Originally the English-style estate of prominent Philadelphia lawyer, William Hamilton, The Woodlands is now a rural cemetery, garden and historic site. Located in the University City neighborhood, what was once over 300-acres has since been reduced to 54 and includes Hamilton’s 18th century, Federalist-style mansion, carriage house, stable, and green house. The grounds and cemetery are open daily from dawn until dusk and tours of the mansion are offered on the hour, Wednesdays, from 2:00-6:00 from April through October. The mansion was designated a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1967. In 2006, the cemetery and associated buildings were also so designated, creating a National Historic Landmark District.
that would eventually come to be known as the Woodlands was purchased by
William Hamilton’s grandfather, Andrew, in 1735. The land, along the Schuylkill River,
overlooked Grey’s Ferry and was briefly held by William’s father, Andrew Jr.,
until his death in 1746 when it passed to the 21-year old William. William promptly turned it into a family
country estate, to include the addition of a two-story, neo-classical house
with a columnned portico, one of the earliest in America. However, after a 1786 visit to England,
Hamilton returned with new inspiration to recreate an English-style estate on
his land. To that end, he doubled the
size of the house to 16 rooms, to include a domed vestibule, full kitchen and
service amenities. In expanding the
home, Hamilton transformed it into a Federalist style mansion that ushered in
the popularity of that architectural style in the young United States for
decades to come.
It was also
during his visit to England that Hamilton was inspired to create an English
garden to surround his newly expanded home.
Already an avid botanist, Hamilton directed the addition of 1,000s of
species of plants on his estate, to include the earliest introductions of
Ginkgo biloba, Paper Mulberry, and Lombardy Poplar to America. He also added species from seeds provided to
him from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (a result of his friendship with
President Jefferson), such as the Osage Orange.
He was also part of an international network of amateur botanists that
shared plants, seeds and ideas and included Hamilton’s local contemporaries,
John and William Bartram. When Hamilton
died in 1813, his obituary included the following line, “The study of botany
was the principal amusement of his life.”
Hamilton’s death, sections of his estate were sold off by his heirs to
developers as Philadelphia’s expanding population sought housing. To prevent its total absorption, the
Woodlands Cemetery Company was formed in 1840 and purchased 92 acres of the
former estate on which to create a rural cemetery, similar to the Laurel Hill
Cemetery. Today, over 30,000 people are interred
at the cemetery, to include Civil War generals (John Abercrombie and David
Birney), members of the U.S. Congress (John Scott and James Campbell), philanthropists
and industrialists (Anthony Drexel and John Edgar Thomson), and artists (Anna
Claypoole Peale and Sam and Ida Waugh).
The Woodlands is also part of the Woodlands National Recreational Trail
and includes an arboretum, community garden and apiary.