Corrections or additions?
This story by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on April 22, 1998. All rights reserved.
From Governors’ Mansion to Landscape Legacy
As Princeton’s landscape passes from wintry drear
to a wondrous world of ineffable springtime blossom, it’s not hard
to image how early settlers looked forward to these same exquisite
flowers, shrubs, and trees for seasonal solace and celebration.
At Morven, part of the history of the state and nation for 300 years,
five generations of the Stockton family shaped and colored the ever-changing
landscape of its five-acre grounds. Now, not only is the historic
house finally funded for a full-scale renovation as a visitors’ destination,
but its gardens are being remade to tell their own historic tale.
Emily Croll, project director at Morven, says that the house and grounds
will provide a historic interpretive site thanks to a funding grant
of over $1 million approved by the New Jersey Historic Trust last
December. Work is scheduled to begin this summer with the funds that
will be matched by a major grant of $780,000 from the Robert Wood
Johnson 1962 Charitable Trust, and additional corporate and private
contributions raised by Historic Morven, a private nonprofit. Annabelle
Radcliffe-Trenner, of Historic Building Architects in Princeton, is
historic preservation specialist for the project, and John Hatch of
Clark Caton Hintz is the project architect.
Directing the design and restoration of the gardens is Morven’s landscape
preservation specialist, Lucinda Brockway, who gives a talk on "Points
of View in Landscape Preservation: Morven’s Great Legacy," on
Sunday, April 26, at 4 p.m., at the Center of Theological Inquiry.
The talk, a benefit for the restoration fund, is followed by a reception
and tea at Morven. (Call 609-683-4495 for reservations.)
In a phone interview from her home office in Kennebunk,
Maine, Brockway describes herself as "wife and mother of three,
who has built a full-time landscape preservation and design firm while
juggling the harried demands of family life." Her past projects
include Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee, the Frederick
Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts, and
the restoration of Fort Ticonderoga’s 400-year-old Jardin du Roi in
upstate New York. She is an adjunct professor at Boston University
and a study leader for Smithsonian garden tours.
Brockway and Croll plan to chronicle both social and family history
through the Morven property. "The landscape is such a personal
part of the property. In order to restore it, you have to understand
the people and their mindset," says Brockway.
The property that became Morven was part of a 5,000-acre tract purchased
by Richard Stockton from William Penn in 1701. In 1754, Richard’s
grandson, Richard Stockton, one of the leading attorneys in the American
Colonies and later a signer of the Declaration of Independence, acquired
a part of the land on which he and his wife, Annis Boudinot Stockton,
built a house in 1758. One of the most historically significant sites
in the state, Morven comprises the 10,000 square-foot mansion, three
outbuildings, and five acres of land; it is a National Historic Landmark
and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1945 Governor and Mrs. Walter Edge purchased Morven from Stockton
heirs, and in 1954 they deeded the property to the State of New Jersey
on condition that it be used as governor’s mansion or museum. From
1956 to 1981, it served as the residence of four of New Jersey’s governors
and their prodigious families. In 1986 its management was turned over
to the New Jersey State Museum.
"The landscape is a little bit like a layer cake. You start at
the initial settlement, the clearing of the woods," says Brockway.
"On top of that comes the work of the next generation. The house
and landscape age with the owner, and owners get lazier in their old
age. Then a new generation comes along and updates, freshens up, and
The new garden will incorporate elements of various past landscapes
and restore such famed elements as its glorious horse chestnut and
"We’re not taking one period to eliminate the others," she
explains. "The interesting part of Morven is that there are wonderful
stories from each of the periods to be told. And the landscape lends
itself to being divided into different areas. It happens that each
generation’s focus on the landscape was concentrated in a different
While Richard Stockton was immersed in politics, his wife Annis was
a published poet. That Annis was susceptible to poetry is illustrated
by the fact that she named Morven after the home of a mythical Gaelic
king Fingal in the epic poems of Ossian. This notorious poetry scam
of the 1760s was perpetrated by the Scottish poet, James Macpherson,
who represented the works as translations from the Gaelic third-century
poet, when they were in fact his own.
Morven’s gardens appear frequently in Annis’s poetry as a symbol of
her union with Richard and of their time together. As Annis wrote
in "The Epithalamium," 1757:
The unions seal’d and now my heart’s at rest
This bower shall witness many a blissful scene
Where I repos’d on my belovd’s breast
Shall taste the sum of happiness serene.
a theme garden that uses a variety of 18th-century plants mentioned
by Annis Stockton in her poetry and letters. It was built by a group
of disadvantaged Trenton teens under a work-study program sponsored
by Mobil Oil. It typifies the form in which the restored gardens will
tell their story.
The first phase of the long-awaited restoration has an estimated cost
of $2.3 million and is the largest of the three phases, encompassing
exterior and interior work, and the restoration of the gardens. Scheduled
to begin as soon as funds are released, it will take about one year.
Phase II will be restoration of the interior; and Phase III will renovate
the carriage house and pool house.
Speeding up the garden renovation is the fact that Brockway’s work
is based on a 200-page study of documents and images pertaining to
Morven, completed in 1989, by historian Constance Greiff.
"It was wonderful to have the documentary research in place when
I came in. I went through as much archaeology, photographic evidence,
and the written record as I could, to become familiar with it. But
it was nice head start to the problem."
