Belmont (Philadelphia, PA)
Site Dates: 1743–1751
Belmont, a country estate on the Schuylkill River outside of Philadelphia, was the home of the English lawyer and jurist William Peters (1702–1789) and of his son, the judge and agriculturalist Richard Peters (1744–1828). The house, which survives, is one of the earliest instances of English Palladian style adapted to the architecture and landscaping of an American villa.
William Peters named his estate Belmont in honor of its lofty situation on a height commanding panoramic views of the Schuylkill River and surrounding countryside [Fig. 1]. Peters’s initial purchase in 1742 consisted of 113 acres of farmland on the west bank of the river, and extended from the water’s edge up a steep ascent to a point one mile north that Peters would later punctuate with a monumental obelisk. The property also included a small island of about two acres, still known as Peters Island. Belmont’s location would remain one of the most admired on the Schuylkill for many decades. In the 1780s, when “the beautiful banks of the Schuylkill [were] everywhere covered with elegant country houses,” an English gentleman visiting Philadelphia would still single out Belmont as “the most enchanting spot that nature can embellish.”
Immediately after acquiring the Belmont property, Peters refurbished and expanded an existing small stone cottage as a temporary residence and began developing what he called a “Country Retirement”: a luxury villa surrounded by an ornamental landscape that would provide a pleasurable respite from the business of town life. A local precedent for this kind of suburban retreat was Thomas Penn’s Springettsbury estate on the opposite side of the Schuylkill. In the 1730s Penn had laid out the property as a pleasure garden, with features such as parterres, tree-lined alleys, and avenues described in detail by Hannah Callender Sansom, who visited Belmont in June of 1762. He combined these features with a densely planted wood and a labyrinth of clipped cedar and spruce, and ornamental structures such as the obelisk, Chinese temple, and statues. Peters sited his house near the center of the property, with a direct view of the obelisk at one end, and Peters Island at the other. Belmont may have influenced Penn’s efforts to update the landscaping of Springettsbury in the early 1740s by softening the rigid formality of his original plantings with more naturalistic and picturesque elements. In 1743, he wrote from England informing Peters that he hoped to visit Belmont soon and to “[gain] something by your experience.”
In addition to developing one of the grandest ornamental landscapes in the American colonies, Peters built a house at Belmont that was extremely fashionable for its time and place. It was among the first in America to imitate the distinctive suburban villa style that flourished in England early in the 18th century and that was modeled, in turn, on the refined classicism of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). In addition to drawing on examples he had seen in England, Peters appears to have derived ideas from English pattern books, such as James Gibbs's Book of Architecture (1728), William Kent’s Designs of Inigo Jones (1727), and Batty Langley's The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs (1740). As originally executed, Peters’s house at Belmont featured a symmetrical design, with a nearly square central hall flanked by small side chambers in each corner. The woodwork of the fireplace and pedimented doorways and the plasterwork ornamenting the ceiling were all executed in accordance with current English fashion. Musical motifs in the plasterwork of the central hall presumably reflect the use of that space for instrumental performances. Peters is known to have imported music books from England, and in 1742 he requested that Thomas Penn find him a musician who could play the violin and harpsichord. As further evidence of his taste for the arts, Peters displayed a collection of paintings and bronze sculptures in the central hall.
Peters's home at Belmont was smaller than other country houses in the area. Soon after its completion in 1745, Peters began its expansion, adding outbuildings on the north and south sides which he connected to the central structure by means of covered piazzas. Even after these additions, an English visitor characterized Belmont as “a tasty little box” (view text), and the Marquis de Chastellux noted succinctly that is was “not large” (view text). Hannah Callender Sansom's account suggests that Peters’s additions served to dramatize the opening up of the landscape from the interior space of the house. Visitors entered through one of the added side buildings and passed through the connecting piazza to the lavishly decorated hall. There, they were greeted by the sight of a panoramic landscape, or, as Sansom put it, by a “prospect bounded by the Jerseys like a blue ridge” (view text). Peters continued to add acreage to Belmont through subsequent land purchases made in 1743 (113 acres), 1749 (22 acres), and 1764 (11 acres). His correspondence over that time indicates a shift in his conception of the estate from a “retirement” (or, suburban villa and pleasure garden) to a “plantation” (or working farm), although he continued to employ a full-time gardener, George Severitt, as late as 1767.
