Famed Bartram’s Garden, homestead of Philadelphia’s 18th century botanist John Bartram, is going through a renaissance today. The gardens are lushly planted and the main buildings restored. The parking lot is full on warm summer Saturdays. New bike trails connect this pastoral sanctuary to Center City and University City. The renovated barn offers programs for schoolchildren. After wandering through the botanical gardens–the nerve center of the Bartram family’s North American seed empire–visitors can rent kayaks and canoes at the river landing and paddle up and down the Schuylkill River. Picnickers relax under groves of old growth trees. A wildflower-bedecked walking path flows down to the river’s edge.
The whole ensemble is gloriously incongruous: a pristine and beautifully-maintained vestige of Philadelphia’s colonial era, hemmed in by housing projects, oil tanks, and railroad trestles. The shimmering glass-and-steel skyline of Center City looms in the distance, a dreamy reminder of the modern age.
What saved Bartram’s Gardens from destruction? A larger and even grander mansion, built with the very proceeds of 19th century industry that gobbled up much of the surrounding riverbanks. Andrew McCalla Eastwick (1806-1879) was a Philadelphia engineer credited with the invention of the steam shovel. As a partner in the firm of Harrison, Winans, and Eastwick, he made a tremendous fortune building railroads for Czar Nicholas I of Russia. In 1850, he purchased the 46-acre Bartram property from John Bartram’s granddaughter Ann Bartram Carr. Yet unlike many other rich men before and after him, he decided not to tear down the existing house on his property. Rather, he left modest Bartram family homestead alone as a museum piece, and built his own mansion off to one side. According to one report, he vowed not to harm “one bush” on the Bartram family compound.
Eastwick’s own house stood in stark contrast to the simple stone Quaker farmhouse lived in by three generations of Bartrams. Bartram Hall, completed in 1851, was the first major commission of architect Samuel Sloan, who went on to design the houses on Woodland Terrace and the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disease. Built the so-called Norman revival style, it cost $30,000 (over $2 million in modern currency), and rivaled the grand estates on New York’s Hudson River, boasting 34 rooms and surrounded by formal gardens. Its four-story tower and crenelated roofline rose high above the flowering Franklinia trees so lovingly cultivated by John Bartram. On warm summer nights, the rich industrialist’s family and houseguests could wander through the adjacent Bartram family homestead, kept just as America’s founding botanist knew it.
Yet even a man as rich as Andrew Eastwick couldn’t stem the tide of industry on the Schuylkill River. By the time of his death in 1879, his property was completely surrounded by factories, and the river befouled by pollution. Yet the Eastwick heirs resolved that their family home would not succumb to the same fate as the rest of the lower Schuylkill valley. In 1890, they deeded both Bartram Hall and Bartram’s Gardens to the city of Philadelphia for use as a public park. Sadly, only six years later, the grandiose and ponderous Bartram’s Hall caught fire and burned to the ground. Today, a pavilion sits on the site of the mansion. It is a popular site for weddings. A community garden serving Southwest Philadelphia flourishes nearby.
The original Bartram house and garden remain, a monument not just to America’s earliest botanist, but also to Andrew McCalla Eastwick, one of the founders of the American historic preservation movement.
“Bartram Hall, The Andrew M. Eastwick House, Philadelphia PA,” Picturesque Italianate Architecture, July 18, 2016. http://picturesqueitalianatearchitecture.blogspot.com/2016/07/bartram-hall-andrew-m-eastwick-house.html
Kenneth Hafertepe and James F. O’Gorman, eds. American Architects and Their Books, 1840-1915 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), p.114.