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History of Early American Landscape Design

Belmont (Philadelphia, PA)

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Belmont Mansion, a country estate on the Schuylkill River outside of Philadelphia, was the home of the English expatriate lawyer and judge William Peters.

Overview

Alternate Names:

Site Dates: 1743-1751

Site Owner(s):

Site Designer(s):

Location: View on Google Maps

History

Built between 1743 and 1751 (with subsequent alterations), Belmont is one of the earliest American interpretations of the distinctive suburban villa style associated with the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. As with 17th- and 18th-century English interpretations of Palladianism, Belmont was symmetrical in design with a central hall flanked by small side chambers. Motifs represented in the molded plaster ceiling of the central hall derive from English examples, such as those illustrated in William Jones’s The Gentlemen’s or Builder’s Companion (1739). Peters planted large formal gardens and started expanding the four-room house shortly after the birth of his son, Richard, in 1744. A two-story brick structure was added in 1745, and the 2 1/2-story main building in 1755. For a while, these sections of the house were connected by a covered walk. Elaborate formal gardens were laid out by William Peters in 1745. Highly attuned to recent English practice in architecture and landscaping. His decision to combine such naturalistic elements as the wood with more reflects the influence of English aesthetic concepts that would not affect most other Philadelphia-area gardens for another few decades. traditional, formal design features avenues and alleys.

Following William Peters’s return to England, Belmont became the property of his eldest son, Richard, who welcomed many notable visitors. Among them was the French military officer François Jean de Beauvoir, Marquis De Chastellux, who observed that “the beautiful banks of the Schuylkill are everywhere covered with elegant country houses” and that Belmont was situated “on the most enchanting spot that nature can embellish.” Marquis De Chastellux, Travels in North America, 1780-1781-1782 , ed. Basil Hall, 141 http://archive.org/stream/marquistravels00chasrich/marquistravels00chasrich_djvu.tx


Of all the gardens and plantations described by Hannah Callender and Deborah Logan, the only remains at present are of the enclosure to the west, a great rectangle centering on the octagonal bay of the stone house, bordered by an evergreen hedge (clearly show on a map of 1870), of which several hemlocks, now grown tall, still remain on the north, while great oaks mark the line on the south. The remains of the great avenue of hemlocks on the center line of the mansion house, which Downing, the landscape gardener, described in the middle of the century as the grandest in the country, likewise appear on the map of 1870. The western terminus of the vista was at the New Ford Road, the successor of which takes its name, Monument Ave? nue, from the obelisk, already built in 1762. Like the summerhouse and the Chinese temple, in the height of the then reigning taste, it was one of the ornamental features prescribed by the prevailing style of English landscape gardening. Both from the straightness of the avenue, however, and from the character of the gardens near the house, with their straight paths and clipped evergreen labyrinth, we see that Peters?as D s Deborah Logan realized ? preferred the formality of an earlier day Subsequently, the estate was utilized by the railroad, an oil refinery, and a country resort. As part of a project to preserve the quality of Philadelphia's water supply, the city purchased Belmont in 1869 for inclusion in Fairmount Park.


Texts

"...went to William Peters's house having some acquaintance with his wife. She was at home and with her daughter Polly received us kindly in one wing of the house. After a while passed through a covered passage to the large hall, well furnished, the top adorned with instruments of music, coats of arms, crests 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 blue ridge. A broad walk of English Cherry trees leads down to the river. The doors of the house opening opposite admit a prospect of the length of the garden over a broad gravel walk to a large handsome summer house on a green. From the windows a vista is terminated by an obelisk. On the right you enter a labyrinth of hedge of low cedar and spruce. In the middle stands a statue of Apollo. In the garden are statues of Diana, Fame and Mercury with urns. We left the garden for a wood cut into vistas. In the midst is a Chinese temple for a summer house. One avenue gives a fine prospect of the City. With a spy glass you discern the houses and hospital distinctly. Another avenue looks to the obelisk."


"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."


  • 1787, Anonymous English translator of Marquis De Chastellux, Travels in North America, 1780-81-82 (1787: 1: 301) [3]
"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."

Images


References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belmont_Mansion_(Philadelphia)

http://www.belmontmansion.org/history_belmont_mansion.html

http://www.historic-details.com/places/pa/phila/fairmount-park-houses/belmont-mansion-fairmount-park/

Fiske Kimball, “Belmont. Fairmont Park,” The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, vol. 22 (March 1927), 333-45: stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3794510

Philadelphia Architects and Buildings: http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/pj_display.cfm/12321

Richard Peters, His Ancestors and Descendants: 1810-1889, edited by Nellie Peters Black: http://books.google.com/books?id=hYRJAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA92&lpg=PA92&dq=judge+peters+belmont&source=bl&ots=6y0kYQw_B5&sig=341rqFGDmQyBTp4qrlqJORyi74E&hl=en&sa=X&ei=4IACU6XJNcK2yAGqooCYAQ&ved=0CHEQ6AEwDg#v=onepage&q=judge%20peters%20belmont&f=false

Howard Malcolm Jenkins and George Overcash Seilhamer, eds., Memorial History of the City of Philadelphia from Its First Settlement to the Year 1895, 2 vols. (New York: New York History Company, 1898), vol. 2, 92; https://archive.org/details/memorialhistory00unkngoog


Notes

  1. George Vaux, "Extracts from the Diary of Hannah Callender," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 12 (1888), view on Zotero.
  2. 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), view on Zotero.
  3. 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), view on Zotero.

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