The Solitude, located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, was the country estate of the Englishman John Penn (1760–1834). Greatly interested in eighteenth-century English architecture and landscape design, Penn created a small villa and picturesque landscape at his country retreat that many scholars credit with helping to spread neoclassicism in America. Today, the villa stands on the grounds of the Philadelphia Zoo.
Site Dates: established 1784
Site Owner(s): John Penn (1760–1834); Granville Penn (1761–1844); Granville John Penn (1803–1867); Rev. Thomas Gordon Penn (d. 1869); City of Philadelphia
Location: Philadelphia, PA
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Englishman John Penn, a grandson of Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn (1644–1718), purchased fifteen acres of land on the west bank of the Schuylkill River from Isaac Warner in 1784 for a country house he named The Solitude (view text) [Fig. 1 - Birch painting]. The estate provided refuge from the hostile political climate Penn encountered in Philadelphia the previous year, when he traveled from London to request compensation from the Pennsylvania assembly for family property seized during the American Revolution. Jude Collin Gleason has argued that The Solitude’s location several miles outside of the city “allowed Penn to keep his finger on the political pulse of Philadelphia, while keeping a safe distance from unfriendly factions.” Penn did occasionally entertain such illustrious guests as George Washington (1732–1799), who recorded in his diary that he had dined at Penn’s estate following a meeting of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (view text). In a 1785 letter to her husband, however, Rebecca Shoemaker (1730–1819), a resident of nearby Laurel Hill on the east bank of the Schuylkill, wrote that Penn was “living a most recluse life” at The Solitude and that he was “making it all a garden and has built a house in a most singular style” (view text).
Penn's house, which is still extant, is an early example of neoclassical architecture in Philadelphia and, as scholars have argued, likely played a significant role in the spread of neoclassicism in the United States. Penn had extensive knowledge of fashionable English neoclassical architecture and picturesque landscape design, and he was deeply involved in planning the villa. His sketches of the floor plan, dated 1784, survive in his Commonplace Book at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Penn hired master builder William Roberts (d. 1808), who also likely contributed to the villa’s design. The plan for the villa recalls characteristics of plates 1 and 37 in Robert Morris’s Select Architecture, a copy of which Penn owned. Plate 1 of Morris’s text depicts the ground floor plan and front elevation of a small, thirty-foot cubic building, which may have inspired the overall shape and dimensions of Penn’s villa [Fig. 2]. The plan of the ground floor of Penn’s house, however, has more in common with the central bay of the structure depicted in plate 37, which Morris describes as “A little Building intended for Retirement, or for Study, to be placed in some agreeable Part of a Park or Garden”.
If the ground floor was somewhat derivative of Morris’s designs, scholars see a radical departure in the complex shapes and arrangement of the rooms on the upper two floors. On the second story, for example, Penn’s library, a bedroom, and two smaller rooms (one with a sleeping alcove and the other with built-in cupboards) were arranged without axial symmetry and connected by various indirect passageways. This design facilitated the “mediati[on] of public and private spaces” and enabled servants to navigate around rooms occupied by Penn or his associates in order to minimize disruptions in tight quarters. Similarly, a forty-one-foot brick cryptoporticus connected the villa with a second structure (no longer extant) to the west of the house—a 24’5” single-story square building that contained a kitchen and offices—and allowed servants to pass between the two unseen.
When designing The Solitude, Penn was very likely inspired by small country villas that had become fashionable on the outskirts of London during the second half of the eighteenth century. During this time of great metropolitan growth, wealthy Englishmen, drawing upon the tradition of ancient Roman villas, constructed small homes in the country. Eighteenth-century English villas were typically planned to maximize visual continuity between the architecture and the landscape. The architecture and landscape at The Solitude were similarly coordinated to produce a unified visual experience. This effect is evident in the use of double glass doors to transition from the mansion’s parlor to the portico and lawn on the east side of the structure. Elizabeth Milroy has argued that the doors effectively “draw the exterior scenery into the villa’s interior.”
