One of the first botanic gardens in the English colonies, Bartram’s Garden and the Bartram house provide a unique insight into the world of 18th century science. This setting also creates one of the few places where you can time travel and see an eighteenth century houses in a relatively untouched environment
Eighteenth century Philadelphia had more than its share of notable people, particularly in medicine and the sciences. Many factors helped, such as the founding of the colonies’ first hospital and a long tradition of science among Quakers (Quakers were very over-represented in the British Royal Society for example). Occupying the top of this list along with people like Franklin and Philip Syng Physick, were the father – son team of John (1699-1777) and William (1739-1823) Bartram.
The Bartrams explored the eastern colonies including Spanish held territories in present day Florida. They cataloged plants they found in their travels and brought back specimens for their estate. They also corresponded with other botanists and those interested in botany around the world. Carl Linnaeus, father of plant taxonomy, called John Bartram the “greatest natural botanist in the world”.
The house John built may incorporate an earlier Swedish farmhouse, but its overall form is a product of John’s efforts (literally since John did much of the work – including the stone work – himself).
Formally, it’s a curious blend of understated vernacular and formal Georgian design. On the side facing away from the river it looks like a vernacular farmhouse – the door is off center and though the windows on the first and second floor line up, they are relatively small and devoid of any decoration. The stonework is covered with a coat of stucco.
On the the other side of the house – facing the river – things are much different with a greater effort at formality and more decoration. Two bays of ashlar coursed stone (exposed here) are separated by a central bay defined by three tall thin Ionic columns. The stone side bays have large 9/9 windows flanked by decorative carved stone casings made by Bartram. The ground floor of the central bay is recessed providing a protected porch and four separate exterior doors to various portions of the house. The quirky, slightly rough-hewn, formality of this elevation is a unique experience.
The interiors are mostly original with period furnishings, some originally owned by Bartram – plain as one might expect from a Quaker scientist, but generously sized.
They are not to be missed. The house and surroundings, like Graeme Park, are one of the few places to experience an 18th century environment without too much of the modern world creeping in.
The multiple separate entrances would have allowed clients access to separate parts of the house from social visitors and family members and it wasn’t unusual to find separate entrances to take care of the business of an active farm operated from the family house. The grounds between the house and the Schuylkill (the means of access for many visitors originally) were modified and planted to create a variety of ecosystems – swampy areas, meadows etc. where plants could be displayed and making it one of the first botanic gardens in America.
Bartram got into the business of selling seeds and specimens. His shipments to Europe (dubbed Bartram Boxes) became much anticipated scientific events.