Thursday, July 3, 2014

1784-1790 Gray's Gardens in Philadelphia - Samuel Vaughn & the art of the "natural" & very profitable garden



Detail of Gray's Gardens from the map "To The Citizens Of Philadelphia This New Plan Of The City And Its Environs Is respectfully dedicated By the Editor. 1802. P.C. Varle Geographer & Enginr. Del."  Joel T. Fry, Curator at Bartram's Garden (nearby on the banks of the Schuylkill River) shares that "the VarlĂ© map shows a faint outline of the walks through the pleasure garden—they aren’t very clear in your image, but show up better in uncolored versions of the 1796 and 1802 versions of the map."

George Gray (1725-1800) & his brother Robert owned an inn, tavern, gardens, ferry, & farm along the Schuylkill River just below the mouth of West Philadelphia's Mill Creek & a few miles southwest of Philadelphia's city borders.  A prominant patriot during & after the Revolution, George Gray was well-known in Philadelphia, as a member of the Committee of Safety in 1774; member of the Council of Safety on July 24th, 1776; Chairman of the Board of War of Philadelphia in 1777; member of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly & its Speaker in 1783; & member of the Constitutional Convention in 1789.


View of the City of Philadelphia from across the Schuylkill. Gilbert Fox (American, b. England, 1776–c 1806), after John Joseph Holland (American, b. England, ca. 1776–1820)

The father of the owners, George Gray (1693-1747/48) had purchased 199 acres of land on both sides of the river in present-day West Philadelphia & South Philadelphia.  The land lay near the "Lower Ferry," one of 3 across the Schuylkill. The elder Gray took over operation of the ferry, which came to be known as Gray's Ferry.  In 1749, George Gray's widow, Mary requested payment for services rendered to the British Crown by the operations of the ferry on the Lower Schuylkill River. In the Votes of the Pennsylvania Assembly, the Widow Gray stated that her husband had paid 1150 British Pounds for the ferry & surrounding lands.


Joel T. Fry, Curator at Bartram's Garden, shared this image of Gray's Ferry, stating, “View of Philada. from the Hill above Gray's Ferry. Drawn on the spot by J. P. Malcom, ca. 1792.” ..."This view is looking roughly northeast from modern 49th and Woodland Ave. down Grays Ferry Avenue. The upper part of the inn and cluster of buildings is clearly recognizable. In this view the land fenced on the left is the Gray property."

In June 1775, George Washington was honored at a dinner at the inn & tavern shortly after he was appointed commander-in-chief by Congress. He was joined by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, & Benjamin Rush. During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, delegates George Washington, James Madison, Manasseh Cutler, & Alexander Hamilton are recorded visiting the inn.


George Washington by Robert Edge Pine (British-born painter, 1730–1788) Around 1784, Pine traveled to America & settled in Philadelphia, where he died.


Joel T. Fry, Curator at Bartram's Garden, shared this image of Gray's Ferry, noting, "An East View of Grays' Ferry," 1787. Engraving by James Trenchard of drawing by Charles Willson Peale. Originally appear in Columbian Magazine (Aug. 1787). [C. W. Peale and His World, 1982, p. 96] This same view was altered to add the arches and decorations from the reception April 20, 1789 for Washington on the way to inauguration, and issued in the Columbian Magazine (May 1789).

Gray's Ferry was always regarded as the most important entrance to the City. It was the perfect location for a public pleasure garden.  It was the outlet for the King's Highway from Chester, Wilmington, & the South.  Visiting English merchant Samuel Vaughn (1720–1803) drew a plan for the owners to transform some of Gray's property into a pleasure garden. Vaughn drew the plan & hired a gardener & 10 laborers to carry it out. Vaughn, was only in the US from 1783-1787, but his design for Gray's garden became a reality.


Samuel Vaughn 1720-1802 by Robert Edge Pine (British-born painter, 1730–1788)  Around 1784, Pine traveled to America & settled in Philadelphia.

