On the eve of the Great Depression a man and a woman got into a heated discussion in Philadelphia. No one was close enough to overhear, but from all indications they were arguing about a piece of property. The man, Fiske Kimball, was the impresario of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a zealous architectural historian. A lion-like force of nature, Kimball was eager to move the museum’s treasures into the new Parthenon-esque building on the Schuylkill River and acquire more objects for its vast spaces. It was the tail-end of the Roaring Twenties and he was prowling for pieces of history in places like Italy, France, Belgium, and Persia.
The woman, Lydia Thompson Morris, was the world-rambling doyenne of Pine Street in winters and Chestnut Hill in summers and owner of a thousand curios bought on grand tours with her brother John. Morris was a restive lady who could rightfully claim, “been there, done that.” Collecting was her passion, the by-product of her father’s industries in brewing and ironmongery. To many avid collectors in those days, curios were not merely things of beauty, they served a larger purpose. The same might be said of Morris’ miscellany and her civic work involved restoring Colonial-era buildings, installing monuments in Fairmount Park, and preserving the Wissahickon Creek.
Kimball had been obsessed with acquiring Renaissance relics once owned by Edmond Foulc at a cost of $1.5 million to be paid for with an unsecured bank loan. It would be repayable by enticing donors to fund individual items and enticing others to pay for structural items like floors, walls, and cabinets for the museum’s display rooms–cavernous spaces that Kimball would furnish with architectural period rooms. A 900-year “walk through time” was what he was aiming for. Then the stock market crashed.
As the nation plunged into the Great Depression, a different sort of crash was about to occur, and the epicenter was Morris’ summer place, Compton.
Ah, Compton. Designed in the Victorian Gothic Jacobean Norman style, it was a mansion of the moment. Typical of the architectural aberrations all over Philadelphia—conspicuous, rampant, loud—sneered a noted architectural critic in a journal editorial.
Kimball, who had co-authored a tome on the history of architecture, could very well think it a monstrosity. Being an outspoken academic, he wouldn’t have any problem calling Compton pseudo-classical, a sham, mimicry. How ironic—Morris’ world class collection of objet-d’art, housed in a conspicuous edifice.
Although her health was failing, Morris still took interest in her groves and gardens at Compton, with daily excursions around the grounds in her chauffeur-driven roadster. She likely instructed her attorney to keep all employees on payroll despite the dreadful unemployment situation.
Morris had a reputation for holding fast to commitments, opinions, and belongings. Then, periodically, she donated some of her belongings. So far, she had gifted more than $25,000 worth, enough to earn her a place on the short list of museum devotees. She was now 80 and, it was time to donate something else to Kimball–something far larger than previous belongings. Morris contacted Kimball and motored to the museum in her Pierce Arrow with two young women in tow.
Morris may have been frail, but she was known to be frank so she wouldn’t have wasted time introducing the topic. She and her brother had always intended to establish a school of botanical arts at Compton. The best way to make it happen was to give the estate—lock, stock, and manicured grounds—to Kimball’s museum.
Imagine Morris launching into well-thought-out details. The museum had a school of industrial art and a school of botanical arts would be a fitting complement. She would set up a foundation, bring in advisors—the Olmsted brothers and Professor Pond from Harvard where Kimball had taken two degrees. It would be a branch of the Pennsylvania Museum of Art with botanical gardens tended by students and their instructors.
Imagine what Kimball may have been thinking: Her most unfortunate house. Her most peculiar acquisitions. Her most curious gardens. What could the museum possibly do with a collection of 3,500 living things?
And picture Morris persuading Kimball that Compton was no ordinary property, but a spiritual place full of wonders, where people could linger and recall pleasant times. And was she recalling her collecting days, when she bought silk embroideries in India and jewelry in Norway and pottery in Italy? When she had a “mesmeric effect” on gentlemen aboard ship and they wrote her poetry and gave her flowers?
Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And although Kimball was well shy of the $15 million endowment he initiated the year before, and had more museum space than he could fill, Compton must have held no value in his eyes. An estate to which she would attach more strings than King David’s harp.
But someone else saw the value—Thomas S. Gates, President of the University of Pennsylvania. Gates had been courting Morris earnestly, with letters and phone calls and visits, maybe even gifts. In the end, she bequeathed the estate to her suitor.
Morris died at Compton January 24, 1932, the same weekend the nation celebrated the departure of “Old Man Depression” with parades and mock funerals. Into the hands of a university passed a mansion, loggia, fernery, greenhouses, fountains, ponds, a pair of swans, and a breath-taking array of lilacs and hollies, firs and beeches. Thus, Morris released her hold on inherited responsibility. Four days later, Gates told newspaper reporters the university intended to perpetuate Lydia’s plans.
Two academic departments—Botany and Landscaping—proposed their own interpretation of Morris’ proposal. Botany won. They purchased truckloads of expensive equipment and moved into the unfortunate house. The Chair of the Botany department, who took charge, stated that the house wasn’t seriously displeasing because it was screened by trees.
Out went centuries-old furnishings. In came desks and lab equipment. Genetics, climatic conditions, disease. It was all about plant science. And science can make such a mess of things. So much for mowing and weeding and deadheading, those labor-intensive tasks that used to swell the seasonal staff to 20 to maintain picture-perfect gardens that were “fragrant with bloom, rich in color, graceful in simplicity” as her brother once said. The union of estate and university was celebrated the following spring with hundreds of people milling about the grounds.
Kimball may have let Compton slip through his fingers, but he was not left empty-handed. According to newspaper reports, Morris’ bequest to the museum—some old family silver and antique furniture—was valued at $7,500. Precious little from an estate reportedly worth $4 million.
But there’s another kicker to this story. Morris stipulated that the Compton mansion be demolished after her death. No renovation, no expansion. Tear it down and erect a pavilion on the site, she informed her attorney in a separate letter. How unlike Morris to forsake something entrusted to her care. But nothing short of taking it down would satisfy her. Perhaps the house lacked honesty, restraint, usefulness—those inherited traits of her family.
Morris did not get her wish. 36 years later her attorney was still appealing to the Advisory Board to demolish the place. The University of Pennsylvania wished it otherwise. They needed the mansion for faculty offices, lecture rooms, a library, and laboratories.
Deferred maintenance is a game people play with buildings, a game of great injustice to a place that has provided shelter and auspice. The basement turns moldy, the boiler explodes, electricity shorts out. Patch this, mend that, but, after awhile, there are only two moves left: renovate it or demolish it. In 1968, after years of ill-treatment, Compton came to a violent end through the force of a blunt instrument.
Except for adornments deemed worthy of saving, the remains were dumped in a landfill across the Delaware River. Leaded glass, glazed brick, pilasters, and gargoyles were laid to rest at the homestead of James Whitall, who, curiously, was a long-departed relative of Morris. The benediction was pronounced by James’ wife, Ann Cooper Whitall, a devout friend, in her diary 200 years prior, “O our time our prescious time & we must leave it all … What are we so eger afer the world for.” To dust returned a house of no antiquity nor any heir.
And what if Kimball had accepted Morris’ offer? It would have been a major coup and the Compton mansion might still be standing, haughty and conspicuous, on one of the highest hills in Philadelphia, showplace for John and Lydia Morris’ small wonders of the world. But would there be a Morris Arboretum today?
Author’s note: This article was made possible with the assistance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives, the University Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Morris Arboretum Archives.