A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design

State House Yard

[http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/research/casva/research-projects.html A Project of the National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts ]
Revision as of 21:18, February 19, 2015 by R-Asleson (talk | contribs) (→‎Texts)

State House Yard,


Alternate Names: State House Square, State House Garden, Independence Square

Site Dates: 1783-1789

Site Owner(s): U.S. National Park Service

Site Designer(s): Samuel Vaughan

Philadelphia, PA

Related Sites:

Related People: Samuel Vaughan

Related Terms:


The State House Yard in Philadelphia was one of the earliest public gardens in America. Laid out in the mid-1780s, it was also among the first American landscapes designed in the naturalistic English style. Its importance as a site for civic and patriotic assemblies is reflected in the name by which it has been known since the early nineteenth century, Independence Square.

In 1730 the Pennsylvania Assembly authorized the purchase of a city block in Philadelphia for the erection of a new statehouse. [1] Six years later, the Assembly decreed that no part of the property south of that building, known as the State House Yard, should be built on, “but that the said Ground shall be enclosed, and remain a publick open Green and Walks for ever.” [2] Thereafter, in addition to serving as a pedestrian thoroughfare, the State House Yard became Philadelphia’s principal location for military activities and civic gatherings. Most famously, it was the site of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776. [3] Plans to landscape the State House Yard date from 1732, when the Pennsylvania Assembly determined that the uneven ground should “be levelled, and enclosed with a Board Fence, in order that Walks may be laid out, and Trees planted, to render the same more beautiful and commodious.” [4] Construction of a brick wall, begun in 1739, proceeded slowly but was evidently complete by 1752, when Nicholas Scull and George Heap documented the presence of “a high Wall” enclosing the Yard in their Map of Philadelphia. [5] Following the purchase of the few adjacent lots that remained in private hands, the entire block was enclosed in 1770 with a massive seven-foot brick wall pierced by a single, pedimented gateway, as shown in William Birch’s engraving State House Garden, Philadelphia of 1800 [Fig. 1]. [6] Landscaping of the State House Yard meanwhile remained at a standstill. In 1763 the General Assembly ordered that the superintendents of the State House immediately “prepare a Plan for laying out the Square… in proper Walks, to be planted with suitable Trees for Shade.” [7] Twenty years later, in September 1783, Governor John Dickinson (1732-1808) revived the subject, petitioning the Assembly to begin laying out the grounds in a manner that “would be reputable to the State, particularly useful to the inhabitants of this city, [and] very agreeable to strangers.” [8]

Ironically, it was one of those strangers to Philadelphia who finally took up the long-deferred project of landscaping the property. Samuel Vaughan, a wealthy British merchant and close friend of Benjamin Franklin, arrived in Philadelphia with his family in September 1783, the same month that the governor and Assemblymen were discussing development of the Yard. By the end of the year, Vaughan had proposed a plan for laying out the property and had hired a professional gardener, William Rees, to begin implementing his design. [9] Vaughan’s plan called for a double alley of elm trees lining a broad central walk, with connecting serpentine gravel walks on either side. [10] He planted a number of elms and pines in March 1784, and the following year transplanted an additional 100 elms from the Princeton, New Jersey estate of Col. George Morgan (1743-1810). [11] Like Vaughan, Morgan was a member of the American Philosophical Society and a founding member of the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, established in February 1785. Morgan was also a land speculator and horticulturalist with a particular interest in preserving trees. [12] He donated a further 25 elms to the State House Yard in 1786. [13]

