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History of Early American Landscape Design

Robert Morris

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Robert Morris (January 20, 1734 – May 8, 1806), a merchant, financier, and land speculator, developed buildings and gardens in and around Philadelphia. He held important political offices before and after the revolution; was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution; and earned the nickname “Financier of the American Revolution” through his contributions to the Continental Army and fledgling American economy.


At the age of thirteen, Morris emigrated from his native England to Maryland, where his father worked as a tobacco factor. [1] He later relocated to Philadelphia, eventually becoming a partner in a mercantile firm specializing in import and export trade with Europe, the West Indies, the Levant, and Africa. Some of the firm’s profits were made through the slave trade. [2] With his fortunes on the rise, Morris established a country estate known as The Hills on the Schuylkill River and gained a reputation for lavish hospitality, hosting such prominent guests as George Washington, whom he met in 1773 and entertained on numerous occasions. [3] British troops demolished Morris’s country estate in November 1777, but otherwise his wealth seemed to increase during the war, leading to persistent accusations of profiteering. [4] Congress nevertheless appointed Morris superintendent of finance in 1781, a position second only to the President’s in terms of national importance.

Morris purchased millions of acres in various states as speculative investments and acquired several properties in Philadelphia as family residences. [5] In 1781 he bought one of the grandest houses in Philadelphia, centrally located on Market Street near the State House Yard. [6] Built in the late 1760s, the house had been damaged by fire in 1780 and Morris immediately began renovations, adding innovative modern luxuries, such as a two-story bathhouse, hothouses, and an ice house. [7] The latter so impressed George Washington that in 1784 he asked Morris for detailed instructions as the basis for an icehouse at Mount Vernon. [8] Through the acquisition of several lots adjacent to his Market Street house, Morris created a garden of about half an acre where he hosted an aeronautic experiment in the spring of 1784, gathering spectators to witness the launch of an “Air Balloon made of Paper.” [9] Morris co-founded the Society for the Improvement of Roads and Inland Navigation in 1789 and thereafter served as president of several pioneering canal companies. [10]

Fig. 1, Jeremiah Paul, “Robert Morris’ Seat on Schuylkill,” July 20, 1794.

Meanwhile, Morris was re-establishing The Hills as a showplace, creating a monumental greenhouse complex and extensive gardens known for citrus fruit and other exotic plants. A founding member of the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, [11] Morris experimented with the introduction of non-indigenous plant specimens and livestock at The Hills, including “a little pig imported by Mr. Morris from the East Indies” in 1789; a pair of Merino sheep imported from Spain in 1792 (one of which he gave to Thomas Jefferson in 1795); and “Clover seed, Rye Grass, Beans and Peas …imported from Liverpool” in 1793. [12] Morris cultivated prestige at The Hills along with plants and animals. While in New York in May 1789, he asked his wife, Mary White Morris, to entertain some important new acquaintances embarking for Philadelphia. “I wish the Gentlmn. to see the Hills & the Ladies too if they are so inclined.” [13] In August, Mary sent him a box of pineapples and other fruits from The Hills, which he distributed to his associates in New York. “The raising of this very fine fruit makes me feel not a little proud,” he confessed. [14]

In 1790, having persuaded Congress to make Philadelphia the temporary seat of the federal government until a new capital city could be erected on the banks of Potomac River, Morris volunteered his Market Street house to serve as the President’s official residence. [15] Three years later, Morris made the fateful decision to commission the expatriate French engineer Pierre-Charles L'Enfant to design and build a magnificent new town house in Philadelphia. By 1796 the spiraling cost of L’Enfant’s increasingly extravagant plans forced construction to halt, earning the half-finished palace the nickname “Morris’s Folly.” [16] This expensive misadventure coincided with a mountain of failed land speculations and other entrepreneurial schemes and investments. [17] In defiance of his creditors, Morris holed up at The Hills from July 1797 to February 1798, before finally surrendering to a prison term of nearly four years. [18] His extensive landholdings, including The Hills, were sold piece by piece at a great loss in order to settle his debts. [19]

--Robyn Asleson


The Hills, Lemon Hill, Schuylkill River, Sedgeley, Springettsbury


Eminence, Greenhouse, Icehouse, Prospect, Seat, Walk


  • Morris, Robert, 15 June 1784, in a letter to George Washington, describing his residence in Market Street, Philadelphia, Pa. [20]
"My Ice House is about 18 feet deep and 16 square, the bottom is a Coarse Gravell & the Water which drains from the Ice soaks into it as fast as the Ice melts, this prevents the necessity of a Drain which if the bottom was Clay or Stiff Loam would be necessary and for this reason the side of a Hill is preferred generally for digging an Ice House, as if needful a drain can easily be cut from the bottom of it, through the side of the Hill to let the Water run out. The Walls of my Ice House are built of Stone without Mortar (which is called Dry Wall) untill within a foot and a half of the Surface of the Earth when Mortar was used from thence to the Surface to make the top more binding and Solid. When this Wall was brought up even with the Surface of the Earth I stopped there and then dug the foundation for another Wall, two foot back from the first and about two foot deep, this done the foundation was laid so as to enclose the whole of the Walls built on the inside of the Hole where the Ice is put and on this foundation is built the Walls which appear above ground and in mine they are about ten foot high. On these the Roof is fixed, these Walls are very thick, built of Stone and Mortar, afterwards rough Cast on the outside. I nailed a Cieling of Boards under the Roof flat from Wall to Wall, and filled all the Space between that Cieling and the Shingling of the Roof with Straw so that the Heat of the Sun Cannot possibly have any Effect.
"In the Bottom of the Ice House I placed some Blocks of Wood about two foot long and on these I laid a Plat form of Common Fence Rails Close enough to hold the Ice & open enough to let the Water pass through; thus the Ice lays two foot from the Gravel and of Course gives room for the Water to soak away gradually without being in contact with the Ice, which if it was for any time would waste it amazingly. . . .
"I find it best to fill with Ice which as it is put in should be broke into small pieces and pounded down with heavy Clubs or Battons such as Pavers use, if well beat it will after a while consolidate into one solid mass and require to be cut out with a Chizell or Axe. I tryed Snow one year and lost it in June. The Ice keeps until October or November and I believe if the Hole was larger so as [to h]old more it would keep untill Christmass, the closer it is packed the bet[ter i]t keeps and I believe if the Walls were lined with Straw between the Ice [and] Stone it would preserve it much, the melting begins next the Walls and Continues round the Edge of the Body of Ice throughout the Season."

