Bartram’s Garden

(The title is correct—like others, I had been incorrectly calling it “Bartram Gardens”)

As a volunteer guide at the Peirce-du Pont House at Longwood Gardens, I often talk about John Bartram, the colonial Philadelphian botanist who discovered and named the Franklin trees growing near the front of the house (see 1/27/2012 posting).  My goal this summer in Philadelphia was to visit John Bartram’s house and garden on the Schuylkill via public transportation.  I enjoy the adventure of finding my way to new places and interacting with the locals.  Perhaps because of my age, I can almost always count on a good-natured response from strangers.

From their website, I learned their entrance was close to the No. 36 trolley stop at 54th street.  As I have described before, I get into Philadelphia by taking the SEPTA train at Marcus Hook for only $1 for seniors, then ride any bus, subway, or trolley for free (what a great city!).

I rode the train to Suburban Station at 17th Street, then walked to the trolley station at 19th and Market.  Before I left, I used the street view of Google Earth to see exactly what the stops looked like, so when I got there, I was in familiar territory.  At the 54th street stop I saw that I had to walk a short way down a small street to the Garden entrance.  No surprises or fumbling around when I got there.

During the week, the trolley runs about every 10 minutes, just like the subway, so you do not have to watch the schedule.  Weekends are different.

Once on the trolley, I realized it stopped at 30th Street Station, a stop also for the SEPTA train, so I could have saved a little time by taking it from there, but it was a cool, sunny day and the Market Street area was vibrant with office workers.  (The only downside of retirement is no longer daily seeing pretty women all dressed up in skirts and heels.  Sleepy, rumpled women in sweat suits are not the same.  I’m rumpled enough on my own.)

On the trolley ride, I was fortunate to sit beside a young black transvestite.  He, or whatever, had a mustache and goatee, but was dressed in pink tights, black pumps, and other women’s clothing and jewelry.  The alternative was to sit beside a tough-looking woman loudly telling no one in particular how she would take no shit from a particular MF’er, over and over again with minor variations.  The transvestite, in contrast, was very gentle and friendly.

Getting off the trolley, I was deep in the ghetto, but I expected that from Google Earth.  I crossed over a railroad bridge and turned down a rural road beside a housing project known for a recent cop-shooting.  Although I knew where I was going, I was guided by the profane woman from the trolley who also got off and was heading to the project.  She had gotten over her obsession and was trying to be helpful.  I thought it best to let her.

The Garden entrance is just a short walk down the road, and stepping into it is entering another world, an absolute gem of peace and tranquility, and of people I consider normal.  It is a small park with the stone house and barns overlooking the Schuylkill whose banks are a short walk away through the gardens once visited by Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin.  It is nowhere near the scale and grandeur of Longwood Gardens, but its informality and innate cheerfulness are a joy, more like visiting a friend’s house and their backyard garden.

The name “Eastwick” keeps coming up, and a large area further south near the airport is the Eastwick section of Philadelphia.  Andrew Eastwick was an American industrialist who lived a few years in Russia during the early 1800s while his company made locomotives and rail cars for the St. Petersburg-Moscow railway.  This allowed him to retire a wealthy man at age 40.  He had known Bartram’s Garden from his childhood, and when he returned in 1850, he was able to purchase the property from Bartram’s descendents.  He did not live in Bartram’s house, but built his huge mansion next door that from photos looks like an opulent Victorian hotel.  No trace of his mansion survives, but Bartram’s house and gardens do, thanks to Eastwick’s patronage.  It is now part of the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation and is operated by the John Bartram Association.

Bartram house.

Bartram’s house, I have to say, is rather clunky-looking, all in stone.  The stone barn, however, looks appropriately substantial.  From old drawings, I surmise the columns in front, although old, were not original.  Bartram, the mild-mannered Quaker botanist born in nearby Darby, was a talented stone mason.  He writes he had “built five houses of hewn stone split out of the rock with my own hands and very easy pleasant work it is.”  Stone masons today do not say that.

Only two other visitors were there that morning, middle-aged women who drove in from Newark, Delaware, and about four or five workers, all very pleasant and eager to talk about the Garden.  With so few people, we quickly shared a bond of camaraderie.

The inside of the house is only open for tours.  Today’s tour would be too late for me, but the young, bearded guide offered to open it and show me around himself.  We had been talking about Franklin trees and Longwood Gardens.  His grandfather, he told me, had once volunteered at Longwood just as I do now.

Once inside, I was even more grateful for his offer.  It has a great earthy smell, rustic, wide floorboards, thick plastered walls, and old furniture, some original and some on loan from the Philadelphia Art Museum.  I took lots of photos and hope to return someday.

The trolley ride back to center city was uneventful and seemed to go much faster now that I was familiar with it.  A black woman training two new drivers jumped up and gave me her seat, and we both laughed.  One of the stops was across from the entrance to the historic Woodlands Cemetery next to the University of Penn campus and high on my list of places to explore.

Back in center city, it was well past my usual lunchtime, so I got a hot dog from a street vendor and ate it sitting in the sunshine on a plaza window-ledge, watching the crowds of office-workers and thinking life does not get any better than this.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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