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Letter From Philadelphia

City Garden

The unlikely preservation of thousands of years of history in a modern urban oasis

May/June 2014



A short trolley ride southwest from Philadelphia’s Center City, on a gentle curve in the Schuylkill River, lies a bucolic spread of land incongruously situated within a shabby urban neighborhood. In the shadow of an eclectic eighteenth-century Georgian-style stone house, there is a sprawling garden and, beyond, a meadow, rolling green hills, woods, mudflats, and wetlands. The urban skyline is distant but visible through clearings in the trees. In the spring, trillium, azaleas, and bottlebrush buckeye bloom, followed by evening primrose and passionflower in summer. Called Bartram’s Garden, it is the oldest surviving botanical garden in the United States, and was created in 1728 by John Bartram, a Quaker farmer and self-taught botanist who combed the eastern United States collecting plants and seeds. For a century, well-to-do Philadelphians traveled to Bartram’s Garden to buy orchids, peonies, and gardenias for their greenhouses and gardens, as well as cut blossoms for their homes. Bartram and his family operated the garden for decades and—without necessarily knowing it—spared thousands of years of history from being overrun by a spreading metropolis.


The 45-acre site, which is a National Historic Landmark as well as a park operated by the city and the nonprofit John Bartram Association, has had just a few owners—a French Huguenot, three generations of Bartrams, a railroad baron, and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. It is as rich in history as it is in natural and landscaped beauty. Recently, in the depths of 2014’s cold, snowy winter, a crew of archaeologists from URS Corporation, a San Francisco–based company, were digging in an area of the site behind the house known as Carr Garden. They also recently completed a dig in a meadow down a winding path at the south end of the property. Modern Philadelphia has grown to nearly engulf this stretch of the Schuylkill River Valley. On three sides, Bartram’s Garden is hemmed in by industrial properties, public housing, and a railroad line, while across the river is a petroleum refinery and oil storage depot. But this piece of land has survived in part because of a history of caretakers who built lives here and preserved the land, and the record of its past, for future generations of stewards.


Joel Fry, the garden’s long-tenured curator and an expert on all things Bartram, had no hint that the land would reveal such a rich record of habitation—one stretching back thousands of years. “There is nothing like [what we discovered] anywhere else in Philadelphia,” says Matthew Harris, URS senior archaeologist and principal investigator, who has spent years excavating in urban Philadelphia and the Schuylkill River Valley, “for density of artifacts and the stories they tell.”