 by Ann Bartram Carr (1779-1858) – John Bartram’s botanically gifted granddaughter – and her husband Col. Robert Carr (1778-1866). There is also a revived focus on waterfront access to the Schuylkill River at Bartram’s Garden, all supporting its mission to connect visitors to history, culture, horticulture and outdoor activities, while supporting the Southwest community. The site’s executive director Maitreyi Roy said, “It is exciting to apply the historic achievements of the Bartrams to today’s changing world and take our place as the outdoor classroom for Southwest Philadelphia.”

 

Bartram House Conservation

It is generally thought that John Bartram was his own architect-builder. James Logan reported in a letter to Peter Collinson in August 1737 that Bartram “is building himself a house most of the work of which of every kind I am told he does with his own hands.” William Bartram (1739-1823), the most famous Bartram son, who also lived most of his life at Bartram’s Garden, said of his father, “he was an ingenious mechanic” and “the house in which he lived . . . he built himself, after quarrying the stone: and he was often his own mason, carpenter, blacksmith, & generally made his own farming utensils.”

The current work on the Bartram House is the fourth major restoration cycle on the building, going back to the 1920s. It follows up on two recent architectural and historic studies of the house and garden, under the National Park Service program Historic American Landscape Survey. This work unraveled the complex history of construction and alteration for the Bartram House and overturned previous ideas of the evolution of the building. A long but mistaken tradition held that some part of the extant house dated to late 17th-century Swedish occupation of the Lower Schuylkill. It is now clear that John Bartram began the stone house on a hall-parlor plan in 1728 or 1729 and completed the core house in 1731. After several interim additions, enlargement and redesign of the house was completed by John Bartram in 1770, near the end of his life.

 

Rendered plan of paths and plantings for the Anne Bartram Carr Garden restoration. LRSLA Studio, Philadelphia

Rendered plan of paths and plantings for the Anne Bartram Carr Garden restoration. LRSLA Studio, Philadelphia

Still there were subtle changes in the appearance of the structure during the two Bartram generations that followed. The final and current appearance of the house reflects changes made by Ann and Robert Carr around 1820. This includes alterations to windows, roof dormers, shed wings and, most importantly, a new rear-door entrance and decorative lattice porch, which opened out to a new garden on the west side of the house. Recent restorations have settled on the Carr-period appearance as best representing the preserved material elements of the house. The recent project included masonry repairs, paint and plaster work, a new roof for the house, and a geothermal HVAC system for all the historic buildings. The Carr-period west porch and flanking benches were reproduced based on historic photographs and drawings. This work will help preserve the house for decades to come.

 

This c. 1908 postcard shows the west side of the Bartram House with elements of the original Ann Bartram Carr Garden landscape still visible. John Bartram Association

This c. 1908 postcard shows the west side of the Bartram House with elements of the original Ann Bartram Carr Garden landscape still visible. John Bartram Association

Reconstructing the Ann Bartram Carr Garden

Ann and Robert Carr, with the help of the aging William Bartram, revived the Bartram family nursery business into a third generation after the War of 1812. The Carrs greatly enlarged the sale of plants to a local Philadelphia audience. In a short period they introduced many major horticultural plants to the United States, particularly exotic species from around the globe. They continued the family traditions of plant collection, science and education and remained at the center of Philadelphia horticulture into the 1840s (Robert Carr was active in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, long serving as a vice president). The Carrs kept the family’s botanic garden open for visitors, and accordingly a steady stream of naturalists, students and customers visited the garden by the 1840s, arriving by rail and steamboat.

The landscape on the west side of the Bartram House long retained traces of a historic garden that is now being recreated as the Ann Bartram Carr Garden. The original semicircle layout remained intact when the City of Philadelphia acquired Bartram’s Garden as a park in 1891 but was gradually lost after the 1920s. There are roughly 50 historic photographs that document the layout and gradual decline and disappearance of the garden, including mass-produced postcard views. The landscape on the west side of the house had fewer trees to block its view. This open vista aided a succession of amateur and professional photographers from 1870 onward. Archaeological excavations in 2001 and 2014-15 helped to accurately locate the centuries-old path locations and confirm the size and curve of the semicircle design.