Vaughan initially intended to develop the State House Yard as a national arboretum, with an example of every tree and shrub that grew in the thirteen states of America. [14] He received many of these plants as donations. For example, early in 1785 the British expatriate Mahlon Hall (1734-1818), whose Schuylkill River estate neighbored Belmont and Landsdowne, supplied 92 hollies, two weeping willows, four white cedars, and a number of other trees. [15] In early April 1785 Vaughan compiled a list of over 700 plants representing 40 different species that he had received as donations, and another 75 examples of 55 species that he had purchased from the botanists and nurserymen William and John Bartram, Jr., fellow members of the American Philosophical Society. [16] In a letter of May 28, 1785 to the Bartrams’ cousin, the botanist and plant dealer Humphry Marshall, Vaughan appealed for assistance in completing the collection, noting “I am unacquainted with the vast variety remaining... and shall be much obliged to you for a list of such as occur to you, with directions in what state or place they are to be had, that I may lay out to procure them to plant in the fall.” [17] Although Vaughan ultimately scaled back his ambitious landscape plan, he nevertheless assembled a remarkable variety of specimens. From January to June 1785, he employed the nurseryman and gardener John Lithen to supervise the planting of these trees and shrubs. [18] In distinct contrast to the geometric style that characterized other Philadelphia gardens (such as the Norris garden, which shared a wall with the State House Yard), Vaughan designed the plantings in informal clumps in accordance with the fashionable natural style he had absorbed in England. Quantities of sand, gravel, and earth were carted in to to create artificial mounds. Vaughan continued this work in 1786 and 1787, purchasing additional trees and shrubs from Bartram and Joseph Sepher. [19] He added a pair of Windsor settees and a pair of garden chairs (both fashioned on the spot from red cedar logs) in 1785, and five street lamps in 1789. [20] A team of laborers maintained the grounds under the supervision of gardener Jonathan Pilling until 1794, and thereafter under Edward Martin [21]

William Russell Birch, Back of the State House, Philadelphia, 1799.

While attending to the development of the State House Yard, Vaughan was simultaneously spearheading plans for an adjacent building, Philosophical Hall, the new headquarters of the American Philosophical Society. [22] A new county courthouse (1787-1790) and city hall (1790-91) completed the trio of impressive buildings that flanked the north end of the State House Yard. By 1790, when Vaughan returned to England, the State House Yard had become a fashionable place of public resort for Philadelphia residents and a prime destination for sightseers visiting the city during the decade that it served as the nation’s capital (1790-1800). [23] Unfortunately, this early public garden also attracted the attention of vandals and vagrants. Watch boxes and a brick barracks erected in the Yard accommodated guards responsible for preventing malicious damage to the trees and shrubs, which had become a problem by July 1790. [24] William Birch included two of these watch boxes in the background of his engraved view, Back of the State House, Philadelphia (1799) [Fig. 2]. In 1802 the artist and entrepreneur Charles Willson Peale relocated the bulk of his museum collections from Philosophical Hall to the State House and assumed the responsibility of maintaining the State House Yard as well. Over the next ten years, he and his son Rembrandt Peale made improvements to the Yard, adding new gates and benches and renovating the walls and lawns. [25] Peale also fenced in a portion of the State House Yard for the outdoor display of his menagerie of live animals, which included monkeys, an elk, a blue and red macaw, and — briefly — two grizzly bears donated in 1808 by his friend Thomas Jefferson. [26] Longstanding concern over poor air circulation within the State House Yard ultimately resulted in the removal, in 1811, of the seven-foot-high brick walls that surrounded it, replaced by lower brick walls measuring just three feet in height, topped by a marble coping and a railing of iron palisades [27] The addition of two gateways allowed for greater access to the Yard. From 1813 to 1815 two wings of the State House were demolished and replaced by modern office wings designed by Robert Mills. Nothing came of more ambitious plans to fundamentally alter the character and purpose of the State House Yard — for example, by erecting an arched bridge connecting it to another square; by expanding the museum into a new building, designed by Benjamin Latrobe; or by converting the Yard into a botanic garden modeled on David Hosack’s in New York. [28] The city of Philadelphia also warded off several proposals by the state legislature to demolish the State House and subdivide the Yard for development. [29]

