The Hills was the Schuylkill River estate of the influential British-born merchant, financier, and government official, Robert Morris (1734–1806). It was the site of extensive formal gardens and a monumental greenhouse complex.
Site Dates: 1770–1799
Site Owner: Robert Morris (1734–1806)
Associated People: David Landreth (1752–1828; head gardener), Cuthbert Landreth (gardener), F. Gottreu (head gardener), William Read (gardener), James Donnelley (head gardener)
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Through a series of purchases begun in 1770, Robert Morris accumulated 300 acres of land on the northern border of Philadelphia, roughly corresponding with the portion of William Penn’s Springettsbury estate known as Vineyard Hill. Morris renamed the property The Hills and erected a “very beautiful house, built in the Italianate style” on a knoll overlooking the Schuylkill River. While maintaining his primary residence in town, Morris frequently walked out to this rural retreat to dine or take tea, often in the company of friends and politically prominent guests. During the Revolutionary War, British troops advancing on Philadelphia established a picket directly behind Morris’s house, which they tore down on November 28, 1777. They also demolished as many as twenty farm buildings and chopped down Morris’s “splendid fruit trees.” On November 29 George Washington’s aide-de-camp, Tench Tilghman (1744–1786), informed Morris that the only thing left of his country estate was the ground itself, “in every other respect it is in a state of Nature.” Philadelphia physician Josiah Bartlett (1729–1795) later described the entire area north of the city as “one common waste. . . . Mr. Dickinson and Morris’s fine seats all demolished.”
On his return to The Hills, Morris apparently decided not to replace his ruined house with a new residence, but rather to create a spectacular greenhouse. In 1780 he had converted the greenhouse at nearby Springettsbury into a dining room while he and his family were leasing the property as a summer retreat. He was so delighted by the "beauty and convenience" of the repurposed building, that after a fire broke out at Springettsbury in March 1784, Morris began developing a greenhouse suitable for entertaining at The Hills. One of his few business records from this period notes payments made at The Hills to the stone cutter William Stiles for “sundry work done by him at the Hot and Green Houses from October 1784 to December 1785.” Construction was still underway in July 1787 when Manasseh Cutler paid a brief visit to Morris’s property and reported: “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.”
The “villa” glimpsed by Cutler was actually The Hills’ increasingly elaborate greenhouse. Morris’s ledger books document substantial payments to stone masons, brick layers, carpenters, glaziers, ironmongers, and painters working on the greenhouse and hothouses. By 1797 two 50-foot-wide hothouse wings flanked the two-story greenhouse. “Two large rooms” stood at the back of the hothouses and “a House for a gardener, with one large and five small rooms,” connected to the greenhouse. Among its furnishings, the house contained four dining tables with chairs and place settings for eighteen guests. There was also “an excellent vault under the greenhouse, and a covered room for preserving roots &c. in winter.” The many visitors Morris hosted at The Hills ran the gamut from George Washington (a frequent dinner guest during the Continental Convention in 1787) to a delegation of Seneca Indians, who “dined with Morris at the Greenhouse out of town” in April 1792. The Philadelphia miniature painter Jeremiah Paul Jr. (1761–1820) depicted the famous site in “Robert Morris’ Seat on Schuylkill,” a watercolor sketch dated July 20, 1794 [Fig. 1], which probably relates to “a Landscape of The Hills Green House &c,” for which Morris paid $15 on November 24, 1794.
While building the greenhouse and hothouses, Morris also assembled an array of exotic plants and created a lush garden. Later accounts of this section of the property (when under the ownership of Henry Pratt) suggest that it had a geometric design and that the plants were “interspersed with statues and busts,” as at neighboring Bush Hill. Charles Willson Peale possibly provided a glimpse of the garden in the background of his portrait of c. 1782 of Robert Morris’s wife, Mary White Morris (1749–1827). The orange branch held by Mary Morris in Peale’s portrait alludes to the valuable collection of citrus trees and other exotic plants for which The Hills became well known. Visiting the estate on June 1, 1797, the German expatriate farmer Jacob Hiltzheimer (1729–1798) reported, “Robert Morris’s gardener . . . made us some very good lemon punch, the fruit grown in the garden, and showed us a number of pineapples growing and likewise two coffee trees in bloom.”
