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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

William Peters named his estate Belmont in honor of its lofty situation on a height commanding panoramic views of the Schuylkill River below and rolling countryside beyond. Peters's initial purchase in 1743 consisted of 113 acres of farm land on the west bank of the Schuylkll, and extended from the river'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. [1] 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.” [2]


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. [3] The only 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 his property as a pleasure garden rather than a practical farm, with traditional formal plantings, such as parterres and tree-lined alleys. A detailed account by Hannah Callender who visited Belmont in June or 1762, indicates that Peters utilized some of the same traditional garden features that Penn employed at Springettsbury, including parterres, axial alleys, and a long, straight avenue lined with hemlocks leading up to the house. He combined these already slightly old-fashioned features with more naturalistic elementsm, such as a wilderness with serpentine walks, and added fashionable ornaments, such as the obelisk, a Chinese temple, and a labyrinth of clipped cedar and spruce. [4] 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. [5] 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." [6]


The house Peters built at Belmont was also ahead of its time and influential. Peters 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). [7] As originally executed, Belmont Mansion featured a symmetrical design, with a nearly perfect 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. [8] 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. [9] As further evidence of his taste for the arts, Peters displayed a collection of paintings and bronze sculptures in the central hall. [10]


Belmont Mansion was precious in size (as well as décor) in comparison with other Philadelphia-area country houses, and soon after completing the house in 1745, Peters began 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. [11] Hannah Callendar'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 wings and passed through the connecting covered piazza to the lavishly decorated hall. There, they were greeted by the sight of a panoramic landscape, or, as Callender put it, by a "prospect bounded by the Jerseys like a blue ridge," [12] (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). [13] 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. [14]Following Peters’s return to England in 1768, Belmont became the property of his eldest son, Richard, who welcomed many notable visitors and carried out further additions to the property. Even after all these building campaigns, Belmont Mansion remained small by European standards. An English visitor characterized it as "a tasty little box." [15] and the Marquis de Chastellux noted succinctly that is was "not large."


--Robyn Asleson

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."


"A broad walk of English Cheery 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."


"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."


"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.... Long and stately avenues, with marble vases, busts, and statues, and pleasure grounds filled with the rarest trees and shrubs, were conspicuous features here...."

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. For the connection between this hybrid, or "transitional" landscape style and English Palladian architecture, see Reinberger, 1998, 27, view on Zotero.
  5. Reinberger, 1998, 25, and fig. 36, view on Zotero.
  6. Thomas Penn to William Peters, August 22, 1743, quoted in Reinberger, 1998: 17, view on Zotero.
  7. Reinberger, 1998, 22-23, view on Zotero; Fiske Kimball, “Belmont, Fairmount Park,” The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, 22 (1927): 338-39, view on Zotero; 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. Ives, 1996, 15-16, view on Zotero.
  9. Reinberger, 1998, 25, view on Zotero.
  10. George Vaux, "Extracts from the Diary of Hannah Callender," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 12 (1888): 454-55, view on Zotero.
  11. Reinberger, 1998: 21, 31, view on Zotero; see also Fiske Kimball, “Belmont, Fairmount Park,” The Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, 22 (1927): 333, 335, view on Zotero.
  12. 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.
  13. For more information, see the website Mapping West Philadelphia: Landowners in October 1777, http://www.archives.upenn.edu/WestPhila1777/map.php.
  14. Reinberger, 1998, 31, 37, view on Zotero.
  15. 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.
  16. George Vaux, "Extracts from the Diary of Hannah Callender," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 12 (1888), view on Zotero.
  17. George Vaux, “Extracts from the Diary of Hannah Callender,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 12, no. 1 (1888): 432–56, view on Zotero.
  18. 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.
  19. 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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