Following Peters's return to England in 1768, Belmont became the property of his eldest son, Richard, a federal judge and prominent abolitionist, who welcomed many notable visitors and carried out further additions to the property. Richard Peters reduced the size of the pleasure gardens, confining them to the area immediately surrounding the house. He converted the rest of the property to farmland, as it had been at the time of his father’s initial purchase, but now with an emphasis on experimental agriculture. He raised the grade around the house by three feet, covering the original stone foundation, and constructed a piazza across the front, bringing the house and landscape into closer unity. He also built an icehouse, a hothouse, and a springhouse on the property.
From early in the 19th century, Belmont’s grounds were imbued with a sense of history. Deborah Norris Logan described the garden in 1819 as “exhibiting a most perfect sample of the old taste” (view text). Nine years later, the Philadelphia merchant Samuel Breck (1771–1862) called attention to the “lofty hemlocks, placed there by [Richard Peter’s] ancestors, nearly a century ago,” a “chestnut tree . . . planted by the hand of Washington,” and hedges “trimmed and decorated in the style of the seventeenth century” (view text). Most significantly, Andrew Jackson Downing described Belmont in his pioneering Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841) as “a noted specimen of the ancient school of landscape gardening” (view text). Although Belmont remained in the possession of the Peters family for another 25 years following Richard Peters's death in 1828, the Columbia Railroad laid tracks for a new line (together with machinery, workshops, and a depot) within 200 feet of the house in 1832. Belmont reportedly served as a stop on the Underground Railroad from about 1847 until 1850, when the tracks were realigned along an alternative route in order to bypass the steep grade. In 1869 the city of Philadelphia purchased the property for inclusion in Fairmount Park and the house was converted into a restaurant. It now operates as an Underground Railroad museum open to the public.
- “. . . went to Will: Peters's house, having some small aquaintance with his wife who was at home with her Daughter Polly. they received us kindly in one wing of the House, after a while we passed thro' a covered Passage to the large hall, well furnished, the top adorned with instruments of musick, coat of arms, crest, and other ornaments in Stucco, its sides by paintings and Statues in Bronze. from the Front of this hall you have a prospect bounded by the Jerseys, like a blueridge, and the Horison, a broad walk of english Cherre trys leads down to the river, the doors of the hous opening opposite admitt a prospect [of] the length of the garden thro' a broad gravel walk, to a large hansome summer house in a grean, from these Windows down a Wisto terminated by an Obelisk, on the right you enter a Labarynth of hedge and low ceder with spruce, in the middle stands a Statue of Apollo, note: in the garden are the Statues of Dianna, Fame & Mercury, with urns. we left the garden for a wood cut into Visto’s, in the midst a chinese temple, for a summer house, one avenue gives a fine prospect of the City, with a Spy glass you discern the houses distinct, Hospital, & another looks to the Oblisk.”
- “Nothing can equal the beauties of the coup d'oeil which the banks of the Schuylkill present, in descending towards the south to return to Philadelphia.
- “I found a pretty numerous company assembled at dinner at the Chevalier de la Luzerne’s, which was augmented by the arrival of the Comte de Custine and the M. de Laval. In the evening we took them to see the President of the Congress, who was not at home, and then to Mr. Peters, the Secretary to the Board of War, to whom it was my first visit. His house is not large, nor his office of great importance.”
- “The beautiful banks of the Schuylkill are every where covered with elegant country houses; among others, those of Mr. Penn, the late proprietor, Mr. Hamilton, and Mr. Peters, late Secretary to the Board of War, are on the most delightful situations. The tasty little box of the last gentleman is on the most enchanting spot that nature can embellish, and besides the variegated beauties of the rural banks of the Schuylkill, commands the Delaware, and the shipping mounting and descending it, where it is joined at right angles by the former. From hence is the most romantic ride up the river to the Falls, in which the opposite bank is likewise seen beautifully interspersed with the country houses of the opulent citizens of the capital. On your arrival at the Falls, every little knoll or eminence is occupied by one of these charming retreats.”