  • George Grieve (1748-1809), describing Robert Morris's residence in Market Street, Philadelphia, in a note to his translation of Chastellux’s Travels in North America, 1787 [21]
The house the Marquis speaks of, in which Mr. Morris lives, belonged formerly to Mr. Richard Penn; the Financier has made great additions to it, and is the first who has introduced the luxury of hot-houses and ice-houses on the continent.

“We continued our route, in view of the Schuylkill, and up the river several miles, and took a view of a number of Country-seats, one belonging to Mr. R. Morris, the American financier, and who is said to be possessed of the greatest fortune in America. His country-seat is not yet completed, but it will be superb. It is planned on a large scale, the gardens and walks are extensive, and the villa, situated on an eminence, has a commanding prospect down the Schuylkill to the Delaware.”

"I went... to visit Robert Morris’s greenhouse [serre chaud] near Philadelphia. It had very beautiful specimens of orange trees, lemon trees, and pineapples."


President’s House (Philadelphia) website: http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/index.htm
Ice House: http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/history/icehouse.htm
The Papers of George Washington (concerning ice house correspondence with Robert Morris): http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/george-washington-to-robert-morris/




  1. Charles Rappleye, Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 7-9, view on Zotero.
  2. Rappleye, 2010, 9-14, view on Zotero.
  3. Rappleye, 2010, 93, view on Zotero.
  4. Ryan K. Smith, Robert Morris’s Folly: The Architectural and Financial Failures of an American Founder (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 22, 25, view on Zotero; Rappleye, 2010, 202, view on Zotero.
  5. Robert Morris, Account of Robert Morris’ Property (Philadelphia: King & Baird Printers, 18--), passim, view on Zotero; Edward Lawler, Jr., “The President’s House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126, no. 1 (January 2002): 19, 22, view on Zotero; Barbara A. Chernow, “Robert Morris: Genesee Land Speculator,” New York 58, no. 2 (April 1977): 197, 200-211, view on Zotero.
  6. Lawler, 2002, 9-18, view on Zotero.
  7. Lawler, 2002, 20-22, view on Zotero.
  8. George Washington, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 6 vols., ed. William Wright Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 1: 421, 451-452, view on Zotero.
  9. Francis Hopkinson to Thomas Jefferson, May 12, 1784, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Main Series, ed. Julian P. Boyd, 41+ vols.(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 7: 246, view on Zotero; see also Lawler, 2002, 18, view on Zotero.
  10. Smith, 2014, 56, view on Zotero; Ronald E. Shaw, Canals For A Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860 (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 3-6, 20, 59, view on Zotero; John Lauritz Larson, Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 23-25, 30, 32, view on Zotero; Chernow, 1977, 212-220, view on Zotero; John F. Bell, "Robert Fulton and the Pennsylvania Canals," Pennsylvania History 9 (1942), 191, view on Zotero.
  11. Minutes of the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture: From Its Institution in February, 1785, to March, 1810 (Philadelphia: John C. Clark & Son, 1854), 1, view on Zotero.
  12. Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Main Series, ed. John Catanzariti, 41+ vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 28: 375-376, view on Zotero; Owen Tasker Robbins, “Toward a Preservation of the Grounds of Lemon Hill in Light of Their Past and Present Significance for Philadelphians.” Masters of Science Thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1978, 137, view on Zotero; Jacob Hiltzheimer, Extracts from the Diary of Jacob Hiltzheimer of Philadelphia, 1765-1798, ed. Jacob Cox Parsons (Philadelphia: William F. Fell & Co., 1893), 153, view on Zotero.
  13. Smith, 2014, 47, view on Zotero.
  14. Smith, 2014, 47, view on Zotero.
  15. Smith, 2014, 10-20, view on Zotero; Lawler, 2002, 23, view on Zotero.
  16. Smith, 2014, 59-127, 164-182, view on Zotero.
  17. Larson, 2001, 23-25, 30, 32, view on Zotero; Chernow, 1977, 212-220, view on Zotero; Hiltzheimer, 1893, 192-194, 204, view on Zotero.
  18. Smith, 2014, 158-163, view on Zotero; Robbins, 1987, 153, view on Zotero.
  19. Smith, 2014, 181-184, view on Zotero.
  20. Washington, 1992, 1: 451-452, view on Zotero.
  21. François Jean Chastellux, 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: 203. view on Zotero.
  22. Manasseh Cutler, Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, ed. William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkin Cutler, 2 vols. (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1987), 1: 256-57, view on Zotero
  23. Kenneth Roberts, and Anna M. Roberts, eds., Moreau de St. Méry’s American Journey, [1793-1798] (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1947), view on Zotero

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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Robert Morris," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Robert_Morris&oldid=15617 (accessed October 2, 2023).

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