Archaeology is an important part of any restoration project at Bartram’s Garden. This team from AECOM unearthed a stepping stone originally from President George Washington’s house in Philadelphia. Joel Fry/John Bartram Association

Archaeology is an important part of any restoration project at Bartram’s Garden. This team from AECOM unearthed a stepping stone originally from President George Washington’s house in Philadelphia. Joel Fry/John Bartram Association

There is also primary documentation for new plant acquisitions at Bartram’s Garden at the end of the War of 1812. Robert Carr began correspondence with the nurseryman William Prince at Flushing, New York, in April 1813, and a collection of Carr’s letters to Prince over the next decade are preserved in the USDA National Agricultural Library. In the first letter, Carr reported his wife Ann had inherited the garden under the management of her uncle, “Mr. William Bartram, the botanist and traveler.” At the conclusion of the war and resumption of European trade, subsequent letters report the arrival of new and valuable collections of plants from London.

Robert Carr reprinted the already large Bartram family plant catalogue in 1814 and 1819 with a final section of “Additions” – adding more than 440 new plants, both native and exotic. These new additions form the basic palette of plants for replanting the Ann Bartram Carr Garden. Some of these new plants are now common garden stock, but some required research to identify. A number were greenhouse plants, unsuited to outdoor planting, and some proved hard to locate in modern nurseries. Descriptions from visitors, newspaper advertisements and even herbarium specimens from the original garden all provided evidence on specific plants in the garden.

Descriptions paint a garden of flowers, dense with colorful new plants, and a display that changed over the seasons. The plants include many well-known species – dahlias, peonies, tulips, chrysanthemums, pelargoniums, roses and particularly a large number of new Asian plants including Chinese magnolias, camellias and tree peonies. For roses alone there were more than 40 varieties in 1819 and more than 20 pelargoniums or “geraniums.” By the 1830s there were 270 named dahlias in bloom at Bartram’s Garden.

 

Rediscovering the Schuylkill River

For much of the past 150 years, the tidal lower Schuylkill has been an inaccessible industrial zone dominated by the petroleum industry. In the midst of this activity sits Bartram’s Garden on the western bank. In recent years, staff has developed programming to reconnect visitors with the waterway, refocusing this portion of Bartram’s Garden as the city’s preeminent “river park.”

An advertisement from the Philadelphia Public Ledger for river excursions on the steamboat Kent to Bartram’s Garden, summer of 1845. John Bartram Association

An advertisement from the Philadelphia Public Ledger for river excursions on the steamboat Kent to Bartram’s Garden, summer of 1845. John Bartram Association

“Two hundred years ago, the tidal Schuylkill River was the life blood of Southwest Philadelphia, a river brimming with travel, commerce, sport, dotted with communities of farmers and fisher-folk,” says Justin DiBerardinis, director of programming. “Today, the river is cleaner and healthier than it has been in generations. At Bartram’s Garden, we are helping to bring this river back to life, with a public launch, boat building, fishing, environmental education and free public kayaking every week. A cruise-boat company brings visitors for garden tours from Center City every week, just as they did in the past”

 

Bartram’s Garden, the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America, is located at 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard in Philadelphia. Operated by the John Bartram Association in cooperation with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, it is open year-round, dusk to dawn. For information, call 215-729-5281 or visit the Bartram Garden website.

 

Joel T. Fry has served as curator for Bartram’s Garden since 1992. He first became involved in archaeological research there in 1975 and has since participated in a number of research projects at the garden site. He studied anthropology, historical archaeology and American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania and has written extensively on the history of the site and Bartram family plant collections.