Sprucing up Bartram's Garden with 18th-century look

The west side of John Bartram's historic house, which will be restored as a colorful garden with dahlias, roses, peonies and other exotics. Bartram's granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr and her husband Robert Carr had such a garden there until the property was sold in 1850. (Virginia A. Smith/Staff)

As the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America, Bartram's Garden has seen more change than most.

With more to come.

As part of a three-year plan designed to reinvigorate its historic mission, bring back Bartram-era plants, and attract a wider audience, the 285-year-old garden on the Schuylkill in Southwest Philadelphia has embarked on the restoration of the Carr Garden, a small piece of the larger garden that, over time, devolved from grand to nondescript.

"We want it to be the showcase garden it used to be," says Maitreyi Roy, Bartram's executive director.

Located on the west side of the stone house built by John Bartram, the nation's earliest and most celebrated botanist and plant explorer, the 1-acre Carr Garden was created by Ann Bartram Carr, John's granddaughter, and her husband Robert Carr. In it, they displayed a dazzling collection of tree peonies, camellias, chrysanthemums, dahlias, scented geraniums, and other showy plants from faraway places.

Ann, an accomplished botanist and artist in her own right, and Robert, a printer and businessman, operated the family nursery and garden - now 45 acres, at 5400 Lindbergh Blvd. - from 1812 to 1850, when financial losses forced them to abandon it.

The Carrs carried on the Bartram tradition of collecting and selling seeds and plants native to North America. Because their stewardship occurred during a period of thrilling growth in botanical knowledge and exploration, they expanded the business to include "exotic" plants from Asia, Australia, and South Africa.

"The garden narrative until now for public consumption has been all about John [Bartram] and William [John's son] and their collecting of American native plants and distributing them to European gardens," says Robert Peck, senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, who once spent a yearlong sabbatical retracing William's 2,400-mile expedition through the South from 1773 to 1777.

"What's so interesting about Ann Carr is her activity in bringing things the other way, from the Old World and even from newly discovered parts of the world," Peck says.

Ann Carr was the third and last generation of Bartrams to own the property, which was sold to the city in 1891 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1963. It is now operated by the nonprofit John Bartram Association and the city.

In their heyday, the Carrs had 10 greenhouses and 12 gardeners growing more than 1,400 native plant species and 1,000 exotics. Today, the tract to be restored has a lawn, scattered shrubs, and flower beds. It certainly doesn't convey historical authenticity or provide the compelling first impression Roy seeks for visitors.

"We've gone so far to become an urban park. Now we want to bring back the 18th-century garden and some of the history by dabbling in exotics," she says.

Put another way: "We want to bring a front-door feel to the back of the house."

To explain: John Bartram built his house to face the river, which in his day was a water highway. Today, you can still catch a boat from Center City to the garden, but most guests drive through the entrance off Lindbergh Boulevard, approaching the house by what Bartram intended to be the back door.

"The experience needs to be better," Roy says.

Plans call for the restoration of a lattice portico around the door and a central walk flanked by the wide arc of a semicircular path. Native sugar maple and yellow buckeye trees will be added where they are known to have existed, along with seasonal displays and beds of exotic plants that are colorful and accurate to the Carr period.

Besides restoring a long-lost garden, the project will shine a light on a Bartram botanist who is little known today but was recognized by her peers. In 1837, Scottish horticulturist Alexander Gordon wrote: "Mrs. Carr's botanical acquirements place her in the very first rank among American botanists. Her knowledge of American plants is most extensive, not surpassed, if equaled, by any one in the United States."

According to Joel T. Fry, Bartram's curator, Robert Carr was an early member of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society who introduced the poinsettia (at the first Philadelphia Flower Show in 1829) and dozens of other finds to plant-crazed gardeners in this part of the world.

Roy expects the Carr restoration design, by LRSLA Studio, a Philadelphia landscape architecture and environmental planning firm, to be complete by June, followed by groundbreaking next fall and completion in spring 2015.

The project will cost $1 million in state funds, to be matched by $1 million in private donations for house repairs, including a new roof and gutters. Roy says Bartram's has raised $685,000 in the last two years.

It all sounds good to Jean Bauer, 61, who identifies herself as John Bartram's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter. Although not active in the family association, she supports the garden's native-plant sales and does her best to carry on the family horticultural tradition.

Bauer's gardening style may be, in her words, "helter skelter," but she is ably nurturing three Franklinia trees in her Huntingdon Valley garden. Notoriously hard to grow, they are a tangible link to her famous ancestors, who discovered the tree in Georgia, brought the seed back, and named the progeny for Benjamin Franklin, a family friend.

To be connected to all that, Bauer says, is "very cool."