In her 1949 article on Samuel Vaughn, Sarah P Stetson wrote of the development of Gray's Gardens.

"There was one other piece of landscape planning done by Vaughan during this period, the grounds at Gray's Ferry. There had been an inn at this ferry for many years, but no great attempt at beautifying the grounds had been attempted. Vaughan, always fond of natural, picturesque beauty, was charmed with the possibilities there, and made a bargain with the young man who had recently purchased it. The location itself was excellent; properly "embellished," he suggested, the grounds would be such a drawing card that all Philadelphia would flock there. The patronage at the inn would pay in a very short time for any money spent on trees and shrubs. He himself, he promised, would make the plan, and would secure a gardener to do the work.

"Everything went as anticipated. The gardener arrived, the place was laid out, ten laborers spent their time in making the effects and in caring for the plantings of this Romantic park. The aim was "the bounty of Nature without the aid of human care," although the very employment of ten laborers hardly justified the phrase. Delighted visitors called it fairyland, enchanted grounds; Manasseh Cutler's very complete account mentioned that "there is every variety that imagination can conceive, but the whole improved and embellished by art, and yet the art so blended with nature as hardly to be distinguished, and seems to be only an handmaid to her operations." This definition of art seems rather of artifice than of inspiration, for further along in his description he mentions benches and tables designed for hundreds of people as the "only works of art" present in that particular spot.

"There was a steep, rocky bank behind the tavern; here steps were cut into the rock itself, steps leading to an open grassplot at the top. Nearby was a greenhouse filled with pineapples, oranges, lemons and a variety of striking tropical flowers. From this point the garden proper began, with a series of steeply winding paths, flower-edged, shrub-lined, no two alike-all as designedly crooked as it was possible to construct, although most carefully intended to appear absolutely natural. On every side flowers were strewed "in a most artless manner," the winding  took every advantage of a naturally steep slope to twist and turn in studiously "unstudied" fashion. Even the views, at certain well-chosen spots, were made to appear casually introduced. One in particular which showed in the far distance three high-arched Chinese bridges, carved and painted most romantically, could be seen only through  a pattern of leaves and branches in a nearby tree.

"The visitor was guided along these seemingly aimless wanderings down into a thickly wooded valley crossed by a tiny brook. Full advantage was taken of this cover to make a regular maze of the area, the path twisting and turning until all sense of distance and direction was lost. There was, however, a very definite objective: the path was blocked at last by a low, peculiarly shaped building, a building which no well-informed eighteenth century visitor could possibly have taken for anything but a hermitage. It stood directly over the brook, a location which might well rouse doubts as to the healthful­ ness of the site for even the most retiring and misanthropic of her­ mits. But according to the dictates of Romantic gardening, the loca­ tion was entirely appropriate. No "inhabitant" was present except one of wax or plaster-an effigy-placed there merely to carry out the effect.

"The fantastic idea responsible for the erection of such anachronistic structures was "picturesqueness" -the hermitage made a fitting climax for a wild scene, it emphasized the solitude of the place, and directed the attention of the passer-by to the desirability of medita­tion and the contemplation of nature. This particular building was also put tidily to a more practical use. When the door, a door pur­ posely large and heavy and provided with rusty hinges, opened with the proper dismal squeak, a prosaic bathhouse was disclosed. The peculiarity of the site was then evident; the nearness of the stream was necessary.  The same sham wildness and remoteness  was carried out in the rest of the grounds as well.  There were grottoes in the rocky cliff, grottoes half-concealed by shrubs and branches,  entered  only  after a kind of labyrinth of planting had been followed.  These were but convenient resting places, necessary for the fatigue which might well follow both the distance covered and a mind worn out with so plentiful a dose of undiluted Romanticism.

