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History of Early American Landscape Design


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Springettsbury, a property owned by successive generations of the Penn family, overlooked the Schuylkill River on the northern outskirts of Philadelphia. It was the site of the first ornamental pleasure garden in Pennsylvania and initiated the fashion for garden-villa retreats on the banks of the Schuylkill. <McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 35; McLean and Reinberger, winter 1997, 273.>


Alternative Names: The Proprietor's Garden

Site Dates: 1682-1807 [?]

Site Owner: William Penn (1645-1718); Thomas Penn (1702-1775); John Penn (1760-1834); Robert Morris (1734-1806)

Site Designer(s): James Alexander (d.1778) and Thomas Penn

Location: Philadelphipa, PA
Google Maps: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Vine+St,+Philadelphia,+PA/@39.97348,-75.1586961,15z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x89c6c62abc470279:0xca601156c00022e3
Mapping West Philadelphia, 1777: http://www.archives.upenn.edu/WestPhila1777/view-parcel.php?pid=1143

Associated Sites: Bush Hill, Residence of John Dickinsen, The Hills, Landsdowne, Lemon Hill, Pennsbury, The Solitude'

Associated Terms:


William Penn, the English Quaker Proprietor of Pennsylvania, first visited the colony in 1682. In addition to establishing Pennsbury, a manor house and garden some distance from Philadelphia, Penn carved out Springettsbury as a suburban estate immediately adjacent to the city. < McLean and Reinberger, fall, 1999, 34; Roach, April 1968, 178-179; Egle, 1880, 1020.> With the intention of producing wine as a source of revenue, Penn imported grape vines from Bordeaux, and in 1683, employed the French Huguenot refugee and vigneron André Doz to lay out a vineyard on 200 acres at Springettsbury that became known as Vineyard Hill. Penn soon returned to England but continued to send European vines to Doz, who also experimented with the cultivation of indigenous American grapes. <McLean and Reinberger, fall, 1999, 41; Pinney, 1989, 32-33, 101-102; Tolles, April 1956, 244; Myers, 1912, 13: 227-28n; Scharf and Westcott, 1884, 3: 2281-2282.> Wine production proved unsuccessful, and just prior to his death in 1718, Penn gave a large tract of Springettsbury land that included Vineyard Hill to Jonathan Dickinson. <Scharf and Westcott, 1884, 3: 2282.> Penn’s family later gave another portion of the estate to their legal counselor, Andrew Hamilton (c.1676 – August 4, 1741), which he enlarged through subsequent purchases to form the country seat Bush Hill. <Watson and Hazard, 1884, 3: 493.>

Penn’s son Thomas (1702-1775) arrived in Philadelphia in 1732 and assumed the role of Proprietor. Although he persisted in his father’s attempt to create a wine-producing vineyard at Springettsbury, <McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 41; Hockley, 1904, 435; Hockley, 1903, 428.> Thomas Penn did not conceive of the estate as predominantly a working farm. Rather, he developed it as a weekend and summer retreat in the manner of an English suburban villa. <McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 34-35.> His modest brick house, erected between 1737 and 1740, stood at the center of an extensive landscape composed of elements that had become fashionable in England around 1700, including long, graveled walks lined with trees or hedges. There was also a wilderness, a labyrinth (the earliest known in the colony) fashioned of hornbeam, a fishpond, and two gardens, separated by a privet hedge. Enclosed by a board fence with ornamental gates, the garden boasted gravel walks, parterres, spruce topiary, and painted wooden seats. <White, 2008, 19; McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 37-40; Hockley, 1903, 428; Penn, 1916, 225; Fisher, 1893, 267-268; Ezra Stiles in Philadelphia, 1892, 375; Watson and Hazard, 1884, 3: 400.> Penn’s sister Margaret Freame (1704-1751) described the gardens at Springettsbury as her “Chief amusement” in November 1735, <Jenkins, 1899, 240.> and around 1740 she erected a “pretty bricked Green House”—one of the first in Pennsylvania—to replace the “small room in the garden [with] a German stove” in which oranges imported from England had previously been wintered. <White, 2008, 19; McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 42; Weber, 1996, 4; Reinberger and McLean, winter 1997, 262; Fisher, 1893, 267.> During the warmer months, lime trees were displayed in a quincunx pattern in the garden (commonly known as "The Proprietor's Garden"), where lemons and citrons also flourished. <McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 42; Hockley, 1903, 428; Myers, 1904, 71-72; Ezra Stiles in Philadelphia, 1892, 375; Fisher, 1893, 267-268.> Other fruit (including apples, pears, peaches, cherries, figs, and grapes) grew in the orchard and vineyard. <McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 41.> Peter Collinson provided many of the imported plants, among them grape vines, jasmine, horse chestnuts, cornelian cherries, pyracantha, boxwood, and honeysuckle. <White, 2008, 14; McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 40-41 .> Concerned by the theft of fruit from Springettsbury in 1746, Penn made plans to erect a wall separating his property from Bush Hill, noting: “When the rest of the Ground is well paled round I shal hope to be secure.” <Penn, 1916, 224.>

