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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 lawyer and jurist William Peters and of his son, the judge and agriculturalist Richard Peters. It is one of the earliest instances of English Palladian style adapted to the architecture and landscaping of an American villa.


Overview

Alternate Names:

Site Dates: 1743-1751

Site Owner(s): William Peters; Richard Peters

Site Designer(s): William Peters

Location: View on Google Maps

History

In July 1742 William Peters purchased 113 acres of farm land on the west side of the Schuylkill River across from Philadelphia. His property extended from the edge of the river one mile north, up a steep ascent, to a point that Peters would later mark with a monumental obelisk rising about 33 feet from the ground. The property also included a small island of about two acres, still known as Peters Island. [1] Peters named his estate Belmont in honor of its lofty situation on a height commanding panoramic views of the river below and rolling countryside beyond. Belmont’s location would remain one of the most admired on the Schuylkill for many decades. An English gentleman who visited Philadelphia in the 1780s, when “the beautiful banks of the Schuylkill [were] everywhere covered with elegant country houses,” still singled out Belmont as “the most enchanting spot that nature can embellish.” [2] Immediately after acquiring the property, Peters refurbished and expanded an existing small stone cottage as a temporary residence and began developing Belmont as a "Country Retirement" — a luxury villa surrounded by an ornamental landscape that would provide a pleasurable respite from the business of town life. [3] He sited the mansion near the center of the property, with a direct view of the obelisk at one end, and Peters Island at the other. [4] The only local precedent for the kid of "Country Retirement" envisioned by Peters was his patron Thomas Penn’s Springettsbury estate on the opposite side of the Schuylkill. Like Peters, Penn had conceived of his property as a pleasure garden rather than a strictly practical farm, and laid it out accordingly. Peters designed Belmont Mansion along far more ambitious lines, however. He was among the first in America to model a residential building on the distinctive suburban villa style that flourished in England early in the 18th century in imitation of the refined classicism of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). In addition to drawing on examples he had seen in England, Peters also appears to have derived ideas for the overall design of the house and its interior detailing 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). [5] As originally executed, Belmont featured a symmetrical design, with a central, rectangular reception hall flanked by small side chambers in each corner. Elaborate decorative plasterwork ornamented many of the walls and ceilings — among the earliest examples in the colonies. In 1742 Peters had requested that Thomas Penn send him a servant from England who could play violin and harpsichord. [6] Musical motifs in the central hall alluded to Peters's love of music, and presumably to musical performances staged in that space. [7] As further evidence of his taste for the polite arts, he displayed a collection of paintings and bronze sculptures in the central reception hall. [8] As completed in 1745, Belmont Mansion was precious in size as well as décor, and referred to by one visitor as "a tasty little box." [9] The house was essentially completed in 1745, but Peters was soon building again, attaching wings on the north and south sides and adding outbuildings which he connected to the central mansion by means of covered piazzas. [10] As Hannah Callendar recounted following a visit in 1762, the visitor entered the house through a side wing, passed through the connecting piazza, and then entered the lavishly decorated hall which provided a climactic view of the landscape beyond. From that position, Callender recounted, “You have a prospect bounded by the Jerseys like a blue ridge," [11] (view text).

Contemporary accounts by visitors such as Deborah Norris Logan and Hannah Callender indicate that he utilized some of the same garden features that Penn employed at Springettsbury, combining old-fashioned elements  — such as the long, straight avenue lined with hemlocks leading up to the house; the labyrinth of cedar and spruce, the parterres, and axial alleys — with more naturalistic elements — such as a wilderness with serpentine walks — and fashionable ornaments such as an obelisk and Chinese temple. This varied landscape emulated the transitional style adopted at many Palladian houses in England, featuring a mixture of rigid formality and picturesque informality. [12] Peters continued to add acreage to Belmont through subsequent land purchases made from 1743 to 1761. During that time, his conception of the estate evolved from the “retirement” (or, suburban villa and pleasure garden) that he had initially contemplated to the “plantation” (or working farm) that he increasingly referred to in his correspondence. [13] 

Following William Peters’s return to England, Belmont became the property of his eldest son, Richard, who welcomed many notable visitors.

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."


  • c. 1787, Anonymous English translator of Marquis De Chastellux, Travels in North America, 1780-81-82 (1787: 1: 301) [16]
"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

Mapping West Philadelphia Landowners in 1777

Wikipedia

Belmont Mansion website

Fairmount Park website

Philadelphia Architects and Buildings


Notes

  1. Richard Peters, Jr., “Belmont Mansion,” Proceedings of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia, 30 (1925): 78-79, 81, view on Zotero.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Reinberger, 1998, 25, and fig. 36, view on Zotero.
  5. Reinberger, 1998, 22-23, view on Zotero; Fiske Kimball, “Belmont, Fairmount Park,” The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, 22 (1927): 338-39, view on Zotero.
  6. Reinberger, 1998, 25, view on Zotero.
  7. Amy Cole Ives, “Belmont Mansion, A Conditions Survey of the Ornamental Plaster Ceilings of Rooms 101 and 205,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1996, 13-14, view on Zotero.
  8. George Vaux, "Extracts from the Diary of Hannah Callender," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 12 (1888): 454-55, view on Zotero.
  9. Anonymous English translator of 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.
  10. Reinberger, 1998: 31, view on Zotero; see also Fiske Kimball, “Belmont, Fairmount Park,” The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, 22 (1927): 333, 335, view on Zotero. , adding a futher 113 acres the following year.
  11. Quoted in Vaux, 1888: 455, view on Zotero. For this interpretation of the visitor’s experience at Belmont, see Reinberger, 1998, 32, view on Zotero.
  12. Reinberger, 1998, 27, view on Zotero.
  13. Reinberger, 1998: 31, view on Zotero.
  14. George Vaux, "Extracts from the Diary of Hannah Callender," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 12 (1888), view on Zotero.
  15. 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.
  16. 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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