- Watson, Joshua Rowley, June 17, 1816, diary entry (quoted in Foster 1997: 292)
- “In the evening I accompanied my Uncle over to Bellmont to pay my respects to Judge Peters—the House is finely situated and looks down on the River Schuylkill command[ing] a view of the grounds of Lansdown, Eaglesfield and the distance closed by the City & Jersies. He show’d me his Gardens and Orchards in the latter of which was a variety of Grasses, but I saw none of that sort which in England is commonly called Heaver. In the Garden he show’d me a Chesnut Tree which General Washington planted, the day he came out to take leave of his old friend. . . He has promised me some fruit from it, & a young tree of the same. . .
- “I was also shown a grove of Pines in which the General used frequently to walk in and converse with the Judge. . .
- “Bellmont house is old, but is well built of stone and like all the Country houses, has a Piazza in front. I don't see why those in England should not have the same, which would secure a fine airy walk in all weathers, besides being ornamental to the building.”
- Logan, Deborah Norris, November 15, 1819, diary entry (quoted in Kimball 1927: 336) back up to History
- “[The] garden exhibiting a most perfect sample of the old taste of Parterres, made of yew clipped into forms, and beyond this a long avenue of hemlocks planted close and arched above. Really very fine. And likewise some trees of the same kind to the south of what was formerly a wilderness, very large and covered to their tops with the finest ivy I have ever seen.”
- Breck, Samuel, September 29, 1828, Address Delivered before the Blockley and Merion Agricultural Society (1828: 78–79) back up to History
- “The President who placed him on the bench, knew him Richard Peters well, and took great delight in his society. When a morning of leisure permitted that great man to drive to Belmont, the birth-place and country residence of Judge Peters, it was his constant habit so to do. There, sequestered from the world, —the torments and cares of business, Washington would enjoy a vivacious, recreative, and wholly unceremonious intercourse with the Judge; walking for hours, side by side, in the beautiful gardens of Belmont, beneath the dark shade of lofty hemlocks, placed there by his ancestors, nearly a century ago. In those romantic grounds, there stands a chestnut tree, reared from a Spanish nut, planted by the hand of Washington. Large, healthy, and fruitful, it is cherished at Belmont, as a precious evidence of the intimacy that subsisted between those distinguished men. The stranger who visits these umbrageous walks, trimmed and decorated in the style of the seventeenth century, pauses amid 'clipt hedges of pyramids, obelisks, and balls,' formed by the evergreen and compact spruce, to contemplate this thriving tree, and carry back his memory to the glorious virtuous career of him who placed it there.”
- “The seat of the late Judge Peters, about five miles from Philadelphia, was, 30 years ago, a noted specimen of the ancient school of landscape gardening. Its proprietor had a most extended reputation as a scientific agriculturist, and his place was also no less remarkable for the design and culture of its pleasure-grounds, than for the excellence of its farm. Long and stately avenues, with vistas terminated by obelisks, a garden adorned with marble vases, busts and statues, and pleasure grounds filled with the rarest trees and shrubs, were conspicuous features here. Some of the latter are now so remarkable as to attract strongly the attention of the visitor. Among them, is the chestnut planted by Washington which produces the largest and finest fruit; very large hollies; and a curious old box tree much higher than the mansion near which it stands. But the most striking feature now, is the still remaining grand old avenue of hemlocks, (Abies canadensis.) Many of these trees, which were planted 100 years ago, are now venerable specimens, ninety feet high, whose huge trunks and wide spread branches, are in many cases densely wreathed and draped with masses of English Ivy, forming the most picturesque, sylvan objects we ever beheld. . . .”
- “Judge Peters' seat, Lemon Hill, and Clermont were of the ancient style, in the earliest period of the history of Landscape Gardening among us.”