The city succeeded in purchasing the State House Square property in 1818 and, shortly after, approved the appropriation of funds to renovate the Yard, stipulating that the original features designed by Vaughan should be preserved, as “time has given them a character of sanctity which forbids that they be touched.” [30] The city’s improvements included replacing damaged trees with new plants purchased in 1819 from David Landreth; adding a row of Linden trees opposite the State House in 1821; and commissioning the architect John Haviland to design a decorative iron gateway in 1823. [31] Such efforts gained momentum following the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Philadelphia in September 1823, which spurred a new patriotic regard for the State House Yard, officially renamed Independence Square in 1825. [32] Additional trees planted in the 1840s (overseen by the gardener Lawrence Hart) included sugar maples to replace the caterpillar-ravaged lindens, oaks, silver maples, and buttonwood, the latter particularly singled out for praise as “superb specimens” by Andrew Jackson Downing. [33] Two carved wooden statues by Benjamin Rush representing female allegories of Wisdom and Justice briefly stood along the main walk, but were removed after eliciting complaints. [34] More controversially, the city fundamentally altered the original Vaughan design in 1837 by adding diagonal walks to accommodate pedestrian traffic across the square. [35] Practical concerns continued to erode the original plan in the nineteenth century, leading the Philadelphia historian Thompson Westcott to conclude in 1877 that the nineteenth-century State House Yard “makes up in utility what it has lost in beauty.” [36]


General Assembly held in Philadelphia, October 14, 1732 <MacKinney, 1913-1935, 2163.> It was moved that the Ground belonging to the State-house may, with the least Expense, and with all convenient Speed, be levelled, and enclosed with a Board Fence, in order that Walks may be laid out, and Trees planted, to render the same more beautiful and commodious.

“An Act for Vesting the State-House and other Publick Buildings, with the Lots of Land whereupon the same are erected, in Trustees for the Use of this Province,” October 14, 1735 <The Charters of the Province of Pensilvania, 1742, 478.> Provided always, and it is hereby declared to be the true Intent and Meaning of these Presents, that no Part of the said Ground lying to the Southward of the State house as it is now built, be converted into or made use of for Erecting any Sort of Buildings thereupon, but that the said Ground shall be enclosed, and remain a publick open Green and Walks for ever.

“At an Assembly held in Philadelphia, the Fourteenth Day of October...1763,” <Votes and Proceedings of the House of Representatives, 1775, 284.> Ordered, That the Superintendents of the State-house prepare a Plan for laying out the Square behind the same in proper Walks, to be planted with suitable Trees for Shade, and that the said plan be laid before the Assembly, at their next Meeting.

"Mr. [Benjamin] F—[ranklin], the late speaker of the Assembly, with whom I have several times conversed, informed me, that the plot of ground on which the State-house stands, and which is one of the squares of the city, is to be planted with trees, and is divided into walks, for the recreation of the citizens. I could not help observing to him, that it would be a considerable improvement of their plan, if the Legislature could purchase another square which lies to the south of this, and apply it to the same salutary purpose; as otherwise, their walks must be very contracted, unless they make them of a circular or serpentine form.

  • Belknap, The Rev. Jeremy (1744-1798), “Journal of a Tour to Philadelphia, 1785,” [38]
"The Elegant Square called ye 'Area of ye State-house’ wh is now improving & ornamenting [is?] a delightful walk & rural retreat for ye Citizens.... Grass plots *mdash; & graveled Walks... filling with young trees."

  • Hunter, Robert, October 31, 1785 (1943: 169) [39]
"The state-house is infinitely beyond anything I have either seen in New York or Boston, and the walk before it does infinite honor to Mr. Vaughan’s taste and ingenuity in laying it out."

Behind the State-house is a public garden; it is the only one that exists in Philadelphia. It is not large; but it is agreeable, and one may breathe in it. It is composed of a number of verdant squares, intersected by alleys.

  • Swanwick, John, June 30, 1787, “On a Walk in the State House Yard" (1787: 609-10) [41]
Joy to the breast which plann’d this soft retreat,
And drest with trees, and grassy sods the plain!...
Oh! How much more shall he be crown’d by fame
Who form’d for lovers this auspicious grove;...
Who can unfold what joys, in future times,
These winding walks to thousands shall impart?...
What various bliss these shaded paths may yield
To many a nation, whose assembled peers
May plan their systems on this spacious field,
And in a moment form the weal of years!
Even now the sages, whom the land convenes,
To fix her empire, and prescribe her laws,
While pensive wand’ring thro’ these rural scenes,
May frame their councils for a world’s applause...
Think on the founder of the blissful grove,
And with fresh laurels grace his honoured brows.

