It is summer with red roses all around me but until yesterday, I had no idea that the person who brought the red rose to the US lived right here in Philadelphia. William Hamilton inherited 356 acres of land in West Philadelphia in 1766 and I made a visit to the venerable property yesterday in anticipation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, “The Signature Of All Things” (but more of that later). Erica Maust is the Program and Communications Coordinator and Jessica Baumert is the Executive Director and they could not have been kinder in sharing their vast and oh so interesting knowledge of the man, the mansion and the cemetery. (How wonderful to meet you both!) Mr. Hamilton amassed over 9,000 species of native and imported plants in America…the rose, the hydrangea and the ginkgo biloba plant are just a few. He had friends in very high places and Thomas Jefferson made sure that he was one of three who were able to procure the seeds brought back by Lewis and Clark. Sadly, with no children, his nieces and nephews were unable to afford the upkeep after his death in 1813. The property was bought by The Woodlands Cemetery Company with the purpose of preserving this beautiful and scenic building and land in 1840. Park like green space remained in the midst of a rapidly developing urban neighborhood. Today, one can walk along the meadering pathways seeing the graves of notable persons, unique monuments and rare and unique trees in the arboretum. I visited the final resting place of Francis Drexel, as in Drexel University, Thomas Eakins, as in the painter of “The Gross Clinic“, Joseph Campbell (yes, those delicious soups!), Jessie Wilcox Smith as in the famous illustrator of children’s books and so many more with a weathered gravestone serving as the touchstone to once vibrant lives. The largest funerary obelisk in the US stands so tall among the trees and marks the grave of Thomas Evans who was Napoleon’s dentist and the founding force behind the University of Penn Dental School. Trust me, it is so easy to find!
“The Signature of All Things: A Novel” by author Elizabeth Gilbert will be coming out on October 1st. The story spans the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with one of the main characters becoming a gifted botanist, According to Amazon.com , “It is the story of Alma Whittaker, who—born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution—bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.”
Elizabeth’s research took her to this mansion in Philadelphia. Since I am anxiously awaiting the release of this novel, I thought I would make the same visit and see what I could discover. In order to capture a bit of this historical site with mood, I used the vintage movie camera app.
Also, if you visit and take this fascinating walk back in time and become very hungry, I would echo Erica’s and Jessica’s recommendation to eat at the “Gold Standard Cafe” right down the street – delicious food with the owners dedicated to enhancing the community.
Today, the cemetery, mansion and landscape all form The Woodlands National Historic Landmark District…”a site where Neoclassical and Victorian ideals coexist to create a visual, living history of Philadelphia and the United States.