Through a series of purchases begun in 1770, 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. <Ewald, 1979, 108. </ref> 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. <Smith, 2014, 47; Rappleye, 2010, 24; Westcott, 1877, 369; Revolutionary Papers, 1879, 1: 407.>
During the revolutionary war, British troops advancing on Philadelphia established a picket directly behind Morris’s house, which they burned to the ground on November 28, 1777. They also demolished as many as twenty farm buildings and chopped down Morris’s “splendid fruit trees.” Johann Ewald (1744-1813), one of the Hessian mercenaries who carried out the destruction, rued the fact that [[Robert Morris|Morris] “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.” <Ewald, 1979, 96, 99, 108.> On November 29 General Washington’s aide-de-camp, Tench Tilghman (1744-1786), informed Morris that the only thing left of his country estate was the soil itself, “in every other respect it is in a state of Nature.” <Revolutionary Papers, 1879, 432.> Philadelphia physician Josiah Bartlett (1729-1795) later described the entire area north of the city as “one common waste…. Mr. [John Dickinsen|Dickinson]] and Morris’s fine seats all demolished.” <Letter of July 13, 1778 quoted in Robbins, 1987, 13.>
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. A guest of the Morris family in 1780, John Jay’s sister-in-law, Kitty Livingston, praised their “delightful situation,” and added: “Mr. Morris has repaired and enlarged the buildings and converted the greenhouse into a dining room which far exceeds their expectations in beauty and convenience.” <Kitty Livingston to Mrs. John Jay, July 10, 1780, Jay, 1893, 1: 376; see also John Jay to Robert Morris, November 19, 1780, for confirmation that by the place name “Springettsbury” Livingston referred to The Hills (Jay, 1893, 1: 446).> One of Morris’s few business records for the 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.” <Robbins, 1987, 19.> 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.” <Cutler, 1888: 257.>
The “villa” glimpsed by Cutler was actually The Hills’s 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. <Robbins, 1987, 20-22, 137-142.> 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 the furnishings, the house contained four dining tables and enough chairs and place settings to accommodate eighteen guests. <Smith, 2014, 159.> There was also “an excellent vault under the greenhouse, and a covered room for preserving roots & c. in winter.” <Robbins, 1987, 136.> 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. <Smith, 2014, 47, 307; Robbins, 1987, 138.> 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, which probably relates to “a Landscape of the Hills Green House &c,” for which Morris paid $15 on November 24, 1794. <Robbins, 1987, 146.>
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 (which, under the ownership of Henry Pratt, became known as Lemon Hill) suggest that it had a geometric design and that, as at neighboring Bush Hill, the plants were “interspersed with statues and busts,” perhaps resembling the background of Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of c. 1782 of Robert Morris’s wife, Mary White Morris. <The quoted phrase is from Downing, 1841, 24. For Bush Hill, see Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Smith Shaw, March 20, 1791, in Adams, 1848, 358.> 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 and 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.” <Hiltzheimer, 1893, 243.>
Morris’s ledgers record numerous payments for flower pots, as well as cedar tubs for the greenhouse and coal for the hothouse. <Robbins, 1987, 138, 141, 142, 147, 148, 149, 151.> The ledgers unfortunately identify few specific plants, other than “a box with a Tree from Charlston [sic] (March 1792); “4 large Elm Trees” (April 1792), and “fruit trees & c.” (September and November 1792 and November 1797). Morris evidently cultivated grapes, and became a subscriber of the Society for Promoting the Cultivation of Vines in February 1794. <Robbins, 1987, 143.> A succession of gardeners tended the garden and greenhouse at the Hills and managed the estate’s commercial plant sales. David Landreth served as head gardener from 1791 to 1796 at an annual salary of £70. <Robbins, 1987, 139, 143, 144, 146, 147, 149.> F. Gottreau succeeded him for a short time in 1797, followed by James Donnely from 1797-1799. Other gardeners who worked at The Hills included David Landreth’s brother, Cuthbert (1793 to 1799), and William Read (1797). <Robbins, 1987, 25-26.> 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.” <Hiltzheimer, 1893, 245; see also 153.> Plants from The Hills continued to circulate in Philadelphia and other parts of the country 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. <Matlack, 1807; Baxter, July 1922, 296.>
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. <Shaw, 1990, 4; Watts and Sergeant, 1843, 393-400; Weimer, 1890, 455-462; Hiltzheimer, 1893, 192-194, 204.> Failed land speculations and other financial embarrassments (including a ruinously expensive town house 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 (totaling a little over 42 acres) that included the greenhouse and farm buildings. Several months later, Pratt paid Morris $750 for the greenhouse plants. <Robbins, 1987, 30, 155.> Almost immediately, Pratt began erecting a manor house and redeveloping the landscape and greenhouse collections on his property, which he named Lemon Hill.