"Vaughan was completely right in his prophecies; curious visitors flocked to Gray's Ferry. It became the fashion, and Philadelphians came not only to note the progress in the work, but to gaze at such dignitaries as Washington and the Federal Convention members who went to see the "great improvements." While a few might complain that the grottoes were unfinished and the hermitage not properly aged, all admired the style and were comfortably impressed."  Sarah P Stetson


Joel T. Fry, Curator at Bartram's Garden, shared this image of Gray's Ferry, explaining, Landscape view of Gray's Ferry from east bank looking across floating bridge at ferryhouse, inn and greenhouse. oil by William Groombridge. ca. 1793-1800.



Manasseh Cutler 1742-1823, Yale & Harvard educated Massachusetts merchant, attorney, physician, & clergyman who served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War. Also interested in botany, in 1785, he published an essay titled "An Account of Some of the Vegetable Productions Naturally Growing in this Part of America, Botanically Arranged"

Manasseh Cutler visited Gray's Gardens in 1787. "There we were entertained with scenes romantic and delightful beyond the power of description...serpentine gravel walks...the Greenhouse is a very large stone building, three storeys in the front and two in the rear, windows are enormous...some twenty feet in length, and proportionably wide, (the boxes behind the greenhouse) are handsomely furnished. On top of the house is a spacious walk, where we had a delightful view of the city of Philadelphia...most of the trees and fruits that grow in the hottest climates. Oranges, lemons...pineapples in bloom... (gardens) in a number of detached areas, all different in size and form. The alleys were none of them straight, nor were there any two alike. At every end, side, and corner, there were summer-houses, arbours covered with vines or flowers, or shady bowers encircled with trees and flowering shrubs, each of which was formed in a different taste. In the borders were arranged every kind of flower...three arched bridges...built in the Chinese style; the rails on the sides open work of various figures and beautifully painted...one of the finest cascades in America falls about seventy feet perpendicular. Grottoes wrought out of the sides of ledges of rocks...a curious labyrinth with numerous windings...a spacious summer-house... The roof was in the Chinese form. It was surrounded with rails of open work, and a beautiful winding staircase led up to it During the whole of this romantic rural scene, I fancied myself on enchanted ground."


Joel T. Fry, Curator at Bartram's Garden, shared this image of Gray's Ferry, writing, “The Lower Bridge on Schuylkill at Gray’s Ferry 5 [Octo]ber 1816” Captain Joshua Rowley Watson [Kathleen A. Foster, "Captain Watson's Travels in America," color plate 9] This shows the ferryhouse, the floating bridge, and steps on the right that lead up to the Dr. Benjamin Say house “The Cliffs.”


Description of Gray's Gardens, Pennsylvania, Extracted from a Letter To A Friend.  Philadelphia, June 24, 1790. "...a jaunt to the Scbuylkill Gardens... It is a beautiful level plain, and on either hand lawns and groves, fields-of grain and interjacent meadows, delightfully variegate the scene. Only four miles from Philadelphia, on the road to Maryland, lies our present goal. To do justice to these gardens is beyond my power; to sketch them, then, shall be the height of my ambition. Four miles, as I said, from Philadelphia, uponarloating bridge, we crossed the Scbuylkill-— upon the banks of which riseth the pretty rural seat of a Mr. Hamilton; up from the view which then presents it Gray's Ferry, as it is commonly called, we are induced to hope but little. It is true, the dwelling immediately attained hath a thrifty appearance, but it promises nothing beyond what, from a decent tavern, we might reasonably expect. This, however, is only the house in which preparation is made for the guests, and ascending a flight of steps, which open upon the right, and which, with much industry, are shaped out of the solid rock, we find ourselves in a gravel walk, firm, and neatly rolled, and bordered on each side by the beauifully shorn grass.