The Solitude had “perhaps one of the earliest American landscapes shaped around principles of the picturesque,” according to Gleason. Penn, who was deeply interested in literature and, especially, poetry, was “heavily influenced by his understanding of contemporary poetry and his medium’s link to the picturesque movement”—particularly the writings of Thomas Gray (1716–1771) and Reverend William Mason (1724–1797)—when designing The Solitude. The irregularity and variety championed by such theorists of the picturesque is evident in a pen-and-ink landscape plan of The Solitude that Penn commissioned the surveyor John Nancarrow to create, most likely sometime around 1785 [Fig. 3]. A legend appears at the upper right of the plan and names many of the landscape features shown in the image. Penn’s square mansion house and kitchen appear at the top right of the rectangular parcel of land represented in Nancarrow’s plan. Falls Road bisects the property diagonally, and a carriage drive meanders from the road, terminating between the villa and the kitchen buildings in an oval-shaped carriage turn-around surrounded by a ring of trees. On the east side of Falls Road, Nancarrow depicts a bowling green and wilderness with semi-circular and serpentine walks for strolling. Utilitarian features of the landscape design, such as an extensive kitchen garden and stable and carriage house, are located on the opposite side of the road, far from the mansion house and the view of Penn’s guests. A ha-ha runs along part of the southeastern border of Penn’s estate, dividing it from land owned by the Bolton family without creating an obvious barrier between the two properties. Penn’s large flower garden, situated in the middle of a wooded area to the east of Falls Road near the southern edge of the estate, is divided into eight irregularly-shaped sections and takes the form of a lopsided rectangle.
Penn’s taste for irregularity is also apparent in the course of the long, circuitous path that connects the villa to the flower garden. Beginning at the river-facing portico on the east façade of the house, the walk winds east, across the lawn and toward the Schuylkill, before turning south and running parallel to the river. Crossing a stream that runs through Penn’s estate, the walk meanders through the pleasure ground before bending west and running past the ha-ha and flower garden to the road. Nancarrow’s drawing suggests that plantings were arranged to provide carefully constructed views of the river from the house and vice versa. A broad lawn, featuring a single clump of seven trees near the river bank, connects the villa to the Schuylkill. South of the stream, the landscape is more wooded, although the plan reveals an alley positioned at a forty-five-degree angle from the southeastern corner of the house, providing another direct view of the river from the portico. Milroy has argued that achieving the design of the lawn with “artfully sited groves of trees and water features that framed the river view” would have required “[c]onsiderable excavation,” and the plan suggests a debt to the design practices of the English landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783). Contemporary written accounts indicate that the picturesque landscape depicted in Nancarrow’s drawing was largely realized at The Solitude.
Penn only lived at The Solitude for four years. He moved back to England in 1788 and never returned to America, but his interest in architecture extended beyond his years in Philadelphia. Penn worked with the celebrated English architect James Wyatt (1746–1813), architect to George III, on two houses in England: Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire and Pennsylvania Castle on the Isle of Portland, Dorset. Penn hired Wyatt to renovate the family’s manor house and estate at Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, and, in 1789, he commissioned the landscape architect Humphry Repton (1752–1818) to create “the general plan for the plantations” at Stoke Park. Penn continued to make alterations to the house and landscape at Stoke Park between 1789 and at least 1811. Concurrently, he purchased land on the Isle of Portland and, by 1800, had completed construction on a Gothic house designed by Wyatt, which he named Pennsylvania Castle. Penn’s early interest in integrating architecture with the surrounding landscape, as evidenced at The Solitude, is more fully realized in these two later projects, which, as Frances Fergusson has argued, were designed with landscape views in mind.
Penn rented out The Solitude to a variety of tenants throughout the remainder of his life. His agent Edmund Physick resided at The Solitude for several years following Penn’s departure, and he correspond with Penn in London regarding the estate. Physick ensured that the estate was well maintained in Penn’s absence. In one 1789 letter, for example, Physick details the severe damage that the house and grounds sustained following a summer storm several months earlier (view text). Upon Penn’s death in 1834, The Solitude passed to his brother, Granville Penn (1761–1844), and then to his nephews, Granville John Penn (1803–1867) and Rev. Thomas Gordon Penn (d. 1869). The city of Philadelphia purchased the property in 1867 and incorporated it into Fairmount Park. From 1874 until today, The Solitude has been part of the grounds of the Philadelphia Zoo.
- Penn, John, date unknown, entry in his Commonplace Book, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (quoted in Westcott 1877: 438–439) back up to history
- "I felt indeed the accustomed amor patriae and admiration of England, but sometimes a republican enthusiasm which attached me to America and almost tempted me to stay. . . . Earlier in the year I had made a dear purchase of fifteen acres, costing £600 sterling, and on the banks of the Schuylkill. I named it, from the Duke of Wurtemberg's, The Solitude—a name vastly more characteristic of my place. Advancing my house, I gradually altered my scheme to the great increase of the expenses it put me to. I might be in part actuated in this by a motive now grown stronger, the vanity of English taste in furnishing and decorating the house; and thought the money less thrown away as I then purposed keeping a house in the country, either for my agent to wait my return to the old country should my affairs require it."
- Penn, John, date unknown, entry in his Commonplace Book, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (quoted in Gleason 2002: 92)
- "Before I read the marquis d'Lamenoiselle's excellent treatise on landscape, I find similar sentiment to one of his in my letter (date April 1783) to W. Gould. He recommends a proportion to be observed between the mansion and extent of prospect; a precept I have studiously followed, without knowing it, both in practice, at the Solitude & in theory in this extract from the letter [to W. Gould]."
- Shoemaker, Rebecca, May 23, 1785, in a letter from Philadelphia to Samuel Shoemaker in London, describing The Solitude (quoted in Gleason 2002: 36) back up to history
- "He lives a most recluse life over Schuylkill. He bought about twenty acres of land and is making it all a garden and has built a house in a most singular style."
- Washington, George, July 19, 1787, diary entry describing The Solitude, estate of John Penn, near Philadelphia back up to history
- "Dined (after coming out of Convention) at Mr. John Penn the youngers. Drank Tea & spent the evening at my lodgings."
- Penn, John, August 8, 1788, in a letter from London to Edmund Physick in Philadelphia (quoted in Gleason 2002: 94)
- "[The Solitude is] a place which made my stay in a distant country, so full of trouble & anxiety, more tolerable to me."
- Physick, Edmund, December 12, 1789, in a letter from Philadelphia to John Penn in London, describing damage to The Solitude caused by a storm on July 5, 1789 (quoted in Gleason 2002: 90–91) back up to history
- "The very heavy falls of water ran over the road with such force as to carry along with it as much gravel off the walks, into the gully & river (exclusive of common dirt) as has taken seventeen wagon loads to replace. The several of the stones placed near the Bridge to resemble natural rocks were undermined, the earth being washed from under them, the bridge was injured, and the water flounced down the gully with such great rapidity and violence as to deepen it three feet below the foundation of the wall you had laid for supporting the bank, the stone wall diving your land from Boltons was in many places washed down, almost all the land was removed out of the garden walks and thrown up in great ridges and piles over the beds so as to alter the whole form of the garden, these disagreeable effect having happened, my wife proceeded to get such repairs made as were most necessary, leaving some stone work under the planted stones in the gully unfinished, until we can be favored with your thoughts upon it."
- Birch, William Russell, 1808, The Country Seats of the United States of North America (1808: unpaginated)
- "Here a pleasing solitude at once speaks the propriety of its title. Upon further research the solitary rocks, and the waters of the Schuylkill add sublimity to quietness. The house is built with great taste for a bachelor, by the former Governor John Penn, since the revolution." [Fig. 4]
- Penn named his estate after the Duke of Württemberg’s country palace in Stuttgart, La Solitude (built 1763–c. 1769), which Penn had visited during a Grand Tour in 1782–1783. Jude Collin Gleason argues that, La Solitude, as well as another of the Duke of Württemberg’s palaces visited by Penn—Monrepos (1760–1764) near Ludwigsburg—are two very early examples of French neoclassicism in Germany. Gleason, “A House in the Most Singular Style: John Penn’s The Solitude” (Master of Arts Thesis, University of Delaware, 2002), 12–13, view on Zotero.