- 14 June 1796, describing Horsdumonde, house of Col. Henry Skipwith, Cumberland County, Va. (quoted in Carter, Van Horne, and Brownell 1985: 80–81) 
- "In other respects there is a great deal of worldly beauty and convenience about it. The house is a strange building, but whoever contrived it, and from whatever planet he came he was not a Lunatic, for there is much comfort and room in it, though put together very oddly. Before the South front is a range of hills wooded very much in the Stile of an English park. To the East runs the Apomatox to which a lawn extends." [Fig. 1]
- Mary White Morris to Esther Heulings White, April 28, 1777 
- “[I] expect soon to inhabit the Hills where we shall remain, if possible, in the enjoyment of all that’s beautiful to the eye and grateful to the taste; for, as if to add to our mortification, are we obliged to leave it; nature never appeared there so lovely, nor promised such a profusion of her gifts.”
- Johann Ewald, October 19, 1777, journal entry describing the advance of British troops toward Philadelphia <Ewald, 1979, 96.>
- Johann Ewald, November 28, 1777, journal entry reporting German soldiers' actions at The Hills <Ewald, 1979, 105-108.>
- 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.
Tench Tilghman to Bert Morris, November 29, 1777 < Revolutionary Papers, 1879, 432-433> 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.
- Manasseh Cutler, July 13, 1787 <Cutler, 1888, 1: 256-257.>
- 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.
- Elizabeth Drinker, May 28, 1795 <Drinker, 1889, 267.>
- H. D. and William went out in the Chaise to the canal. D. walked in R. Morris's garden. They returned before dinner.
Elizabeth Drinker, April 6, 1796 <Drinker, 1889, 283.> Molly went this afternoon…to Robt Morris's Greenhouse & c, three miles and upwards. They walked near 7 miles. She is tired this evening
- Moreau St.-Méry, March 26, 1797 <Voyage aux ÉtatsUnis de l’Amérique, ed. Stewart L. Mims (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1913), 240.>
- J’allai…visiter la serre chaude de Robert Morris prés de Philadelphie. On y trouve de très beaux objets de la famille des orangers, des citronniers, et de celle des ananas.
I went to visit Robert Morris’s hothouse [?] near Philadelphia. It has very beautiful specimens of orange trees, lemon trees, and pineapples.
- Jacob Hilzheimer, June 1, 1797 <Hiltzheimer, 1893, 243>
- While out riding with Mr. Barge we called on Robert Morris’s gardener, who 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.
- Jacob Hiltzheimer, July 18, 1797 <Hiltzheimer, 1893, 245
- After dinner we went with Peter Kuhn to his lot, lately a part of Robert Morris’s garden, where he showed us his grape vines loaded down with grapes. I have not seen so many in one place since I left Germany.
- 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 Robbins, 1987, 136.>
- 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.
- Latrobe, Benjamin Henry. 1980. The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1799–1820: From Philadelphia to New Orleans. Edited by Edward C. Carter II, John C. Van Horne, and Lee W. Formwalt. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. view on Zotero
- quoted in Hart, 1878, 161.
LOCATION ON GOOGLE MAPS: