It was a particularly lingering winter. After a Vernal Equinox snow storm, many gardeners wondered whether they would ever get to dig their hands into the earth.
Nevertheless Morven Museum & Garden has already laid out the welcome mat to those who like to grow things with “A Gentleman’s Pursuit: The Commodore’s Greenhouse,” an exhibit that tells the story of Morven’s main greenhouse from the mid-19th century. Although viewable on an 1874 aerial map of the property, the greenhouse’s remains were buried until being unearthed by archaeologists from Hunter Research in 2013.
Because Morven’s total acreage has been reduced over the years, the greenhouse is now partially under adjacent property. Though its existence and whereabouts were known, “we didn’t know what had survived, or have a clear understanding of when it was no longer standing,” says Morven Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Elizabeth Allan. She was on hand when researchers discovered what could be deduced as the source for heating the 50-by-14-foot structure: a brick furnace with a cast-iron firebox, found intact, including heaps of coal ash from the furnace’s final period of use.
To enable viewers to get a sense of the structure, a replica of a section has been built in the galleries and stocked with plants that would have filled a greenhouse at that time — clematis, African violets, azaleas, camellias, and cactus. There is a detail of a door with architectural finds. One of the gallery windows, from which the greenhouse could have been viewed, has been covered with a screen illustrating how it might have looked in the mid-19th century.
In the past quarter century Morven has seen remarkable growth. The former governors’ mansion and home to Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton that opened as a museum in 2004 has been the site of archaeological investigations since the 1980s.
Based on the findings, historic features of the grounds, such as the 18th-century horse chestnut walk and a Colonial revival garden, were restored, the buildings were returned to original colors, and 20th-century alterations were removed. The pool house, from the era when Morven was leased to Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical heir Robert Wood Johnson, was rebuilt.
Along with the emergence of buried history came the mud it has been wrapped in. The soils in and around Morven produced an abundance of window glass, flower pot fragments, and door hardware. Roughly 13,500 items were recovered from the greenhouse excavations, such as toys, buttons, thermometer fragments, gun flint, a hair clip, a marble, a toothbrush fragment, a horseshoe, a tobacco pipe, a baking mold, an ink bottle, an escutcheon, a key, doorknob fragments, machine-cut nails, and other hardware.
“The Commodore’s Greenhouse” provides a glimpse into the work of these investigations. Archaeologists carefully document their process with notes, drawings, photographs, survey data, and digital information. Displayed are the tools, as well as Native American artifacts — a stone adze, vessel fragments, rock fragments. We see a stationary screen to sift soil and recover artifacts such as pottery shards, glass bottles, and bone.
Several hundred shards of pottery were recovered from the greenhouse: tea cups, dinner plates, a cherub figurine, snuff jar, and Chinese exports. It is unlikely they were from the greenhouse but rather found their way there during its demolition. “It’s the material culture of people living here for more than 200 years,” says Allan. “When it broke it went outside and stayed outside. When grading the land for the parking lot, those items got pushed into the spot by the greenhouse.”
From 1987 to 1990 the grounds were explored by a team of archaeologists from the New Jersey State Museum and Historic Annapolis, retained by the State Museum for the multi-year study focusing on the 18th and 19th-century gardens. From 1998 to 2005 Hunter Research carried out excavations and monitoring in conjunction with the restoration of the house and various site improvements. Over the past decade Hunter has continued excavations and monitoring in support of planning and design work for the new Stockton Education Center, scheduled to open in May (see below). This most recent excavation bought to light the Commodore’s Greenhouse, as well as traces of other 19th-century buildings and garden features, including remnants of a stone walkway leading to the greenhouse.
“The Commodore” was Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866), son of Richard “The Duke” Stockton and Mary Field Stockton. He spent most of his career in the Navy, retiring with the rank of Commodore having commanded the USS Princeton, and took ownership of Morven in 1840 when his mother died. By this time he no longer owned enslaved people — an 1840 census shows nine servants living at Morven.
The Commodore was not only a Naval Officer but a politician, Delaware & Raritan Canal proponent, businessman, and family scion. As a gentleman farmer, he cultivated an interest in horticulture and continued the gardening tradition of his forebears at Morven.
For members of the mid 19th-century East Coast land-owning gentry, such as the Stocktons, a picturesque garden was an important visible sign of prestige. A kitchen garden was a more mundane necessity, and a greenhouse was essential for propagating ornamental plants for the house and garden and for supplying fruits and vegetables for the dining table.
Giving a sense of what other comparable gardens and greenhouses of the era looked like is a painting of Elgin Botanic Garden, circa 1815, with a hut house complex featuring two glass wings. This structure was inspirational to many American gentlemen farmers in establishing their own greenhouses. Elgin Botanic Garden, the first public botanic garden in the U.S., was founded by Dr. David Hosack (1769-1835), a physician, botanist, and educator who attended Princeton University — Dr. Hosack is best known for unsuccessfully treating Alexander Hamilton after his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. Elgin was located where, today, Rockefeller Center is sited, and was modeled after the great English estates Dr. Hosack visited while studying medicine in England.
Also on display are some of the plant and hot house catalogs and botanical illustrations of the era — an orange branch in bloom, with fruit in various stages of development, including one cut open for a view of it flesh and seeds — and period tools, such as garden shears, grafter’s froe, billhook (word game enthusiasts take note!), a mousetrap, and seed drill.
There remain few clues as to what plants were grown in the greenhouse. An inventory of the Commodore’s estate compiled shortly after his death in 1866 lists these: lemon trees, “Japonicas” (probably camellias), cacti, azaleas, and miscellaneous plants.
Irish-born gardener Bernard (Barry) Masterson and his family are believed to have had their own house on the Morven estate. Masterson regularly won prizes for his vegetables at the New Jersey Horticultural Society’s annual exhibitions in Princeton.
In the mid 19th-century, Morven was but one of a number of properties in the Princeton area boasting a fine garden and greenhouse. Guernsey Hall, originally called Fieldwood and now Marquand Park, was likely the grandest and most elaborate, and was home to the Commodore’s cousin, U.S. Senator and federal judge Richard Stockton Field.
Bartram’s Garden, in nearby Philadelphia, was regarded as the oldest botanic garden in North America. On view is a case of flower pots from archaeological investigations at Bartram’s. Joel Fry, Bartram’s curator, will discuss “Plants for Winter’s Diversion: Greenhouse History and Greenhouse Plants at Bartram’s Garden” at the May 12 symposium (see page 30).
In August, 2016, to protect the greenhouse remains for the long term, its foundations were covered with pervious landscaping fabric and perforated plastic fencing, then buried beneath a thick layer of sand and nine inches of topsoil. The building’s footprint was outlined in dry-laid brick at the ground surface, awaiting future researchers.
A Gentleman’s Pursuit: The Commodore’s Greenhouse, Morven Museum & Gardens, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. On view through October.
Wendy Hollender Botanical Illustration Workshop and Lecture, Thursday and Friday, April 19 and 20. $225.
A Symposium on the American Greenhouse. Saturday, May 12, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. $75. To register e-mail email@example.com or phone 609-924-8144 ext. 113. www.morven.org
#b#Morven in May#/b#
Today there is no active greenhouse at Morven, but its plants are started in the carriage house. Morven’s annual heirloom plant sale, now in its 17th year, will be held the same weekend as Morven in May: Contemporary Craft & Garden, May 3 through 6, for which 36 contemporary craft artists from around the U.S. display their work in ceramics, glass, fiber, wood, jewelry, metal, and other media.
Morven in May. Preview Party: Thursday, May 3, 6:30 to 9 p.m. $175. Public hours: Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, May 6, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $10. www.morven.org/events/event/morven-in-may
The Stockton Education Center is scheduled to open the same weekend as Morven in May, and will expand the space for hosting programs to accommodate up to 150 people and open directly onto the Colonial Revival Garden.
Curator of Education and Public Programs Debra Lampert-Rudman has planned storytimes for preschoolers, hands-on programs such as art journaling and bookmaking, wreath and tea-making workshops, as well as a robust schedule of lectures and talks related to history and special exhibitions.
And if all that’s not enough, Morven is re-installing its first-floor galleries to better interpret the history of all who lived at Morven, set for a September opening. The New Jersey Council for the Humanities funded a community engagement project that included a series of workshops with staff and community in summer and fall 2017, says curator Allan, and looked at how Morven could better interpret the lives of enslaved people who lived within its walls.
“Families from the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood were invited to discuss how they’d like to see this topic addressed,” she said. “Our mission is to talk about the people who lived here. Morven was, in the 18th and 19th centuries, part of a patriarchal society, but there were also women, children, and servants, secretaries, and state employees. Never a single-family household, Morven and the surrounding acreage required many people to operate it. Contributions of the enslaved residents and the realities of their lives need to be understood as part of New Jersey’s foundation. Visitors will get a richer and more accurate understanding of Morven’s history. Through artifacts and paintings, we are examining American history through the lens of Morven.”