- John Penn inherited three-fourths of the family’s proprietary rights and property in Pennsylvania after the death of his father, Thomas Penn (1702–1775). The remaining one-fourth belonged to Penn’s older cousin, also named John Penn (1729–1795), who was from Philadelphia and resided at his country estate Lansdowne, located just northwest of The Solitude. Ibid., 2, 17, view on Zotero; Thompson Westcott, The Historic Mansions and Buildings of Philadelphia, with Some Notice of Their Owners and Occupants (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1877), 437, view on Zotero; Elizabeth Milroy, The Grid and the River: Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682–1876 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016), 109, view on Zotero; Lorett Treese, The Storm Gathering: The Penn Family and the American Revolution (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992), 195–197, view on Zotero.
- Gleason 2002, 21, view on Zotero. The decision may also have been driven by family considerations, providing Penn with an alternative to staying at Lansdowne. Ibid., 19–20.
- Rebecca Rawle and her second husband, Samuel Shoemaker, constructed a house at Laurel Hill in 1767, and the property remained in the Rawle-Shoemaker family until 1828. Roger W. Moss, Historic Houses of Philadelphia: A Tour of the Region’s Museum Homes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press for The Barra Foundation, 1998), 98–99, view on Zotero.
- Gleason 2002, xi, 18, 24, view on Zotero. Born into a wealthy aristocratic family, Penn was well-educated and well-traveled, and he was heralded by contemporaries as an intellectual and a poet. Penn was the son of Thomas Penn and Lady Juliana Fermor, the daughter of the Earl of Pomfret, and he was educated at Eaton and the University of Cambridge. As a young man, he traveled throughout Europe, visiting his mother in Geneva in 1781 and undertaking a Grand Tour in 1782. Westcott 1877, 437, view on Zotero; Gleason 2002, 5, view on Zotero; Milroy 2016, 109, view on Zotero; Frances Fergusson, “James Wyatt and John Penn: Architect and Patron at Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire,” Architectural History 20 (1977): 45, view on Zotero. According to Gleason, Penn’s library contained three, “somewhat outmoded” architectural texts: Abraham Swan’s The British Architect, Batty Langley’s The Builder’s Compleat Assistant, and Robert Morris’s Select Architecture (1757). These texts served as important references for “practical solutions in designing a house,” but Penn relied on an “education in architecture” that “had been achieved through his elite upbringing in the first circles of England, and his extensive travels on the Continent.” Gleason 2002, 25, view on Zotero.
- Fergusson 1977, 46, view on Zotero.
- According to Gleason, “Roberts’s working knowledge and Penn’s firsthand experiences with the most current European architectural styles likely allowed a degree of collaboration between builder and patron.” Gleason 2002, 25, view on Zotero. Roberts had also worked on the construction of Penn’s cousin’s nearby estate, Lansdowne. Ibid., 22–24. Gleason’s thesis names many of the artisans (masons, plasterers, painters, wood carvers, stone carvers, blacksmiths, and cabinetmakers) that Penn employed for the construction of The Solitude. Several of these contractors also worked at Lansdowne. Ibid., 37, 39–55.
- Penn owned a copy of the 1757 edition. Ibid., 28, view on Zotero.
- The Solitude is cubic in form and both Gleason and Moss report that the house’s dimensions are twenty-nine feet square. See Gleason 2002, 28, view on Zotero; Moss 1998, 69, view on Zotero. However, Westcott claims that the house is twenty-six feet long on each side. Westcott 1877, 441, view on Zotero.
- Robert Morris, Select Architecture: Being Regular Designs of Plans and Elevations Well suited to both Town and Country; in which The Magnificence and Beauty, the Purity and Simplicity of Designing For every Species of that Noble Art, Is accurately treated, and with great Variety exemplified, From the Plain Town-House to the Stately Hotel, And in the Country from the genteel and convenient Farm-House to the Parochial Church, With Suitable Embellishments (London: Robert Sayer, 1755), 6, view on Zotero. For a description of Plate 1, see p. 1. See also Gleason 2002, 29–30, view on Zotero; Moss 1998, 69, view on Zotero. The plan of the ground floor, which features an entry hall and a parlor that doubled as a dining room, is also similar to floor plans employed at nearby Schuylkill River estates, such as Laurel Hill. Gleason 2002, 31, view on Zotero.
