One of New York City's busiest early 19th century pleasure gardens had its beginning as a botanical & medicinal garden. Swiss physician, Jacob Sperry settled in New York in 1748 and purchased pasture land (now Lafayette & Astor Place), where he grew flowers & hothouse plants. Visitors found Sperry's gardens to be a charming destination for a weekend stroll.
Dr. Sperry sold his gardens in 1804 to John Jacob Astor, who then leased the property to a Frenchman named Delacroix. Delacroix, who had a small public pleasure garden and was looking to expand, transformed Dr. Sperry's horticultural specimen property into a fashionable new Vauxhall Garden, where New Yorkers could eat, drink, socialize, and be entertained by band music and, in the evenings, by fireworks and theatrical events.
Delacroix's new Vauxhall Garden's days were numbered, however. With real estate values soaring on nearby Bond, Bleecker, & Great Jones streets, when Delacroix's lease was up in 1825, Astor cut a broad street through his property to create Lafayette Place, reducing the garden entrepeneur's grounds to half its original size.
Some commercial pleasure gardens began as nursery gardens. In Philadelphia, John McAran, gardener for William Hamilton at Woodlands (now Woodlands cemetery) for 7 years, laid out & improved Lemon Hill for Henry Pratt. He entered into partnership with Thomas Birch, a gardener, who had a garden on Race street between Schuylkill Second & Schuylkill Third streets. They remained together until 1822.
McAran then established a very fine nursery & pleasure garden on the lot bounded by Filbert, Arch, Schuylkill Fifth (18th) and Schuylkill Sixth (17th) streets. Visitors could purchase ice cream, strawberries, & refreshments, while strolling through the grounds and watching fireworks. McAran built a large conservatory, had long spacious hot-houses, and the outdoor flower beds & gardens were fitted up in good taste. With an occasional exhibition of a rare exotic, and illuminations with colored lamps on gala occasions, the place commanded a large, profitable attendance. The garden contained about four acres. McAran provided an aviary for a collection of living birds and a menagerie of unusual animals for his guest's enjoyment.
In 1840 the McAran's Philadelphia pleasure garden was transformed into a concert garden & vaudeville theatre, and fireworks were exhibited there. One of the representations, the eruption of Mount Vesuvins, never failed to attract a large attendance.
Owners of several public pleasure gardens reversed the process and transformed their grounds into public botanical gardens at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Until 1805, Riffaud's Gardens at Norfolk, Virginia, served ice creams and refreshments while guests enjoyed musical concerts & strolled through the grounds. In 1805 a new direction was proposed. "A Botanical Garden, containing specimens of all the vegetable productions of this country, and furnished with green-houses, for all such exotick and rare plants, as may be procured from abroad" was to replace the evening libations and promenades. "A cabinet of Natural Curiosities, composed of indigenous and exotic Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, Shells, Minerals...scientifically classed and arranged, according to their various classes, orders, genra and species; and finally of a menage of all kinds of living Animals, Birds, Reptiles." was also proposed for the public pleasure garden.
In New York City between 1802-1806, Elgin Garden, one of the first public botanical gardens in the United States, was established on 20 acres, then far north of the city, approximately in the area now occupied by Rockefeller Center. Open to students & the public, it was founded by David Hosack, Professor of Botany and Materia Medica at Columbia College, to provide plants for medical students to study.
c 1806-11 View of the botanic garden at Elgin in the vicinity of the City of New York
Dr. Hosack, a prominent physician as well as a botanist and mineralogist, founded the garden, and sold it to the State of New York in 1810. The state granted the 14-acre site to Columbia College 4 years later, and it became known as the Columbia Upper Estate. After acquiring the property, John D. Rockefeller financed the development of the large scale building complex there that was officially named Rockefeller Center in 1932.
In 1807, the collections of "rare and valuable exotics" at the similar public "Botanick Garden of South Carolina" in Charleston, South Carolina, were growing. Promoters explained that "An opportunity is now offered to the lovers of science, to acquire a knowledge of the most beautiful and interesting of the works of nature. The Florist may be gratified with viewing the productions of the remotest clime, and the Medical Botanist with objects of his study." The Medical Society of South Carolina accepted subscriptions from the public to become members of the Garden. Members had the priviledge not only enjoying the garden; but also, of taking small quantities of rare medicinal herbs, when they could not be found at local drug counters.