One of the more fashionable elements of the Springettsbury landscape was the deer park (again, the first known example in the colony), which Penn filled with deer imported from England, as well as with wild turkey and pheasants. <White, 2008, 16; Treese, 1992, 23; Penn, 1916, 238; Fisher, 1893, 268.> Following his return to England in 1741, Penn expressed a desire to introduce changes at Springettsbury in keeping with current English taste. These included the creation of a number of framed vistas, replacing the “palisadoe” at the end of a walk with a ha-ha, and removing the quickset hedge to open up the fields. <McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 39, 44.>

James Alexander (d. 1778) served as Penn’s head gardener at Springettsbury. The first professional gardener in Pennsylvania who can be identified, he is best known for discovering the so-called “Alexander grape”— a naturally produced American-European hybrid—around 1740 in the woods near Vineyard Hill. <Pinney, 1989, 84-85.> Long after Thomas Penn’s return to England, Alexander continued to maintain the property, often sending American fruits, nuts, seeds, and plants (including magnolia, azalea, laurel, and rhododendron) for Penn to share with friends or plant at his English estate, Stoke Park. <Bell, 1997, 1: 476-477.> Alexander also operated a commercial business exporting seeds and plants to clients in England, surpassing even his principal rival, John Bartram, in his ability to meet the demand for increasingly rare and unusual specimens. <Laird, 1999, 396-397, 78n; Bell, 1997, 1: 478; Ewan, 1978, 3.> At the American Philosophical Society (which elected him a member in 1768 and a curator in 1772 and 1773), Alexander demonstrated some of his botanical experiments and served on committees dealing with subjects ranging from astronomy, to natural history, to husbandry. <Bell, 1997, 1: 476-477> Visitors to Springettsbury noted the many scientific instruments he employed there, including an orrery, a solar microscope, a telescope, and “a curious thermometer of spirits and mercury” in the hothouse. <White, 2008, 22; Ezra Stiles in Philadelphia, 1892, 375; Smith, 1877, 160.>

Virgil Warder (d. 1782), an African American slave purchased by Thomas Penn in 1732, initially worked as a laborer at Springettsbury before succeeding Alexander as gardener, receiving an annuity from Penn’s family for maintaining the property. <Moon, 1898, 287; Martin, September 1947, 177; Justice, March 28, 1846, 617; Watson, 1844, 2: 479.> He became a well-known fixture of the place, conducting visitors through the gardens and greenhouse. Both Deborah Norris Logan and Elizabeth Drinker recalled the “curious aloe,” originally planted by James Alexander, which finally bloomed in August 1778, attracting curious crowds to Springettsbury. <Drinker, 1889, 109; White, 2008, 18-19.> The Penn family took minimal interest in the estate, however. Thomas Penn’s nephew, John Penn (1729-1795), settled in Philadelphia in 1765 but preferred to live at his new Palladian manor house, Lansdowne, on the opposite side of the river. Thomas’s son, also named John Penn (1760-1834), followed suit, building his house, The Solitude, across the river in 1785.

A fire in 1784 damaged the old brick house at Springettsbury, and three years later the financier and land speculator Robert Morris purchased the property to consolidate his extensive landholdings in the area. They included Vineyard Hill, which Morris redeveloped as The Hills. In 1793 Morris dug a canal that ran through much of the original Springettsbury estate. A fire in 1807 entirely consumed the old brick house, and in 1815 Deborah Logan described the greenhouse as a “ruin” and the garden as overgrown.


Francis Daniel Pastorius, Circumstantial Geographical Description of Pennsylvania, 1700 <Myers, 1912, 13: 398.> As I on August 25 [1684] was dining with William Penn, a single root of barley was brought in which had grown in a garden here and had fifty grains upon it. The abovementioned William Penn has a fine vineyard of French vines planted; its growth is a pleasure to behold and brought into my reflections, as I looked upon it, the fifteenth chapter of John.

David Lloyd, October 2, 1686 <Myers, 1912, 13: 291.> The Governours Vineyard goes on very well, the Grapes I have tasted of; which in fifteen Months are come to maturity.

Richard Hockley to Thomas Penn, May 27, 1742 <Hockley, 1903, 428.> I have accepted of your kind offer of Lodging with Mr Lardner as it will save me some expence, and have been twice at Springetsbury, but both Places appear not to me as usual and instead of affording me any real satisfaction rather damps my Spirits, both ye Gardens & Vineyard are I think in tolerable good order but still there wants a superior Eye over it, your directions to Jacob & James will be complyed with, and there's a fine show of Grapes, the Orange trees flourish most delightfully, but am afraid the Quicksett hedge will not answer your expectation…. James desires you wou’d be pleased to send over two Stone rowlers [rollers] for the Garden those made in this place will not do neither answer the expence and imagines they will come cheaper from London they must be two feet 8 inches in length one 18 ye15 in diameter, all the Flowers I brought with me flourish exceedingly but ye Hautboy Strawberries are al dead and ‘tis very difficult I believe to get them safe here, they were in the same box and had ye same Care taken of them and what is the reason they don’t do I cant account for.

Richard Hockley to Thomas Penn, June 27, 1742 <Hockley, 1903, 435.>

 Mr Peters has bought Mr Taylor's scantling and 'tis carried to ye Hill and put under a Shedd, he has a notion you intend to build a house there for your self to live in before that at Springettsbury is built I believe he is mistaken and told him so, as you propose to build soon it wou'd be proper I believe that Bricks shoud be made against you come but Mr Peters knows nothing about it and there's no orders given to make any nor won't be untill he hears from you, and the Ground all round Springettsbury has been ' tryed but not fitt to make bricks with this was done before Mr Steels death and nothing has been thought on it since. I wrote you sometime ago that there was a fine shew of Grapes at Springettsbury and the bunches hang very thick but there's either a blight or some Insect that destroys some one third others one half of the Clusters and yet the leaves and shoots looks as fresh and flourishing as may be, this being Sunday I propose to walk out by my self to Springettsbury and see if I can with all the reflection that I am Master of compose my mind a little if I shoud it will be something new to me. 

Richard Hockley to Thomas Penn, September 18, 1742 <Hockley, 1904, 37.> I have sent you 3 dozn of oranges & Leamons from Springetttsbury pack’d up in a Box directed for you. Mr Lardner & James [Alexander] were afraid they wou’d not keep, however I have run the risque, the Governour has had a dozn Already & am afraid the Trees have been Pilfer’d. They are in very good order, & every thing Else except the fences round Springettsbury & am Sorry to find James not the Person I cou’d wish & think him blame worthy in Several respects.

John Smith, diary entry, November 3, 1745 <Smith, 1877, 131.> On our way thither we stopped to view the proprietor's green-house, which at this season is a very agreeable sight; the oranges, lemons and citrons were, some green, some ripe, some in blossom.

Thomas Penn to Richard Hockley, September 18, 1746 <Penn, 1916, 224-225.> I received a Box of Fruit from Springetsberry, but they were not so good as the others sent in the Fall; as they were ripened chiefly by the Summers Sun. I am sorry the people are so Licentious as to break into the Garden at Springetsberry, and believe when I come over I shal build a Wall between that and Mr Hamiltons Land from Mr Jones's, which will make it very inconvenient for them to visit us, and when the rest of the Ground is well paled round I shal hope to be secure. I ordered Mr Lardner to Let only my own twelve Acres of Meadow, which was let before my departure to a Dutchman, the piece of Meadow belonging to us in Mr Turners Road is sufficient for Springetsberry and I think I gave no orders to let that. I am quite weary of the Vineyard for which only Jacob is kept at £35 a year but your last Letter gives mee some hopes that it may produce some thing, if that does not succeed when I come over. I shal much lessen it. I shal consent to their cutting down the Wood between the Vineyard and the Field, but not that on the west side of it yet, that may be thinned, and would have any that is fit split into rough pales and laid by. [T]he privit hedge that grows between the two Gardens may be taken upp if it grows into the Walks.

John Smith, diary entry, October 28, 1749 <Smith, 1877, 160.> We called in our way at James Alexander's, the proprietors' gardener's, he showed us his solar microscope, and his system of the heavens, in wheels.

Thomas Penn to John Penn, January 29, 1754 <quoted in McLean and Reinberger, fall 1999, 36.> I desire to know whether you often visit Springettsbury, or amuse yourself with gardening, which is a pleasing employment, when it does not interrupt the more weighty concerns in which a man is engaged, and which I found an agreeable recreation after perhaps disagreeable business.

Ezra Stiles, diary entry, September 30, 1754 <Ezra Stiles in Philadelphia, 1892, 375.> After breakfast Mess" Jos. & W™ Shippen accompanied us to Springsbury, where passing a long spacious walk, set on each side with trees, on the summit of a gradual ascent, we saw the proprietor's house, & walkt in the gardens, where besides the beautiful walk, ornamented with evergreens, we saw fruit trees with plenty of fruit, some green, some ripe, & some in the blossom on the same trees. The fruit was oranges, limes, limons, & citrons. In the hot house was a curious thermometer of spirits & mercury. Spruce hedges cut into beautiful figures, &c., all forming the most agreeable variety, & even regular confusion & disorder. We then walk thro' a spacious way into the wood behind & adjoyning to the gardens, the whole scene most happily accommodated for solitude and rural contemplation.