Morris’s ledgers record numerous payments for flower pots, as well as cedar tubs for the greenhouse and coal for the hothouse. The ledgers unfortunately identify few specific plants, other than “a box with a Tree from Charlston [sic], “4 large Elm Trees,” and “fruit trees &c.” Morris evidently cultivated grapes, and became a subscriber of the Society for Promoting the Cultivation of Vines in February 1794. A succession of gardeners tended the garden and greenhouse at The Hills and managed plant sales. David Landreth served as head gardener from 1791 to 1796 at an annual salary of £70. F. Gottreau succeeded him for a short time in 1797, followed by James Donnely from 1797 to 1799. Other gardeners who worked at The Hills included David Landreth’s brother, Cuthbert (1793 to 1799), and William Read (1797). A few tenants over the years helped tend Morris’s extensive property. On July 18, 1797, Jacob Hiltzheimer was astonished by the great quantity of “grape vines loaded down with grapes” that Peter Kuhn had cultivated on a lot that was “lately part of Robert Morris’s garden.” Plants from The Hills continued to circulate in Philadelphia and other parts of the country for years after Morris’s death. For example, in 1807 Thomas Jefferson received cuttings from red and white freestone peaches that originated with specimens Morris had imported from Italy. In 1876 the Cincinnati gardener Jacob Hoffner (1799–1894) donated to Horticulture Hall in Philadelphia a Sago palm that had grown for many years at The Hills.
From 1793 to 1795, while serving as president of the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Navigation Company, Morris arranged for a navigable canal to be dug from Bush Hill to the northwest boundary of The Hills. Failed land speculations and other financial embarrassments (including a ruinously expensive townhouse designed by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant) placed Morris deeply in debt. The Hills was subdivided into lots and disbursed at a sheriff’s sale held on March 15, 1799. Henry Pratt, one of Morris’s creditors, purchased the two lots that contained the greenhouse and farm buildings, totaling a little over 42 acres. Several months later, Pratt paid Morris $750 for the greenhouse plants. Almost immediately, Pratt began erecting a manor house and redeveloping the landscape and greenhouse collections on his property, which he named Lemon Hill. The merchant William Crammond purchased another section of The Hills where he built Sedgeley, a Gothic Revival house designed by the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
- Ewald, Johann, October 19, 1777, journal entry describing military action at The Hills (1979: 96)
- “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.”
- Ewald, Johann, November 28, 1777 (1979: 105–8)
- “The Jäger Corps received orders to station itself behind the defile of the Morris plantation, which was situated on the Schuylkill in front of the army’s left flank. The officers and the greater part of the Corps had cantoned partly in the very beautiful country house, built in the Italian style, and partly in the farm buildings, which numbered some twenty. Now, since no brushwood or woodland was in the vicinity of our post, and these buildings were situated eight hundred to one thousand paces before our front, all of them, together with the splendid fruit trees, were torn down to build huts. Mr. Morris, who was indeed a distinguished man in the Congress, must have suffered a loss of twenty thousand dollars, without counting the irreparable damage which resulted from the loss of his large and lovely fruit trees.”
- “I had a view of your Country seat a few days ago from the west side of Schuylkill. The soil is not destroyed but in every other respect it is in a state of Nature— . . . every House from Mr Dickensons to yours is either burnt or what is as bad pulled all to pieces.”
- “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.”
- Moreau St.-Méry, Médéric Louis Élie, March 26, 1797 (1797: 240)
- “I went . . . to visit Robert Morris’s greenhouse [serre chaud] near Philadelphia. It had very beautiful specimens of orange trees, lemon trees, and pineapples.”
- c. September 6, 1797, A Schedule of Property within the State of Pennsylvania Conveyed by Robert Morris, to the Hon. James Biddle, Esq. And Mr. William Bell, in Trust for the use and account of the Pennsylvania Property Company
- “An Estate called the Hills Situate in the Northern Liberties, near the City of Philadelphia, containing Three hundred acres of land highly improved, and on which are erected a large and elegant greenhouse, with a hot house of fifty feet on each side; on the back front a House for a gardener, with one large and five small rooms, also two large rooms on the back or north front of the hot house, with an excellent vault under the green houses, and a covered room for preserving roots &c. in winter; the whole being a strong stone building, with the necessary glasses, casements, fruit trees, plants shrubs &c. in good order; a well of excellent water, with a pump close to the north front the whole enclosed within a large Garden stocked with fruit trees of the best kind &c. &c. Adjoining to this garden is a farm house and kitchen, a spring house and a granary or store room over it, a coach house, barn and Stables, large Cow house with arched doorways, and hay lofts over the whole, a brew house and hog pens. All these buildings are solid and strong being built of stone, besides which there are sheds and other frame buildings, compleat for a farmer. There is another farm house and kitchen built of brick, and a stone barn, distant from the above mentioned so as to divide the lands into two farms, the first being on the West and the latter on the East side of the Canal which Canal has to course through this estate, and when carried into full operation will unquestionably increase the value greatly, as the lands on each side of the Canal may be divided into convenient tracts of 4, 5, 6, to 10 acres, and will be sought after by Citizens of Philadelphia, who wish to get out Price now deemed pretty high have already been offered for the City during the summer months, in order to build summer houses on the pleasant and delightful situations which abound on these grounds. The Canal will afford the means of transporting at Small expense everything they want to or from the City and of purchasing such articles as may be sent down from the interior country for sale. Prices now deemed pretty high have already been offered for seates in these grounds, but it is believed that a short period of time will bring forward purchasers at much higher prices, to the great benefit of the share-holders.”
