“There is nothing more conducive to the health of a populous city, than free circulation of air, and in this respect Philadelphia is pre-eminently fortunate.” These words appear in Philadelphia in 1830: or, A Brief Account of the Various Institutions and Public Objects in This Metropolis.
The guide book briefly describes the five public commons that William Penn incorporated into his plan for his “Greene County Towne”—namely, Penn (formerly Centre) Square, Washington (South East) Square, Franklin (North East) Square, Rittenhouse (South West) Square, and Logan (North West) Square. It also characterizes Independence Square as “enclosed by a substantial iron railing, and planted with trees; the walks are tastefully laid out and gravelled—it is thrown open to the public, and as a promenade, is a place of general resort.”
Philadelphia in 1830 was issued long before Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park had been conceived, so there’s no mention of the world’s greatest 19th Century city park. And the Philadelphia Zoo would not open until 1874 as the first zoo in America. Even the individual park spaces that today make up a good bit of Fairmount Park are not described, as they had not been established by 1830. In that era, of course, the Philadelphia was only two miles wide between South and Vine Streets and the settled portion extended westward to about Broad Street.
The booklet, however, does describe three privately-owned gardens west of Broad Street that could be enjoyed as “general resorts”—for a fee: McArran’s Garden, Smith’s Labyrinth Garden, and Sans Souci Garden. These were the big botanical resorts located in what is today the western part of Center City. They offered Philadelphians of the late-18th and early-19th Centuries a carefree and manicured respite, all pretty much in what was then the middle of no place. Before the city’s industrialization made Fairmount Park a necessity for personal health and to relieve the city of its harshness, these places were where regular folks, for a price, could spend some time in elegant outdoor surroundings.
Not only was the unsettled area west of Broad Street the location of such commercial pleasure gardens, but this zone was also where many orphan asylums, hospitals, insane asylums, almshouses and prisons were relegated. In other words, west of Broad was way out of town and thus out of the sight and mind of decent folks who lived, even in the 1830s, within just ten or twelve blocks from the Delaware River. You only dared west of Broad if you were passing through to locales farther west or if you had some unfortunate inmate to visit in one of those gloomy asylums.
Certainly, for a day of rest and recreation outside, Philadelphia’s growing urban population could head to one of William Penn’s city parks. But these were often undeveloped and not as decorous as they are today. Logan Square, for example, was used as a potter’s field and a setting for public hangings until 1825. A rural cemetery, such as Laurel Hill or any of the other out-of-town cemeteries, could surely provide Philadelphians with an environment that was peaceful (in more ways than one), but these burial grounds were often too far from the core of the city.
The better recourse would be to simply make your way past Broad Street for a day at one of the botanical gardens in that part of town. These amusement resorts—which served as the Philadelphia Zoo or Great Adventure of the day—were quasi-public places, some drawing attention to exotic species or particular styles of gardening, while others offered meals and forms of entertainment, such as music, fireworks, and balloon ascensions. Their greenhouses were stocked with exotics and the grounds were neatly laid out with flowers and fruit trees according to the English way of setting up formal gardens. Many were named after similar places in England and elsewhere. The proprietors knew how to lure people to their resorts.
McArran’s (or M’Aran’s) Garden was located between 17th and 18th Streets alongside Filbert Street (now JFK Boulevard). The four acre retreat, more or less on the site of the Comcast Center and the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, was handsomely laid out and offered a great variety of rare plants. The proprietor, John McArran, had collected and covered his premises with shade trees, greenhouses, and so on. The place was also known for its fine collection of birds; a bald eagle once lived on site.
A botanical gardener and purveyor of seeds as early as 1821, McArran had decorated the grounds of Lemon Hill for Henry Pratt. He specialized in giving his patrons strawberries and cream in the season. John McArran was also a land speculator in regard to his resort property, keen on ultimately making a profit from its sale. Signor Antonio Blitz, an accomplished 19th Century magician, performed at McArran’s Garden and later wrote:
I remember [McArran] taking me to look at a field of some acres planted with the trees, and his remarking that he had refused an offer of fifteen thousand dollars for them. I inquired what he expected to receive? He replied “Double that amount!” But his hopes failed for in a few days following, the bubble exploded and he not only lost all he had invested, but seriously involved himself.
Another nearby resort was Smith’s Labyrinth Garden, once between Cherry and Arch Streets and 15th and 16th Streets, about where the new Philadelphia Family Court Building has risen at 1501 Arch Street. This garden was established by one Daniel Engelman, a florist and nurseryman from Holland, who came to Philadelphia in 1759. Englishman Thomas Smith subsequently owned the tract and turned it into a place of amusement. Smith was known around Philadelphia for his accurate meteorological observations and record keeping.
