Stenton's Cultural Landscape, Part 11: 1899 - 1913

 

In December 1899, the Logan heirs signed a lease giving the Dames a ten-year term as custodians of Stenton. The terms of the lease – that the Dames should pay the back taxes on the property, and paint, repair, and put the house in good condition – give a fair idea of the equally dilapidated condition of the grounds, though the lease did not require this attention. However, in 1901, “the committee undertook to replace some of the beautiful old trees which were formerly around the house at Stenton” which had died from old age or neglect – also to have the garden restored to its original condition so far as could be done by following the suggestions of Miss [Maria] Logan and others who remembered it in former days”

 

It is quite typical of the period that it was thought feasible to “restore” the garden “to its original condition” using only the recollection of a family member who had never known this hypothetical garden in the eighteenth century. It was assumed that Stenton had had a garden to restore, and that it was important to restore it.

 

These first years were difficult; water had to be pumped by hand, the boundaries were undefined, and “many plants were taken away by trespassers, peonies and roses among them, as well as countless young perennials.” After the City purchased the property in 1909, a garden committee was formed with a Logan descendant, Letitia Ellicott (Mrs. William Redwood) Wright as Chairman, starting a period of careful record-keeping that lasted until her resignation in 1917. While Mary Chew may have saved Stenton, Letitia Wright created its garden.

 

Another Logan descendant, John Caspar Wistar, who had just completed an undergraduate degree at the Harvard School of Landscape Architecture, was Wright’s important collaborator. In drawing up the overall plan for the property, he indicated “a suitable spot for a garden. . . which should contain wide grass walks & Box borders & old-fashioned flowers.” Much later, he noted that his part “was to design the garden. . . to hitch in with the house in the manner of the colonial days, for there was no record as to what had been where. I had nothing to do with planting the garden. My cousin, Mrs. Wright, worked very hard on this and had long lists of plants taken from James Logan’s correspondence”. Mrs. Wright’s article “The Colonial Garden at Stenton Described in Old Letters” shows that her notions on appropriate plant material for her garden “restoration” were based on extensive and careful research to which she brought a sophisticated level of interpretation. Her reconstruction approach was conceived and articulated clearly, even if it was not adhered to strictly in practice.

By the spring of 1911, Mrs. Wright could present Wister’s scheme for the perimeter planting and the geometric outline of the garden, and also a sketch plan with notations in an unknown hand suggesting a Jekyllesque color scheme. She also presented a hefty budget estimate of $787.80, soon reduced by $228.00 for “box for bordering beds” by seeking cuttings from Mt. Vernon.

She was given approval to proceed and work began the same month; the garden area was ploughed and manured, beds were laid out and edged with boards, a deep ash foundation was set for the paths between the beds, and the brick walks were laid. The foundation of an old wall was found and rebuilt upon, and seeds of annuals were sown.

Other Logan heirs were consulted, and agreed “that the old garden, originally comprising two acres, was placed exactly where we are now laying it out.” Pipes at last brought water to the garden from a hydrant in the park. All this in time for Mayor Raeburn to hold a national city-planning meeting at Stenton on May 15. The eminent Frederick Law Olmsted “expressed himself as finding the garden perfectly charming, and only suggested that the pyrus japonica might be removed, as it was not a colonial plant.” Despite the scholarly rhetoric of Mary Chew and Letitia Wright, it seems that the plant material being placed in the new garden did not always strictly adhere to the Logans’ 18th century purchases. This is also true of Wister’s “Box borders”, never recorded at Stenton previously.

 

Mrs. Wright continued to refine and focus her research into useful lists of plants actually purchased for Stenton, drawing more from William Logan’s extensive orders after 1750, than from her more generalized observations of plants available in the 18th century found in “The Colonial Garden at Stenton Described in Old Letters.”

 

The lists themselves reveal the interpretive latitude that they gave the committee. While some of the plants listed are clearly identified by complete botanic name (betula nigra, for example) others are simply listed by species (“salix – several sorts”) and some only by contemporary common name. The last is particularly true of the flowers that were to go into the new garden. This lack of specificity clearly allowed the Garden Committee to order plants that they thought appropriately “old-fashioned”. The Committee ordered and planted a variety of roses, perennials, annuals, and bulbs, most of which corresponded to items on the Logan lists, and focused especially on tulips.

 

Perhaps the high point of Stenton’s re-created “Colonial Garden” was the meeting of the several garden clubs on May 1, 1913 at which the Garden Club of America was founded, with Elizabeth Martin, a Stenton Committee member, elected its first President.

After 1913, Letitia Wright was clearly receding from her role in the garden; her garden scrapbook ends in 1913 with summary lists of plantings. By the fall of 1914 she is no longer making many, if any, of the entries in the Garden Committee Minute Book. Her committee continued actively, and were particularly ambitious in their fall planting of tulips. There are no Minute Book entries for 1915, and no significant changes or additions noted in 1916 the final year. Except for 650 sweet alyssum plants, the bloom came from established perennials. Since 1917, when John Wister’s screen planting was completed, there have been no new gardens at Stenton on the scale of 1911-13. The grounds today reflect the endurance of the essential features of that garden, thanks to the maintenance and renewal efforts that have been undertaken periodically by dedicated and long-serving (and -suffering) Garden Chairmen.

It is Letitia Wright’s established perennial garden of 1913, like hers supplemented with annuals, that we have been most recently been trying to restore at Stenton. In this, its fifth-year, it is approaching the ordered beauty our predecessors achieved under very different circumstances ninety years ago. In outlook and execution, hers epitomizes the Colonial Revival, while ours will be an abbreviated reflection of it.