"At Morven, when Annis and Richard built the house and began the
cultivation of the land around the house, they were really linking
the house to the community. They were part of the early settlement
of Princeton. Originally Stockton Street ran almost past the present
front door of Morven, and a horse chestnut walk followed the line
of the old street. A lot of their story is fashioning the landscape
in relation to the community." One of the original horse chestnuts,
dating from the 1760s, is believed to be still standing on Borough
Hall property. The restoration will include a new horse chestnut walk
of pairs of young trees.
Brockway says that colonial families established their status not
only in the style of their house but in the landscaping their property
with spreading, deciduous trees. "The reasoning was that if the
public is walking past your house on a hot summer’s day, and if you
provide a beautifully shady walk, they’re apt to slow down and stroll.
It’s hard to imagine now, with so many trees here, how hot and dusty
it was when the land was first cleared and opened," she says.
Annis and Richard’s garden spaces were behind the house. The English
poet Alexander Pope was among Annis’s favorites, and she was also
interested in his garden in Twickenham. "It was a classical way
of thinking, symmetrical, linear, carefully detailed. She had a French
style of formal garden, but a very English attitude about the landscape,"
A later, influential owner of Morven was Commodore Robert
Stockton, a senator and naval hero who inherited the property in the
1840s and lived there for 20 years. A Victorian industrialist, he
updated the house, adding such luxuries as a bathroom. He also chose
to create a Victorian romantic landscape in the front yard and lined
Stockton Street with catalpa trees.
Most influential of all, perhaps, at the end of the 19th century,
was Helen Hamilton Shields Stockton, second wife of Bayard Stockton,
who restored the buildings and the grounds in the Colonial Revival
style. She lived at Morven from 1891 to 1928 and is remembered both
for her garden and "the patina of myth" she added to the place.
"Evidently not satisfied with its genuinely interesting history,
Helen Hamilton Stockton added not only interpretations, but creations
of her own fancy of what should have happened at Morven," writes
historian Greiff. "Through repetition, her tales became accepted
fact." As director of Morven, Croll now works diligently to debunk
some of Helen’s more fanciful tales.
An early member of the Garden Club of America, Helen invited the members
to visit Morven on their second annual meeting and she arranged for
Morven to be widely published in books and magazines of the period.
She retained possession to 1928, then rented it until 1945 when it
was sold to Governor and Mrs. Walter Edge.
"Helen was the most romantic of all," says Brockway. "Her
effort was to not only fix up Morven but also to memorialize Morven.
Her propaganda helped puts Morven on the map as one of the most important
historic sites in New Jersey, and she tended to make up history."
Helen’s moment, the Colonial Revival, was also the era of women’s
suffrage, and the Centennial of American revolution. Many Americans,
trying to forget the brutal Civil War and the problems of 19th-century
industrialization, looked back with a romantic eye to the 18th century,
and to the American Revolution when men and women were fighting for
the same cause. "The Colonial Revival was also a romantic revival
of many concepts of the 18th century and the nobility of the founders’
intentions," says Brockway. "Inevitably people liked to link
themselves with a founder of the country."
Helen planted beds of peonies, iris, phlox, and boxwood, none historically
accurate, but all part of the romantic 19th century view. "These
plants spoke of the forefathers and the philosophical connection that
went back to the country’s early roots," says Brockway. She says
she’ll restore Helen’s Colonial Revival garden from photographs that
date back to 1914. "In the 1950s, historians would have ripped
them out," she says, "but now that we have some distance,
and these too become historic in their own way."
Brockway grew up in Western Massachusetts, in a small town outside
Springfield. Her grandparents were strawberry and pickle farmers in
Hadley, and she was very close to her grandmother who loved history
She credits her father, a Korean War veteran and gas company executive
who bought a huge old Victorian house for $10,000, for her passion
for history and restoration. She was six years old. "Right away,
at six, I began stripping wallpaper," she says. "My folks
were very generous. They encouraged the kind of things that build
interest." Her mother is a food specialist, as is her sister,
and her father takes care of the family vegetable garden. No one,
least of all Brockway, foresaw her future as a landscape preservationist.
"In high school, I loved everything, and I tried everything. But
I had a wonderful guidance counselor who said, `If you’re going to
pick a profession, pick something you truly love, because you’re going
to do that more than you do anything else. What do you truly love?’
I loved old houses, but I really loved being outdoors, so I came up
with `the outdoors of old houses.’"
At the University of Rhode Island, Brockway designed a series of courses
that she thought would be useful. "No one believed I was going
to end up with this career — including my parents who were financing
it for me," she says. "When visiting historic sites, I found
myself looking out of the window. But I don’t think even I, in my
heart of hearts, completely believed there was a job like this out
there." She earned her B.S. in ornamental horticulture and design
in 1980, and went on to an M.A. in preservation studies at Boston
University in 1982.
Today her office is at home, over the garage, and she and her husband
are parents of children 13, 9, and 5. "I work more than a 40-hour
week, but my kids have been to a chateau in France, they’ve roamed
the garden at Fort Ticonderoga, and they’ve spent time at the John
Hay Wildlife Refuge. The good thing about this career is that you
can be outdoors with kids."
"The thing that entices me about Morven is that people in the
community and the state are tied to the site. There’s not a lot there,
but it’s an important site in the hearts and minds of the people.
That’s a wonderful thing to have in hand. I think that’s one of Helen’s
Although the new plantings will be dwarfed by the trees that are on
the property now, Brockway says "It’s okay to wait 5 or 10 years.
Gardening teaches us about patience. The process of seeing the transformation
taking place will be as much fun as the final result."
Inquiry, 50 Stockton Street, 609-683-4495. Proceeds benefit the restoration
of Morven. By reservation. $15. Sunday, April 26, 4 p.m.
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