University City Historical Society

The Woodlands

Bounded by 40th Street and Woodland Avenue

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

The Woodlands is a two story house of gray fieldstone with walls 18 inches thick. Two large brick chimneys rise above a low pitched roof under which runs a small scale modillioned cornice. Semicircular projections on either end express the use of oval shapes in the interior plan. On the north entrance front, six tall Ionic pilasters support a 34 foot modillioned pediment with circular windows and frieze with groups of vertical flutings in alteration with large round flower ornaments. A broad paved terrace, three steps above the drive, extends across the north front from one pavilion to the other. This door has a delicately leaded fanlight with a segmental hood above that is supported by two round engaged Ionic columns. To either side of the center door are large fanlighted french doors set int shallow arches. These are framed by two sets of engaged Doric columns and resemble Palladian windows.

Woodlands, Hamilton Mansion
Woodlands, Hamilton Mansion, Philadelphia. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, c. 1905.

On the south or river front of the house is a freestanding Doric portico of six tall thinly proportioned columns characteristic of the Federal Style. Here another round arched doorway, flanked by small arched doorways framed by the four front columns, open directly into the great oval ballroom. The Palladian windows to the left and right of this portico are set back slightly into the wall plane like the corresponding french windows on the north, which in turn is contained within a wall arch. The house was originally covered with stucco so the walls were smooth and flat with the window openings sharply defined.

On the exterior there is little hint of the variety of interior space. This richness of interior space and design contrasting to the Palladian exterior mass is another characteristic of Robert Adams. Curved shapes became a characteristic of the Federal Style, but few houses were as monumental as The Woodlands.

In plan it seems to be symmetrical with corresponding spaces on either side of a central axis. However, no two of these spaces are identical. Immediately behind the south portico is the rectangular ball room with semicircular ends, in turn with semicircular niches. On the main axis, leading to the north entrance is a smaller circular hall, flanked by two stair wells, one rectangular and one with a curved end. To the left of this hall is a room with a center square and elliptical ends, and to the right is a large oval room. All of this has its counterpart in the interior planning of Robert Adam and his circle and is in direct contrast to the formalism of Georgian mansions.

The circular hall has a dentiled cornice supported by engaged columns with Corinthian capitals, between which alternate fanlighted doorways and niches . The room to the left of the hall with elliptical ends has a delicate frieze of grotesque work, also introduced by Adam after the archeological discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii. The elaborate doorframes are subtly curved to the shape of the room and are framed with fluted Ionic pilasters.

The large oval room on the right also has a fine dentiled cornice. In the semicircular stair hall, the main stair, a light, graceful curving stair leads to the second floor, foreshadowing the dramatic spirals of later Federal houses.

The kitchen was in the cellar and bedrooms over the second floor with servants rooms in the garret. The original stable building also remains. Its walls are of fieldstone and were probably stuccoed like the house. Symmetrically arranged recessed arches frame the doors and windows in a similar manner as the ones on the main house. A four brick belt course adds further refinement to the building, making it a suitably elegant outbuilding for The Woodlands itself.

The house is situated on a hill which overlooked the once beautiful Schuylkill .River to the south and the landscaped part of the estate which extended from the river on the Southland east to Market Street on the north and about 43rd Street on the West. Today it is surrounded by about 79 acres of cemetery with a view of factories and railroads, yet within this urban development it manages to retain much of its former magnificence. No important structural changes appear to have been made to the house. The only exterior alteration is a small covered wooden porch with steps that has been added at a window opening at the first floor level on the east end. This could easily be removed. The interior is badly in need of restoration, but most of the original mantels and plasterwork are still there and could be returned to their original elegance. Unfortunately the cemetery cannot be removed but it does maintain some semblance of open space around the house.


The remaining open space around the Woodland's house, although intruded upon by cemetery monuments, preserves the last vestige of the once renown landscape park which surrounded the residence, contributing not only to the setting of the building, but possessing an importance of its own. This created an interrelationship, forming an inseparable unit of house and setting. This last vestige is vital to the correct perception of the house, situated on a high rise to utilize the vistas across the river and the surrounding country. To some extent, this vista across the land which is not entirely built up, is preserved by the open space around the house. The house and stable are designated as the landmark while the cemetery monuments do not contribute to the significance and are not designated landmarks.

The boundary of the landmark extends around the property boundary of the cemetery, beginning at the northwest corner at the intersection of 41st and Woodland Avenues and continuing east along the south side of Woodland Avenue to the property of the Veterans Hospital, then south along the property of the Veterans Hospital to the hedge along the railroad tracks, then west along the hedge to the rear of the property facing 42nd Street to the point of beginning at the south corner of intersection of 41st Streets and woodland Avenues as defined by the fence of the cemetery property.

Statement of Significance


The Woodlands, located in West Philadelphia, is one of the very earliest examples of the developed Adamesque style to appear in America. It is now recognized to be among the most advanced examples of Federal Architecture, utilizing Adamesque features several years before this style gained common acceptance in the United States. It is still unclear when the first building was erected on the property, but it was greatly enlarged from 1788 to 1790 by William Hamilton after his return from England where he would have seen the new style for himself. Like the house, the grounds were designed in accordance with the most fashionable English trends. The plan of the Woodlands combines oval and rectangular shapes with niches and alcoves in a most sophisticated manner. Delicate designs are used in the plaster work which compliments the light and elegant interiors. The graystone walls were once stuccoed and painted a light color. On the north entrance, six tall Ionic pilasters support a wide pediment and on the south or river front six tall Doric columns support a pedimented roof portico with a modillioned cornice, all in keeping with the new lighter style. The large end Palladian windows are inset into shallow arched reveals, a favorite device of Adam and American Federal style. Both interior plan and exterior design combine to produce one of America's most distinguished and important houses.

William Hamilton inherited The Woodlands in 1747, at the age of two, when his father, Andrew Hamilton, famed defender of Peter Zenger, died. The estate then consisted of 356 acres and a house built by his father as a rural summer retreat. After William's graduation from the Philosophy School of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) in 1762, scattered references indicate Hamilton's occupation of The Woodlands. By 1781, the estate contained 600 acres. Hamilton never entered into any profession and it seems that from the beginning he intended to establish himself in the manner of an English country squire supported by tenant farmers. As early as 1779 he had a keen awareness of the newest trends in English landscape gardening and throughout his life his knowledge of botany and landscape design brought him into contact with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who each sought advice on the landscaping of their estates.

After a trip to England from 1784–86 he returned with new ideas for his grounds and his house. Although no plans or name of an architect survive, references in his letters suggest he secured a plan of some type in England. The house was ready for occupation in 1790 and Hamilton lived there until his death in 1813. It then passed to his nephew James and the property began its decline. When James died in 1817, the several heirs began division and sale of the estate. The house and 91 acres of land were sold to a Thomas Fleming of Charleston, South Carolina. In 1829 the City Commissioners bought 187 acres adjoining Fleming's property for the new almshouse. The remainder was absorbed into Hamilton Village. In 1831, Thomas Mitchell bought the property and in 1839 began forming the Woodlands Cemetery Company. During the late 1840's and 50's the land around the house was developed as a rural cemetery patterned along the lines of Mount Auburn in Cambridge Massachusetts and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia. It remains a cemetery today and the house serves as a residence for the cemetery supervisor.

This National Register nomination was prepared by Patricia Heintzelman, based on a 1967 report by Charles Snell.

Bibliographical References

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