"A view of the banqueting-house then unexpectedly breaks upon us. The banqueting-house riseth upon the left hand; it is an elegant building, formed of hewn, stone, and the centre of its front presents a superb orchestra, supported by white columns, sufficiently ample, and ornamented by a fine portrait of the immortal Handel. The whole of the lower story of the house is thrown into two rooms; the one, a spacious hall, elegantly finished, the chimnies of rich American marble, highly polished, and the hall is conveniently furnished for the reception of company. Its form is oblong, and from the centre of its ceiling is suspended, that very identical civic crown which the Philadelphian youth, representing a messenger from the 
celestial world, so unexpectedly produced over the head of our beloved President, when, crossing the beforementioned bridge, he was palling on his way to take his seat at the head of Government. By a well-finished staircase in the hall we ascend to the upper apartments— which apartments are neat and commodious. The other room, upon the ground story, is known bythe name of the Green Room, and when the wintry blasts are abroad, it is a receptacle for the exotics, which form, in rows of painted inclosures, marshalled in the exactest order, take their ranks. The back part of this room is pierced with large openings, supplied with glass of a prodigious size, and they are eleven panes deep: indeed, the windows, with a very little interruption, constitute the whole of this side of the building; and by the aid of stoves, a due proportion of heat is, during, the frigid season, preserved. We will now, my sweet friend, if you please, step back to the first entrance pf the gardens. Upon the left, you will remember, is this neat stone edifice, and upon the right rises.a well-fancied white palliiade, lifting itself upon a bank, the skirt of which is washed by the Schuylkill. 

"Several gravel walks present—the left leading to the house. We ascend the...five easy steps in the first, and ten in the second, produces us in the area exactly before the door, and we then command a full view of a romantic summer house, in the front of which is a whole length transparent picture of Columbia's illustrious Chief—Fame is crowning him with the laurel—the picture is as large as the lire, and the likeness, it is laid, is happily preserved.


"Underneath this summerhouse is an ice house, convenient and well-planned; and upon the right of this building is an oblong section of the garden, prettily enclosed, which is chiefly devoted to exotics. There, in high perfection, flourish whole rows of lemon trees, and the orange tree, also, only wants the ripening influence of the advancing season to attain their fullest growth and richest pulp. The fruit upon the almond tree is completely formed: this too needs the potent aid of that heat, which the intensce rays of July and August will yield, to crown it with maturity. The pomegranate is now in full blossom...a superb scarlet, of a beautiful texture.


"Among the variety of plants found in this inclosure, is the numerous family of the aloes, and no less than thirty different species of the geranium; also the sensitive plant, fly trap, &c. Upon the grass plats, loose seats are thrown up and down, and tall trees of an umbrageous foliage form an ample shade. The serpentine gravel walks, which are irregularly regular, seem to point different ways ; they, however, terminate in one object. If we proceed straight forward, we pass through an elegant arched gate, which stems to be guarded by the figure of a satyr, extremely well painted. But this, as well as all the smaller avenues, alike produces us in the wilderness, into which we enter, passing over a neat Chinese bridge, preparing with much 
pleasure to penetrate a recess so charming. It is, indeed, a wilderness of sweets, and the views instantly become romantically enchanting, the scene...every moment Changing. Now side long bends the path; then pursues its winding way: now in astratght line; then in a pleasing labyrinth is lost, until, in every possible direction, it breaketh upon us, amid thick groves of pines, walnuts, chesnuts, mulberries, &c. we seem to ramble, while, at the same time, we are surprised by borders of the richest and most highly cultivated flowers, in the greatest variety, which even from a royal parterre we might be led to expect.