- All information on the gardeners hired by Morris to work at The Hills comes from Owen Tasker Robbins, “Toward a Preservation of the Grounds of Lemon Hill in Light of Their Past and Present Significance for Philadelphians” (master’s thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1987), 25–28, view on Zotero.
- Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, ed. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), 108, view on Zotero.
- Ryan K. Smith, Robert Morris’s Folly: The Architectural and Financial Failures of an American Founder (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 47, view on Zotero; Charles Rappleye, Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 24, view on Zotero; Thompson Westcott, The Historic Mansions and Buildings of Philadelphia, with Some Notice of Their Owners and Occupants (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1877), 369, view on Zotero; Revolutionary Papers, Collections of the New York Historical Society for 1878 (New York: New York Historical Society, 1878), 1:407, view on Zotero.
- Ewald 1979, 96, 99, 105–8, view on Zotero.
- Revolutionary Papers, 1878, 432, view on Zotero.
- Letter of July 13, 1778, quoted in Robbins 1987, 13, view on Zotero.
- Kitty Livingston to Mrs. John Jay, July 10, 1780, quoted in John Jay, The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, ed. Henry P. Johnston, 4 vols. (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), 1:376, view on Zotero.
- Robbins 1987, 19, view on Zotero.
- Manasseh Cutler, Life, Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, L.L.D., ed. William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkin Cutler, 2 vols. (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1888), 1:257, view on Zotero.
- Robbins 1987, 20–22, 137–42, view on Zotero.
- Smith 2014, 159, view on Zotero.
- Robbins 1987, 136, view on Zotero.
- Smith 2014, 47, 307, view on Zotero; Robbins 1987, 138, view on Zotero; see also Elizabeth Drinker, Extracts from the Journal of Elizabeth Drinker, from 1759 to 1807 A.D., ed. Henry D. Biddle (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company , 1889), 267, view on Zotero.
- Robbins 1987, 146, view on Zotero.
- The quoted phrase is from Alexander Jackson Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1841), 24, view on Zotero. For sculpture at Bush Hill, see Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Smith Shaw, March 20, 1791, in Abigail Adams, Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. With an Introductory Memoir by Her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, 4th ed. (Boston: Wilkins, Carter, & Company, 1848), 358, 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), 243, view on Zotero.
- Robbins 1987, 138, 141, 142, 147, 148, 149, 151, view on Zotero.
- Robbins 1987, 138, 140, 153, view on Zotero.
- Robbins 1987, 139, 143, 144, 146, 147, 149, view on Zotero.
- Robbins 1987, 25–26, view on Zotero.
- Hiltzheimer 1893, 245; see also 153, view on Zotero.
- Timothy Matlack to Thomas Jefferson, February 25, 1807, Founders Online, National Archives; Samuel Newman Baxter, “Two Historic Century-Old Cycads,” The Garden Magazine 35 (1922): 296, view on Zotero.
- Ronald E. Shaw, Canals For A Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790–1860 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 4, view on Zotero; Frederick Watts and Henry J. Sergeant, Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania . . .1842 (Philadelphia: James Kay Jr. & Brother, 1843), 4:393–400, view on Zotero; Albert B. Weimer, ed., Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: T. & J. W. Johnson, 1890), 4:455–62, view on Zotero; Hiltzheimer 1893, 192–94, 204, view on Zotero; Drinker 1889, 267, view on Zotero.
- Robbins 1987, 30, 155, view on Zotero.
- Ewald 1979, view on Zotero.
- Revolutionary Papers, 1879, 432–33, view on Zotero.
- Cutler 1888, view on Zotero.
- Moreau de St. Méry’s American Journey (1793–1798), trans. and ed. Kenneth Roberts and Anna M. Roberts (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1947), view on Zotero.
- A Schedule of Property within the State of Pennsylvania Conveyed by Robert Morris, to the Hon. James Biddle, Esq. And Mr. William Bell, in Trust for the use and account of the Pennsylvania Property Company, c. September 6, 1797, Autograph Collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, original MS reproduced in Robbins 1987, 136, view on Zotero.