JOHN BARTRAM HOUSE AND GARDENS
54
th Street and Eastwick Avenue


Listed on the National Register of Historic Places July 2, 1975

Description

When John Bartram acquired the initial 112 acres of his West Philadelphia farm in 1728, the only structure on the land was the stone house of Swedish settler, Peter Yocum, dating from 1684. When Bartram began the construction of his house in 1730-1, he incorporated the earlier building as the kitchen on the first floor, and a bedroom on the second. The house, was originally one room deep, two-and-a half stories with a gable roof, and built of coursed ashlar, split and laid by Bartram's own hand. With the growth of his family, additions were necessary, and in 1770 the peak of the roof was lifted, and the whole house was extended toward the river, making the attic larger, and the house two rooms deep. At the same time Bartram erected the recessed porch with three Ionic masonry columns in the center of the riverside facade. The porch was subsequently enclosed on the second floor level. The carved stone window framing, capitals, and inscription all give the facade both individuality and vitality. A one story wing was added onto the south end of the house at this time. A complimentary wing was added onto the north at a much later date. The interior of the house is characterised by its woodwork, panelled walls, many closets, and deep window sills. Virtually every room on the first floor has a door to the outside. Of the original furniture, only a small Franklin stove, a gift from the inventor to the botanist, a horse bell and a jug remain. However, the rooms are furnished with period pieces.

The outbuildings, all built by the Bartrams out of stone, consist of the seedhouse (1737), the stable and carriage shed (1743), and the barn built by John Jr. (1775). The seed, or packing house is most notable for its uncoursed rubble masonry and its several pieces of Bartram's carving. Originally used by the Bartram as a greenhouse, it was later used for packing and storing seeds, and its roof has been raised.

Stretching from the house down to the river is the Bartram garden, overlaid with a rough gridwork of paths which have been set in accordance with a 1758 sketch by William Bartram. The gardens were maintained from Bartram's time up to 1850, when they were abandoned until 1923, when active restoration was begun. At this time 82 varieties of plants were recorded, while 70 years earlier, the number was 129. Replanting has been strictly confined to the plants grown there by John and William Bartram. Today, only one specimen, a yellow tree, remains from John Bartram's time.

Three further items worth noting include; (1) a cider press, carved by Bartram out of living rock shortly after he acquired the land, (2) the site of the summer house, and (3) the grave of Harvey, Bartram's black servant who managed the estate when the botanist was in the field. These all lie in the southern corner of the garden, by the river.

A clear view of the layout of the Bartram property can be obtained from the enclosed sketchmap, prepared by the John Bartram Association in 1969. The landmark boundaries consist of the Schuylkill River bank at the top, and the blue fence lines along the other three sides. The house and outbuildings stretch across the center foreground, with the gardens extending before them down to the river.

Boundaries

Beginning at the point of intersection of the southern curb of the entrance driveway with the fence forming the western boundary of the property, proceed SW along said fence approximately 375' to the juncture of the fence with the hedge forming the southern boundary of the garden, thence SE along the line of said hedge 735', thence South 90', thence SE 90' to the river bank, thence North following the line of the river bank roughly 600' to the point of intersection of the river with the fence forming the North boundary of the garden, thence NE 570' approximately, to the point of origin. This encloses approximately 11 acres following the boundary lines established by the John Bartram Association and the Fairmount Park Commission, with the extra addition in the southern corner to enclose Harvey's grave, and the site of the summer house.

Statement of Significance

The house and gardens of John Bartram stand today as a living memorial to the pioneer American botanist and serve as an eloquent symbol of the rise of scientific inquiry in the English colonies of the eighteenth century.

Bartram, a native Pennsylvanian, born in 1699, was self-taught and a collector and describer of plants rather than a formal scientist, yet he maintained extensive correspondence with botanists abroad and in 1765 was appointed botanist to King George III. On his field trips, he recorded not only botanical specimens, but everything on the colonial scene; wildlife, the people, and the earth itself.

Like Franklin and Washington, who were frequent guests at his home on the Schuylkill, Bartram was representative of the best elements in the developing colonies. Possessed of keen intellect and curiosity, he was equally at home with the great figures of his time, and the slaves whom he freed and then employed.

The Bartram house, a two and a half story Colonial, built by his own hands in 1731; and the gardens, partly preserved and partly restored, are maintained as a public park and museum by the Fairmount Park Commission in West Philadelphia, at 54th and Eastwick Streets.

History

From his youthful years spent on the farm of his Quaker parents in south east Pennsylvania, John Bartram possessed a keen interest in the plant life he observed around him. As a young man he began a self-instructed study of botany, reading the available texts, the first of which he probably acquired at the famous library of James Logan. With the aid of a tutor, he read the works of Linnaeus in Latin, yet his interest was characterised by curiosity and a love of plant life, rather than a clinical or scientific attitude. Nonetheless, in his later life, his more orthodox brethren dismissed him from their Quaker meeting, for the unorthodoxy of his scientific interests.

In 1728 he acquired the lands in West Philadelphia then Kingsessing, and began planting the garden, and building the house. The garden was filled with specimens which Bartram discovered in his many exploratory trips which were at first local, but soon ranged further and further afield. In 1733, through the intermediation of Philadelphia merchant, Joseph Breitnall, Bartram began his famous correspondence with Peter Collinson, a fellow Quaker, wool merchant, and avid botanist, who lived in London. For nearly 35 years the two men maintained a steady exchange, Collinson instructing Bartram in drying and preserving plants, as well as requesting specimens, while Bartram supplied new plants and seeds, and relayed his latest discoveries. Through Collinson, the American introduced a wealth of plants to England, and was introduced in turn to the great botanists of Europe such as Linnaeus, Dr. John Fothergill, Peter Miller, and Mark Catesby. At the same time Bartram extended his field trips into Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. His journals recorded the full range of the natural landscape, the climate, the inhabitants, and the geology, as well as the flora and fauna. In 1765, through the intervention of Collinson, Bartram was appointed Botanist to the King (George III) with an annual stipend of 50. The botanist immediately undertook a journey through Georgia and Florida, the outcome of which was recorded in Description of East Florida, with a Journal by John Bartram (Wm. Stork, London, 1769). William, one of Bartram's sons by his second wife, accompanied him on this and other trips, developing the artistic skill which served to make him a notable botanist as well.

Bartram was married twice; in 1723 to Mary Morris, who bore him two sons, and after her death, in 1729 to Ann Mendenhall who gave birth to five boys and two girls.

After Bartram's death in 1777, William continued to enlarge the garden with specimens from his travels. After his death, the famous garden which had been studied by several celebrated naturalists of Europe passed into the hands of the Eastwick family, and later into a period of neglect. In 1923, active restoration and stabilization was begun by the Fairmount Park Commission in whose hands the property now resides.

Sources

C. B. Lees "Bartram's Garden" in Horticulture, March 1964.

Dorothy and Richard Pratt, A Guide to Early American Homes, North (New York, 1956).

Donald Culross Peattie, article in Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 2 (New York, 1929,).

Emily Read Cheston, John Bartram, His House and Garden (Philadelphia, 1953), a pamphlet published by the John Bartram Association.

This National Register Nomination was prepared by Richard E. Greenwood.