"Every gale comes forward loaded with perfumes, and by doriferous breezes we are momently fanned. In the flower borders, the silver pine, the turin poplar, bay tree, and a variety of ever-greens, are judiciously interspersed. By the bounteous hand of Nature the scene is apparently moulded, though we cannot admit the deception as to exclude from our idea het handmaid Art. On one hand, the lovely valley, richly shaded, is fancifully adorned, the mountain laurel condescending to flourish there—and on the other, grass-grown mounds variegate the view—here, the excavated cavern gives a degree of wildness to the prospect and there, the tall woods, witb their enfolding branches, insensibly disposeth the mind to all the 
pleasure of contemplation ; while the bending river, breaking through the trees, largely contributes to beautify the whole. Suddenly, however, an open plain is outspread before us, and we are presented with a pleasing horizon—but as suddenly, thick trees again intervene, until, at the extremity of the walks, a mill and a beautiful natural cascade terminates the prospect.

"At every turn shaded seats are artfully contrived, and the ground abounds with arbours, alcoves, and summer houses, which are handsomely adorned with odoriferous flowers. Among theft the little federal temple claims the principal regard. It is the very edifice that, upon the celebration of the ratification of the constitution, was carried in triumphant procession through the streets of this metropolis; and, upon a gentle acclivity, unou the summit of a green mound in fixed, it hath now obtained a base. It is a rotunda; its cupola is supported by thirteen pillars handsomely tinted; their base is to receive the cypher of the several States, which they represent, with a star upon every capital, and its top is crowned with the figure of plenty, gralping the cornucopia and other insignia.


"The ascent to this temple is easy, and we gain it by semicircular steps neatly turfed, and the view therefrom is truly interesting. Before us is the lawn beautifully shorn further on is the Schuylkill, variegated by interjacent points of land, which so far extend their verdant angles, as to deceive the eye by an appearance of parallel rivers; and beyond is an advantageous prospect of the city of Philadelphia. Upon the left, the country is in a very high state of cultivation, and at present, in its most becoming garb, is luxuriantly displayed, to which the background exhibits a counterpart and the prospect in this direction is terminated by tall thick woods.


"On the right opens the extensive meanderings of the Schuylkill, with a sketch of the waters of the Delaware, and a most pleasing view of the Jersey shore. But to give a regular description I should have wrote upon the spot; my memory is not tenacious, so we will, my sweet friend, note beauties as they occur, rather than confine ourselves to that method, which, however, we would gladly attain.


"The federal ship is now moored in the Schuylkill—it is a well-constructed miniature, and is, upon the evening of exhibition, no small addition to the beauty of the scene. I was much pleased with a little building, which romantically makes its appearance upon a living spring, where every kind of pavilion, through the intense heat of summer, is preserved equally cool as in the depth of winter. To give a list of the variety of plants, flowers, and fruits, which yield their aid to beautify and regale, I ought to have passed whole days in the gardens. In judiciously fanciful arrangements they are displayed, and they are effectually guarded by a brass tablet, which at every turn, elevated upon a small pillar, respectfully requests Ladies and 
Gentlemen, walking over the grounds, not to injure the trees, shrubs, and flowers, as the wish is to preserve and beautify the collection.

"The whole improvements, including the kitchen garden, contains about ten acres of ground, and every Tuesday and Saturday evening, these gardens are splendidly illuminated, by no less than five and twenty hundred lamps. The illuminations abound with imagery, stars, festoons, pyramids, &c. But the manner of this display is constantly varying, and the lamps, among the trees are so artfully disposed; as to render a discovery by what means they are suspended impossible, and we are almost ready to conclude the whole the effect of magic. The illumination of the cascade, mill, the federal ship, and the transparent picture of his Excellency, upon the evening which we passed there, had a particularly fine effect; and a display of fire works from the federal ship added much to the grandeur of the view. On board of this sliip, also, we heard The topsail...in the wind melodiously and exquisitely performed.


"Admittance into these gardens, upon public days, is by a ticket, for which three-sixteenths of a dollar is demanded, and we then take our seats in the banquetting -house, in any of the summer-houses, arbours, or loose seats, or walk over the ground at pleasure. Whatever we wish, in the greatest variety which the season will afford, is immediately furnished; the liquors are all iced, and the little prints of butter are served up, neatly decorated with this transparent, and at this season very agreeable substance. All this, however, is a separate expence; yet it is moderate, and the tea, coffee, sugar, bread, and butter are of the best quality.