Daniel Fisher, May 25, 1755 <Fisher, 1893, 267-68.> I walked about Two miles out of Town in the "Proprietors' Garden,"…. The proprietors' tho' much smaller [than Bush Hill], was laid out with more judgment, tho' it seemed to have been pretty much neglected. A pretty pleasure garden, the trees of which now hardly visible, a small wilderness, and other shades, shows that the contriver was not without judgment; but what to me surpassed everything of the kind I had seen in America was a pretty bricked Green House, out of which was disposed (now) very properly in the Pleasure Garden a good many Orange, Lemon, and Citron Trees in great (268) perfection loaded with abundance of Fruit and some of each sort seemingly then ripe. The House here is but small, built of Brick, with a small Kitchen, etc, justly contrived rather for a small than a numerous Family. It is pleasantly situated on an eminence with a gradual descent — over a small Valley — to a handsome level Road cut through a wood, affording an agreeable vista of near Two miles. On the left hand the slope, descending from the house, is a neat little Park, tho' I am told there are no Deer in it.

Elizabeth Drinker, diary entry, September 6, 1778 <Drinker, 1889, 109.> [We] took a walk this afternoon to Springettsbury, to see ye Aloes Tree. We stopped on our return at Bush-Hill and walked in ye Garden. We came home after sunset, very much tired.

Elizabeth Drinker, diary entry, March 19, 1784 <Drinker, 1889, 152> This month Springettsbury partly burned.

Jacob Hiltzheimer, March 20, 1784; p.62 Sent my man with three horses up to the Honorable Robert Morris' country seat, Springettsbury, to bring back the fire engine belonging to the Amicable Fire Company, which was taken there yesterday, when the house was on fire.

Elizabeth Drinker, diary entry, October 15, 1807 <Drinker, 1889, 410.> The House at Springettsbury formerly belonging to the Penn family Was last night consumed by fire.

Deborah Logan, diary entry, September 27, 1815 <quoted in White, 2008, 18> Passing one day by the old manor of Springetsbury [sic], I greatly desired to stop and look at the remains of the garden…. The little greenhouse is now a ruin. In my youth an aloe was in flower, and crowds flocked out of town every fine day for many weeks to see the curiosity. Some of the fine labyrinths and hedges broke loose from the restraint of the sheers, and grown up behind the greenhouse, (19) form a dark grove of evergreens. Broom and some other European plants still grow wild…. (and I think it was the prettiest old-fashioned garden that I was ever in).

Deborah Logan, diary entry, October 10, 1826 <quoted in White, 2008, 19.> The Gardens of Springetsbury [sic] were in full beauty in my youth, and were really very agreeable after the old fashion, with Parterres, Gravelled Walks, a Labyrinth of Horn-beam and a little wilderness—And the Green house, under the Superintendence of Old Virgil the Gardener, produced a flowering Aloe which almost half the town went to see, produced a comfortable Revenue to the old man—Soon after the house was burned down by accident; and now quantities of the yellow Blossoms of Broom in spring time mark the place… “where once the garden smiled.”

Deborah Logan, diary entry, February 13, 1832 <quoted in Weber, 1996, 45> There is a Report of the Committee of the Horticultural Society in the “Register” for last week in which is displayed a great ignorance of the former taste for Gardening amongst us when it states, that Mr. Pepper’s Green house, originally built by Dr. Barbon, was the first Green house built in Pennsylvania; this is not so. –The Greenhouse at Springetsbury, built by Margaret Freame daughter of William Penn, was the first.

Further research-- HSP: Thomas Penn to Richard Hockley, Sept. 4, 1744 on deer park Thomas Penn to Richard Hockley, April 16, 1742 on quincunx limes Thomas Penn to Richard Hockley, Jan. 10, 1739/ RH to TP, April 10, 1740 on Warders Richard Hockley to Thomas Penn, May 27, 1742; June 20, 1743, Dec. 27, 1744, March 5, 1745


  • Johann Ewald, October 19, 1777, journal entry describing military action at The Hills (1979: 96) [1]
"The left [wing of Gen. Howe’s army] was placed behind the Morris country house on the Schuylkill. The jägers received their post behind the wood at this plantation, in front of the army’s left wing."





  1. Ewald, 1979, 96, view on Zotero.

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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Springettsbury," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Springettsbury&oldid=6047 (accessed May 30, 2023).

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