- “. . . crossed Brittains bridge, to John Penns elegant Villa, passed a Couple of delightfull hours, mounted our chaise and rode a long the Schuilkill to Peters place the highest and finist situation I know, its gardens and walks are in the King William taste, but are very pleasant, We had a very polite reception from Rich: Peters, his Wife, and mother, took to our chaise and by his direction, thro a pleasent rode to Riters ferry, crossed and continued our route along Schuilkill, to the falls tavern. . .”
- Richard Peters Jr., “Belmont Mansion,” Proceedings of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia 30 (1925): 78–79, 81, view on Zotero.
- Anonymous English translator’s note in François Jean, Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782, 2 vols. (London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1787), 1:301, view on Zotero.
- Mark Reinberger, “Belmont: The Bourgeois Villa in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” Arris: Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians 9 (1998): 17, view on Zotero; Fiske Kimball, “Belmont, Fairmount Park,” Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin 22 (1927): 334, view on Zotero.
- For the connection between this hybrid, or “transitional” landscape style and English Palladian architecture, see Reinberger 1998, 27, view on Zotero; Kimball 1927, 341, view on Zotero.
- Reinberger 1998, 25, and fig. 36, view on Zotero.
- Thomas Penn to William Peters, August 22, 1743, quoted in Reinberger 1998, 17, view on Zotero.
- Martin Jay Rosenblum, R.A. & Associates, Belmont Mansion, Fairmount Park; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: The Fairmount Park Council for Historic Sites for the Commissioners of Fairmount Park, 1992), 7–10, view on Zotero.
- Reinberger 1998, 22–23, view on Zotero; Kimball 1927: 338–339, 341, view on Zotero; Amy Cole Ives, “Belmont Mansion, A Conditions Survey of the Ornamental Plaster Ceilings of Rooms 101 and 205,” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1996), 13–14, view on Zotero.
- Ives 1996, 15–16, view on Zotero.
- Reinberger 1998, 25, view on Zotero.
- Hannah Callender Sansom, The Diary of Hannah Callender Sansom: Sense and Sensibility in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Susan E. Klepp and Karin Wulf (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), 182–183 view on Zotero.
- Reinberger 1998, 21, 31, view on Zotero; see also Kimball 1927, 333, 335, view on Zotero.
- George Vaux, “Extracts from the Diary of Hannah Callender,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 12, no. 4 (January 1889): 455, view on Zotero. For this interpretation of the visitor’s experience at Belmont, see Reinberger 1998, 32, view on Zotero.
- For more information, see the website “Mapping West Philadelphia: Landowners in October 1777”.
- Reinberger 1998, 31, 37, view on Zotero.
- Reinberger 1998, 22, 33, view on Zotero; Rosenblum & Associates, 1992, 5, view on Zotero.
- Rosenblum & Associates 1992, 5, view on Zotero; Nellie Peters Black, Richard Peters, His Ancestors and Descendents: 1810–1889 (Atlanta: Foote & Davies, 1904), 91–92, view on Zotero; Peters 1925, 81, view on Zotero; J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609–1884, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts & Co., 1884), 3: 1865, view on Zotero.
- Audrey R. J. Thornton, Crown Jewel of Fairmount Park Belmont: Historic Home of the Peters Family in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park (Glenside, PA: American Women’s Heritage Society, 2001), view on Zotero.
- Callender 2010, view on Zotero.
- Chastellux 1787, view on Zotero.
- Kathleen A. Foster, Captain Watson’s Travels in America: The Sketchbooks and Diary of Joshua Rowley Watson, 1772–1818 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997,) 292, view on Zotero.
- Kimball, "Belmont, Fairmount Park," view on Zotero.
- Samuel Breck, Address Delivered before the Blockley and Merion Agricultural Society, on Saturday, September 29th, 1828, on the Death on [sic] Their Late President, The Hon. Richard Peters (Philadelphia: Lydia R. Bailey, 1828), view on Zotero.
- Andrew Jackson Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, 2nd ed. (New York and London: Wiley and Putnam, 1844), view on Zotero.