"We requested some fruit, and were given our choice os mulberries, strawberries, cherries, oranges, or pine apples. The waiters are habited like gentlemen, and seem to possess all that kind of attentive alacrity which I have heard attributed to European servants. The company often order their collation to the loose seats, arbours, or summer-houses. To prevent confusion, if we wish to pass out by the flight of stone steps mentioned in the beginning of this account, we receive from the porter a ticket gratis, which we return upon our re-entrance. Persons are often induced to pass this arched and foliage-crowned gate, to ascend by means of a winding rock, shaped by Nature into commodious steps, a lofty eminence which commands a delightful view of the country.


"Any one making a decent appearance may enjoy the pleasure of walking in these gardens, free of all expence, upon any day, Tuesdays and Saturdays excepted.


"Upon the evening of these public days, a concert of vocal and instrumental music is performed; and these convivial seasons, I am told, often produce in the gardens as many as a thousand votaries of taste. The walks, however, were not so crouded upon the evening which we most delightfully enjoyed in that terrestrial paradise. Much well-dressed company was nevertheless there; and as I marked the different parties pursuing the various paths, as inclination led, apparently unconnected with, and inattentive to the surrounding circles; as I saw this, and as I listened to the sounds wafted from the orchestra, I declare I almost fancied myself in Say's Elysian fields.

"Amid these walks, upon a most divine morning, your Constantia and her friend, after taking a most delicious breakfast at Gray's, of fruit and hyson, tea, have contemplatingly wandered the branches of the trees were then filled with the woodland songsters and we were at the liberty to make the comparison between those pleasure derived from atificial lights and crowded scene, and those which are reaped from the retirement of rural haunts, the music of the grove and the influence of yonder orb, that universal enlivener of naqture. The Schuylkill Gardens have been called the American Vauxhall. They are certainly a little Eden, for which Nature hath done every thing, and then are considerably improved by art.


"Great merit is undoubtely due to Mr Gray, and he is decidedly a man of taste, he is daily making improvements, and he receives with grateful candour every jucicious suggestion. Harrowgate we visited previous to our view of this charming recess; it certaily will not admit of a comparison therewith--yet the medicial springs and commodious adjoining bathing houses, will secure for Harrowgate a share of attention...Constantia."



Schuylkill River at Gray’s Ferry, by P. Clark, ca. 1835.  This painting depicts Gray's Garden (also known as Gray's Inn, Gray's Tavern, and Kochersperger's Hotel) on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in what is now West Philadelphia. The resort area, a favorite of delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, was located near Gray's Ferry, the primary crossing for travelers approaching or departing Philadelphia to the south.


Joel T. Fry, Curator at Bartram's Garden, shared this photo of Gray's Ferry, explaining, "Robert Newell photograph, ca. 1868 “Ruins of Mr. George Grays old residence at Grays Ferry, 1868.” [private collection, there are prints of this at the Library Company of Philadelphia] This is most likely the Grays Ferry Inn from the peak period of the garden. It appears on the VarlĂ© map higher up the hill."


My sincere thanks & gratitude to Joel T. Fry, without whom this posting would not only be incomplete, but would be presenting incorrect images.  He has studied this area of Philadelphia for years.  You may contact him at Joel T. Fry, Curator, Bartram's Garden, 54th Street & Lindbergh Blvd, Philadelphia, PA  19143 e-mail: jfry@bartramsgarden.org web: http://www.bartramsgarden.org

Stetson, Sarah P. "The Philadelphia Sojourn of Samuel Vaughan." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 73, no. 4 (October 1949): 459-474. 

Cutler, William Parker and Julia Perkins Cutler, eds. Life, Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, L.L.D. Vol. I. Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1888.

The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 39. Philological Society of London,  1801.


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