The compilers of Philadelphia in 1830 describe Smith’s Labyrinth Garden as displaying “ingenuity,” meaning that this was indeed an irregular network of passageways that guests could plod their way through. They could even do this at night, for the resort was “usually illuminated [at] nights, and the visitors are entertained with instrumental music.”
In 1830, a curious feat was accomplished at the Labyrinth Garden. A man undertook a walk around the grounds as part of a $1000 bet that he could walk a thousand miles in eighteen days. The task was commenced by one Joshua Newsam on September 30th. The 27-year old fellow walked along a course within the Labyrinth while crowds came to see him, evidently paying for admittance and spending some time at the garden. (Thomas Smith encouraged this challenge because he had witnessed such feats earlier in his life and wanted to revive one of the manly exercises of England.) Starting at 6 am each day, Newsam walked in all weather and pushed out about sixty miles a day. Attributing a leg sprain to all the turns he had to make to stay on the course, Newsam nevertheless completed the exercise in eighteen days, having walked a thousand miles and never leaving Philadelphia. He did, however, lose fifteen pounds.
Sans Souci Garden was the largest for-profit botanical haven within the current-day confines of Center City. It boasted a fine hotel at which visitors were furnished with fruit from the garden greenhouses as part of their refreshments. Sans Souci (French: without worry) had been established in 1808 and remained in operation through the 1830s. The garden was respected for its botanical collection; a portion of William Hamilton’s private collection—developed at the Woodlands in West Philadelphia—wound up there.
Sans Souci occupied the entire city block between Arch and Race Streets and between 20th and 21st Streets, now the site of Center City housing and Saint Clement’s Episcopal Church. The resort was also immediately south of the Magdalene Asylum (a private charitable organization for the redemption of prostitutes) and the Pennsylvania Asylum for the Blind—illustrating how such institutions were established outside of the populated sectors of the city. (The Franklin Institute has occupied the block that contained these places since the 1930s.)
These three tranquil gardens were gone by the mid-1800s as the city grew. The land they occupied in the heart of town became much more valuable by then; housing was generally erected on these practically undefiled properties. Furthermore, the resorts gradually lost their appeal as other types of amusements came to the fore.
For-profit botanical gardens had been established in the surrounding districts of Northern Liberties, Southwark, and Moyamensing in the early 19th Century too. Buist’s Garden was on Lombard Street, near Tenth, and was run by nurseryman Robert Buist. He began the first commercial propagation and sale of poinsettias. Parker’s Garden was on Prime Street (Washington Avenue) beside Tenth Street had was handsomely laid out with arbors, gravel walks and so on.
Landreth’s Garden was on Federal Street near the Schuylkill, founded by David Landreth, who in the late 1700s established D. Landreth & Company, the first American commercial seed company. His son opened a store near Third and Chestnut Streets that sold plants and also started publication of the Floral Magazine and Botanical Repository, the first horticultural journal in America.
Gray’s Gardens, at the Lower Ferry over Schuylkill River, was one of the earliest such retreats in the region. All traffic to and from the South passed by this place since it was run by the family that held the ferry concession (and, later, floating bridge) at the spot. On top of being an objective for pleasure trips from town, Gray’s Gardens became a favorite place to welcome guests to Philadelphia. Citizen committees would meet important people there and accompany them to the city. George Washington repeatedly received civilities at what may be called the old gateway into Philadelphia.
Remarkably, Bartram’s Garden remains on the west bank of the Schuylkill to this day. In fact, Bartram’s once advertised that “railroad cars to Wilmington pass through the grounds and afford the means of reaching this delightful spot.”
Returning to what was to become Center City Philadelphia, there were several other cultivated open-air areas. The Lebanon Garden, notorious for its popular tavern, opened in 1815 at Tenth and South Streets and exhibited fireworks for years on the Fourth of July. Three blocks up on South Street, at Thirteenth Street, was Hibbert’s Garden, with its superb collection of dahlias and japonicas.
The Tivoli Garden, on the north side of Market Street between Thirteenth and Centre Square, first opened in 1813 as the Columbian Garden. Besides the other pleasure garden enticements, it offered a “summer theatre” for pantomimes and light acting, such that it eventually became a theatrical center of some importance. And from 1800 to 1818, Fouquett’s Garden, between Tenth and Eleventh and Arch and Race Streets, sold guests mead and ice cream.
The Lombardy Garden opened about 1800 on the west side of Centre Square, at Fifteenth and Market Streets. (This spot was the site of Broad Street Station and is now the revamped Dilworth Plaza.) The garden derived its name from a group of Lombardy poplars planted around there by William Hamilton when Centre Square was the location of the city’s first waterworks (long before City Hall came to be). The proprietor, one James Garner, provided breakfast and turtle soup for his patrons. Concerts, fireworks shows and circus-like exhibitions were held there amid the poplars and the serpentine gravel pathways. The Lombardy Garden apparently lasted until 1830, when it was reopened as Evans Garden. For six additional years, the First City Troop used the space for a place of assembly and singers at the Chestnut Street Theatre were heard there on summer evenings. The property was sold for residential development in 1836.
One of the last gardens opened was the Chinese Pagoda and Labyrinth Garden in 1828 on the rising ground northeast of where the Philadelphia Art Museum is today. The buildings were designed by John Haviland and the pagoda was 100 feet high, providing a splendid view of the Schuylkill River. Unfortunately, the roads to this resort from town were usually in bad condition, so the enterprise was not a success.
Parkinson’s Gardens was created on the north side of Chestnut Street west of Tenth Street. James Parkinson opened a high class restaurant and confectionery shop there in 1852 or 1853. Behind the eatery was a grand resort, with fine paved pathways, exotic trees, fountains, Grecian-style stone columns, lush flower beds, and arbors, all illuminated with jets of gas light atop lamp posts. Parkinson scheduled all sorts of events (concerts, musicals, operas, etc.) at his Gardens during the summer months. For example, in August of 1856, French aeronaut G.E. Godard and his wife ascended in a balloon from Parkinson’s Gardens. A live donkey was strapped to the carriage and Godard climbed out to sit on the animal, waving a flag. Mr. Godard repeated this feat often—without the donkey, but with other guests. As many as 800 people would watch.
Vauxhall Garden was perhaps the most celebrated pleasure ground in Philadelphia. The place went into operation in about 1814 on the city block between Walnut and Sansom and between Broad and Juniper Streets. The ground had been originally been owned by Colonel John Dunlap (of Revolutionary War fame) and David Claypoole (of the publishing firm of Dunlap & Claypoole). It was Dunlap who embellished the place with choice trees, flowers, and gravelled walks.
Named after London’s famed pleasure garden, Vauxhall also had a dancing-room large enough for balls, which must have helped make it the most fashionable of all Philadelphia’s pleasure gardens. Indeed, Vauxhall was touted as the most beautiful summer resort in the United States and visitors described it as “a little paradise.” Admission on days offering music was 50 cents, with 25 cents returned in the form of refreshments. Illuminated with “variegated lamps” at night, the venue featured fireworks, hot air balloon ascensions, and parachute leaps from those balloons. (The history of balloons in Philadelphia goes back centuries, long before the recently-destroyed/closed Zoo Balloon.)
On the evening of September 8, 1819, Vauxhall Garden was destroyed by a mob that took offense at a postponement in the presentation of a balloon ascension. (The balloon itself was ripped to shreds.) Much like the 1968 booing-of-Santa-Claus incident at Franklin Field, this riot was reported around the world. The place reopened as the Vauxhall Theater and persisted as a summer stage and open space for a number of years. The Marquis de Lafayette was feted there with a grand banquet in 1825. The elderly general was received at the entrance by one hundred little girls all dressed in white.
The theater was demolished in 1838 and Scottish millionaire James Dundas built the famed “Yellow Mansion” right at the intersection of Broad and Walnut. Designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, the great house was the scene of many of social events in Philadelphia. The mansion’s charming garden along the east side of Broad Street was actually part of the old Vauxhall Garden. President McKinley reviewed the troops from a grandstand in the garden during the 1898 Peace Jubilee celebrating the end of the Spanish American War.
A tall elm tree, said to be the oldest tree in the city, was next to the mansion alongside Walnut Street. Called the Great Elm Tree, this was a child of Great Treaty Elm at Shackamaxon and was probably planted there by John Dunlap, possibly even before the time of Vauxhall Garden.
The Dundas-Lippincott Mansion was torn down in the first decade of the 20th Century after being sold for $2,625,000 to New York real estate investors. Shops were then constructed on the site. Since 1928, the entire property has been occupied by the Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company Building, today known as the Wells Fargo Building.
It’s too bad that all of these money-making resorts are long gone. Then again, Bartram’s Garden is still around and can today give us the very same pleasure that the botanical gardens of the early 19th Century gave Philadelphians back then. Still, we sure could really use a nice garden in Center City, maybe with an ingenious labyrinth and leaps from hot air balloons.
About the author
Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.
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