  • Anon., “Account of the State-House of Pennsylvania," July 1787 [42]
"The state-house yard has been highly improved by the exertions of Mr. Samuel Vaughan, and affords two gravel walks, shaded with trees, a pleasant lawn, and several beds of shrubs and flowers."
"We passed…[from the State House] into the Mall. It is small, nearly square, and I believe does not contain more than one acre. As you enter the Mall through the State House, which is the only avenue to it, it appears to be nothing more than a large inner Court-yard to the State House, ornamented with trees and walks. But here is a fine display of rural fancy and elegance. It was so lately laid out in its present form that it has not assumed that air of grandeur which time will give it. The trees are yet small, but most judiciously arranged. The artificial mounds of earth, and depressions, and small groves in the square have a most delightful effect. The numerous walks are well graveled and rolled hard; they are all in a serpentine direction, which heightens the beauty, and affords constant variety. That painful sameness, commonly to be met with in garden-alleys, and other works of this kind, is happily avoided here, for there are no two parts of the Mall that are alike. Hogarth's 'Line of Beauty' is here completely verified. The public are indebted to the fertile fancy and taste of Mr. Sam'l Vaughan, Esq., for the elegance of this plan. It was laid out and executed under his direction about three years ago. The Mall is at present nearly surrounded with buildings, which stand near to the board fence that incloses it, and the parts now vacant will, in a short time, be filled up. On one part the Philosophical Society are erecting a large building for holding their meetings and depositing their Library and Cabinet. This building is begun, and, on another part, a County Court-house is now going up. But, after all the beauty and elegance of this public walk, there is one circumstance that must forever be disgusting and must greatly diminish the pleasure and amusement which these walks would otherwise afford. At the foot of the Mall, and opposite to the Court-house, is the Prison, fronting directly to the Mall. It is very long and high, I believe, four stories, and built of stone. The building itself, which is elegant, would appear well, were it not for its unsavory contents.... Whatever part of the Mall you are in, this cage of unclean birds is constantly in your view, and their doleful cries attacking your ears."