- Gleason 2002, 34, view on Zotero. According to Gleason, the plan exhibited principles of “novelty and variety” promoted by English architects Robert and James Adam in their Works in Architecture (1773) but also reflected the influence of eighteenth-century French architectural design. Pioneering developments in French planning reached the English through the published works of Jacques-Francois Blondel (1705–1774), Pierre Patte (1723–1814), and Jean-François de Neufforge (1714–1791), but Penn may also have seen examples when he lived with his mother in Paris in 1783. Ibid., 31–32. For a detailed description of the layout of the second and third floors, see p. 26–28.
- Penn had constructed this smaller structure first and lived there while the main house was being built, although he continued to entertain there even after the main house was completed. The building was demolished sometime between about 1874 and 1879, when the Philadelphia Zoo constructed a mammal house on the site. Such below-grade passageways, drawing on the ancient example of the cryptoporticus commonly used in Roman villas, were often built at eighteenth-century English villas located along the banks of the Thames River. English poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744), for example, constructed an underground passageway to connect the basement of his villa in Twickenham with his extensive gardens. Ibid., 36–37, 39–40, view on Zotero.
- Ibid., 97, 78, view on Zotero
- Milroy 2016, 109, view on Zotero. See also Westcott 1877, 441, view on Zotero; Moss 1998, 68, view on Zotero; Gleason 2002, 25–26, view on Zotero. William Hamilton’s nearby estate, The Woodlands, located just a couple of miles south of Penn’s home, also utilized glass doors and a portico to link interior space to the landscape. The portico at The Woodlands dates to the original house built there by Hamilton in circa 1770. Hamilton also made extensive renovations to the house between 1786 and 1789, which postdate the construction of The Solitude between 1784 and 1785.
- Gleason 2002, 93, view on Zotero. Penn’s “love for the picturesque landscape,” Gleason argues, “was awakened in the woods outside Spa [in Belgium],” which he had visited during the summer of 1782. Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 79, view on Zotero. Penn owned a copy of Mason’s The English Garden as well as other poems published by him in 1774. Ibid., 85. According to Gleason, Penn’s understanding of the picturesque may have also been shaped by the theoretical and practical texts of Arthur Young (1741–1820), Edmund Burke (1729–1797), and Philip Miller (1691–1771). Ibid., 85–86.
- While this plan is usually dated by scholars to c. 1784, Gleason provides convincing evidence that Penn may have commissioned the drawing in 1785. According to Penn’s accounts, Penn paid Nancarrow £15 on May 20, 1785, to survey the estate and produce a representation of the landscape plan. Ibid., 86, view on Zotero. Additionally, Penn also paid Nancarrow £49.4.6 on March 29, 1787, raising the possibility that Nancarrow produced this plan of the estate’s landscape after it had already been realized. Ibid., 86n160.
- The plan labels the property to the south of The Solitude as “Bolton’s Land.” According to the digital project “Mapping West Philadelphia: Landowners in October 1777,” this parcel of land was acquired by Joseph Bolton in 1772. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/WestPhila1777/map.php
- Gleason 2002, 89, view on Zotero; Therese O’Malley, “Landscape Gardening in the Early National Period,” in Views and Visions: American Landscape before 1830, ed. by Edward J. Nygren and Bruce Robertson (Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986), 143, view on Zotero.
- Milroy 2016, 109, view on Zotero.
- Gleason 2002, 89, view on Zotero.
- For the mansion redesign, Penn hired Robert Nasmith before eventually working with James Wyatt. Fergusson 1977, 46–48, view on Zotero.
- Ibid., 52–53, view on Zotero.
- Milroy 2016, 109, view on Zotero.
- Westcott 1877, 445, 447–448, view on Zotero
- Ibid., view on Zotero.
- Gleason 2002, view on Zotero.
- Samuel and Rebecca Shoemaker Diaries, vol. 2, p. 208, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; quoted in Gleason 2002, view on Zotero.
- Washington Papers, Founders Online, National Archives.
- Penn-Physick Manuscripts, vol. 1, p. 195, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; quoted in Gleason 2002, view on Zotero.
- Penn-Physick Correspondence, vol. 3, p. 254, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; quoted in Gleason 2002, view on Zotero.
- William Russell Birch, The Country Seats of the United States, ed. by Emily T. Cooperman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 58, view on Zotero.