  • Anon [“B.”], January 1790, "Explanation of the Plate, exhibiting a View of several Public Buildings in the City of Philadelphia", The Columbian Magazine [44]
"The State-house square... is inclosed [sic], on three sides, by a brick wall.... This area has, of late, been judiciously improved, under the direction of Samuel Vaughan, Esq. It consists of a beautiful lawn, interspersed with little knobs or tufts of flowering shrubs, and clumps of trees, well disposed. Through the middle of the gardens, runs a spacious gravel-walk lined with double rows of thriving elms, and communicating with serpentine walks which encompass the whole area. These surrounding walks are not uniformly on a level with the lawn; the margin of which, being in some parts a little higher, forms a bank, which, in fine weather, affords pleasant seats. When the trees attain to a larger size, it will be proper to place a few benches under them, in different situations, for the accommodation of persons frequenting the walks.
"These gardens will soon, if properly attended to, be in a condition to admit of our citizens indulging themselves, agreeably, in the salutary exercise of walking. The grounds, though not so extensive as might be wished, are sufficiently large to accommodate very considerable numbers: the objects within view are pleasing; and the situation is open and healthy. If the ladies, in particular, would occasionally recreate themselves with a few turns in these walks, they would find the practice attended with real advantages."
  • Adams, John, letter to Abigail Adams, Philadelphia, May 17, 1794 [45]
"By the Way this statehouse Yard is a beautiful Thing formed on an English Plan, like the Inclosure in Grosvenor Square. I walk there every day for air and Exercise in the shade. It is not a Paines Hill nor a Stowe, nor a Leasowes, but it is pretty."
  • Wansey, Henry, June 7, 1794 (1970: 103) [46]
"Behind it [the State House] is a garden, which is open for company to walk in. It was planned and laid out by Samuel Vaughan, Esq. a merchant of London, who went out a few years ago, and resided some time at Philadelphia. It is particularly convenient to the House of Representatives, which being on the ground floor, has two doors that open directly into it, to which they can retire to compose their thoughts, or refresh themselves after any fatigue of business, or confer together and converse, without interrupting the debate."
  • Wansey, Henry, June 10, 1794 (1970: 116) [47]
"The pleasantest walk at Philadelphia, is the State Gardens, behind the House of Representatives. It is something like Kensington Gardens, but not so large."
  • “Philadelphia,” The American Gazeteer, 1797
"The state-house garden occupies a whole square; it is a small neat place, ornamented with several rows of trees and gravel walks, and enclosed by a high brick wall on three sides, and the state-house &c. on the other. Pottersfield, formerly a public burying ground, is now converted into a public wal, and planted with rows of Lombardy poplars on each side. When the trees are grown, and the ground leveled, it will be one of the most pleasant promenades in the vicinity."
  • Philadelphia Magazine, June 1798 (quoted in Toogood, 2004: 118) [48]
"On the south of [the State-house] buildings is a large area ... enclosed with a brick wall and commanding an elegant front view of the [Walnut-street] jail, Philadelphia Library and Philosophical hall with the valuable Museum of the ingenious Mr. Peale. This garden is appropriated as a public walk for the use of the Citizens ... [I]t is laid down in a grass platt, divided in the middle by a spacious gravel walk, lined with a double row of large native and exotic elms, which form a cool shadowy retreat, and is plentifully supplied with benches for the accommodation of visitors. As this is the only spot in this populous city appropriated to the necessary and refreshing uses of exercise and air, it is usually thronged with company ... and on days of festivity, exhibits a lively scene of busy gaiety."
  • Watson, John F., “State-House and Yard” [49]
"Before the location of the State-house, the ground towards Chesnut street was more elevated than now. The grandmother of S. R. Wood remembered it when it was covered with whortle-berry bushes. On the line of Walnut street the ground was lower, and was built upon with a few small houses, which were afterwards purchased and torn down, to enlarge and beautify the State-house square.
The present aged Thomas Bradford, Esq. who has described it as it was in his youth, says the yard at that time was but about half its present depth from Chesnut street — was very irregular on its surface, and no attention paid to its appearance. On the Sixth street side, about 15 to 20 feet from the then brick wall, the ground was sloping one to two feet below the general surface — over that space rested upon the wall a long shed, which afforded and was used as the common shelter for the parties of Indians occasionally visiting the city on business….

In the year 1760 the other half-square, fronting on Walnut street, was purchased. After pulling down the houses there,… the whole space was walled in with a high brick wall, and at the centre of the Walnut street wall was a ponderous high gate and massive brick structure over the top of it, placed there by Joseph Fox. — It was ornamental but heavy; vis a vis to this gate, the south side of Walnut street, was a considerable space of vacant ground. About the year 1782 the father of the present John Vaughan, Esq. coming to Philadelphia from England to reside among us, set his heart upon improving and adorning the yard, as an embellishment to the city. He succeeded to accomplish this in a very tasteful and agreeable manner. The trees and shrubbery which he had planted were very numerous and in great variety. When thus improved, it became a place of general resort as a delightful promenade. Windsor settees and garden chairs were placed in appropriate places, and all, for a while, operated as a charm. It was something in itself altogether unprecedented, in a public way, in the former simpler habits of our citizens; but after some time it became, in the course of the day, to use the language of my informant, Mr. Bradford, the haunt of many idle people and tavern resorters; and, in the evening, a place of rendezvous to profligate persons; so that in spite of public interest to the contrary, it run into disesteem among the better part of society. Efforts were made to restore its lost credit; the seats were removed, and loungers spoken of as trespassers. &c. — but the remedy came too late; good company had deserted it, and the tide of fashion did not again set in its favour. In later years the fine elms, planted by Mr. Vaughan, annually lost their leaves by numerous caterpillars, (an accidental foreign importation,) which so much annoyed the visiters [sic], as well as the trees, that they were reluctantly cut down after attaining to a large size. After this, the dull, heavy brick wall was removed to give place to the present airy and more graceful iron palisade. Numerous new trees were planted to supply the place of the former ones removed, and now the place being revived, is returning again to public favour; but our citizens have never had the taste for promenading public walks, so prevalent in Londoners and Parisians — a subject to be regretted, since the opportunity of indulgence is so expensively provided in this and the neighbouring Washington Square.



U.S. Park Service, Independence National Historical Park: http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/hh/17/hh17f.htm

Ghost Gardens, Lost Landscapes: http://ggll.weebly.com/peale.html

The Cultural Landscape Foundation: http://tclf.org/landscapes/independence-square


  1. Browning, January 1916, 89-103; Barratt, October 1915, 506.
  2. The Charters of the Province of Pensilvania, 1742, 478. See also Toogood, 2004, 11.
  3. Mires, 2002, 17, 19, 24, 35, 37; Toogood, 2004, 31-55, 138-141, 150- passsim.
  4. MacKinney, 1913-1935, 2163. See also Toogood, 204, 9-12, 27.
  5. Toogood, 2004, 12-14.
  6. Toogood, 2004, 22, 25-26; Toogood, 1994, 15.
  7. Votes and Proceedings of the House of Representatives, 1775, 284. See also Toogood, 2004, 14, 23, 79.
  8. Toogood, 2004, 72.
  9. Toogood, 2004, 74, 76, 90.
  10. Toogood, 1994, 15.
  11. The State House Yard, May 29, 1819, 361.
  12. Houck, 1909, 1: 300, 303, 305.
  13. Toogood, 2004, 87, 90.
  14. Vaughan, May 14, 1785, cf. Darlington, 1849, 557. See also Toogood, 2004, 86.
  15. Toogood, 2004, 90-91.
  16. Fry, 2004, 50; Vaughan, c. April 7, 1785, 1-2; Stetson, 1949, 465-466. See also Toogood, 2004, 85, 86, 90-91, 93-94; Stetson, 1949, 466.
  17. Vaughan, May 28, 1875; see also Vaughan, May 14, 1785.
  18. Fry, 2004, 50.
  19. Toogood, 2004, 93-94.
  20. Toogood, 2004, 91.
  21. Toogood, 2004, 95-96, 108.
  22. Lingelbach, 1953, 45-50; Stetson, October 1949, 464-465.
  23. Toogood, 2004, 114; Westcott, 1877, 110.
  24. Toogood, 2004, 94, 95.
  25. Toogood, 2004, 159-164; Simon, March 10, 1812, 101.
  26. Mizelle, 2004, 224-226; Mires, 2002, Sellers, 1980, 77.
  27. Toogood, 2004, 115-117; Toogood, 1994, 16; Westcott, 1877, 110; State House Yard, June 28, 1828, 416.
  28. Sellers, 1980, 94-95, 99, 148-153, 195.
  29. Toogood, 2004, 171-173.
  30. Milroy, spring 2011, 5.
  31. Toogood, 2004, 176-178.
  32. Toogood, 2004, 182-183.
  33. Toogood, 2004, 190, 192-193.
  34. Toogood, 2004, 183-184.
  35. Toogood, 2004, 186-188.
  36. Westcott, 1877, 110.
  37. Jacob Duché, Caspipina’s Letters; Containing Observations on a Variety of Subjects, Literary, Moral, and Religious (Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1774), 12-13, view on Zotero.
  38. Unpublished MS., Massachusetts Historical Society, quoted in Toogood, 2004, 90
  39. Hunter, 1943, 169.
  40. Brissot de Warville, 1919, 189.
  41. Swanwick, August 1787, 609-10.
  42. Anon., July 1787, 51.
  43. Cutler, 1888, 1: 262-63.
  44. Anon [“B.”], "Explanation of the Plate, exhibiting a View of several Public Buildings in the City of Philadelphia", The Columbian Magazine 4, no. 1 (January 1790): 25-26.
  45. , http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17940515ja&hi=1&query=yard&tag=text&archive=all&rec=2&start=0&numRecs=82
  46. Wansey, 1970, 103.
  47. Wansey, 1970, 116.
  48. quoted in Toogood, 2004, 118
  49. Watson, 1830, 343-344.

Retrieved from "https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=State_House_Yard&oldid=6679"

History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "State House Yard," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=State_House_Yard&oldid=6679 (accessed September 29, 2023).

A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

National Gallery of Art, Washington