Music to read by: “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” Shelly Berg Trio

When John Thompson Morris of Philadelphia turned forty-four, he took early retirement from the presidency of his father’s Iron Works to pursue other interests. Morris, unlike his father and uncles, preferred the role of benefactor, one who reaches into the past and buys up rare objects, then donates them for public edification. While still in his thirties, Morris took on this role by embarking on three significant tasks: amass an impressive quantity of objects of antiquity from around the world, create the most excellent pleasure gardens in Philadelphia, and serve—with tenacity and candor—on boards of civic organizations. After retiring in 1891, he was able to give unlimited time to these interests. Morris was no different from other benefactors of the Gilded Age. They too set for themselves similar tasks, those prosperous, ambitious Philadelphians with famous surnames . . . Wharton, Pennypacker, Stotesbury, Wanamaker.

When it came time to draft his will in 1909, Morris was fully aware that much depended on him—he was the last male in his immediate family. All his life, Morris had been a good steward and it was up to him to ensure the future of many things. Through trust funds, Morris provided a gracious plenty for his household servants, for charitable organizations, like the Philadelphia Home for Incurables, and for cousins (he being unmarried, his siblings being without heirs). After taking care of all these, he bequeathed his family’s ancestral home, Cedar Grove, which he considered a colonial treasure, to the Society of Colonial Dames of America.

But Morris’s will makes it clear that he had one more task in mind, an ambitious task that required all of his residuary estate and depended on close cooperation of several organizations. He wanted to start a school.

In a 12-page treatise in the middle of his will, Morris designed his school and its two supporting auxillaries. He named it “The Morris Botanical Garden, School and Museum.” And, in typical founder-itis fashion, Morris didn’t leave any aspect to the notions of others. He outlined the major goals and defined the complex administrative and fiduciary relationship between the garden, the school and the museum. He specified a corporate-type Board of Managers, to be composed of representatives from three institutions, Haverford CollegeThe Academy of National Sciences of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. He then launched into the curriculum, a program to suit the hybrid institution he envisioned—a trade school with a scientific foundation.

Morris set parameters for entering students (16 years of age, proficient in basic school subjects, male, possibly some females), for methods of instruction he deemed most appropriate, housing, and rules of decorum. He went so far as to state how students should spend their weekends, adamant that they attend church on Sundays. As for tuition—it was free. Room and board—free. Clothing—free. Students only needed to render service on the grounds while attending school. Plus they would receive a $100 honorarium at the end of their four-year course of study to help them launch their career.

This school/garden/museum was no pipe dream. In fact, a few years later, Morris plucked his dream out of his will and decided to carry it out during his lifetime. He had done this before, when he jumped ahead of his will by commissioning the Morris Infirmary for Haverford College, and afterwards changed his will, canceling the bequest. He sensed a pent-up demand—there were so many country estates in the region and so few practical gardeners.

All Morris needed was the perfect property for situating his school. And he found it within waving distance of Compton, his country home in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Morris purchased Bloomfield Farm in 1914 for just this purpose. Located on the Wissahickon Creek across the road from his estate, Bloomfield came with a couple of houses, a mill and history traceable to the 1740s.

With property in hand, the dream could be turned into bricks and mortar. Morris did his homework, coached by a consultant who traveled anywhere there was a training program attached to renown gardens—England, Scotland, Germany, Holland. A highly qualified consultant whose surname was Bartram (as in descendent of John Bartram, Father of American botany). Frank Bartram’s task was to scope out what other gardening schools were doing and return to Philadelphia with a plan for something even better; something that grafted the practical onto the academic.

Morris most certainly took to heart the words of President James A. Garfield, promoter of all things agricultural, whose memorial monument had been unveiled in Morris’s beloved Fairmount Park a dozen years earlier, “At the head of all sciences and arts, at the head of civilization and progress, stands—not militarism, the science that kills, not commerce, the art that accumulates wealth—but agriculture, the mother of all industry, and the maintainer of human life.” But to Morris, although farming may be necessary, it was not the raison d’être of his school.

It mattered a lot to Morris that a horticulturalist was proficient in plowing and cultivating. And that a greenhouse manager knew about plumbing and steamfitting. And that a gardener understood accounting procedures. It all mattered to Morris because his goal was to produce “competent and useful gardeners” who gained most of their experience outdoors, not in classrooms, and whose credential was a diploma, not a degree. He believed he was onto something very few were doing except at a handful of U.S. schools and at botanic gardens on the Continent, like Edinburgh, Glasnevin, Frederiksoord and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (the ne plus ultra of the day).

A call for practical training had grown out of the 1889 national convention of florists, landscapers and horticulturists. It was a vociferous call that named names and laid blame: “Let us have a great horticultural training school, where the professors are not afraid to stain their fingers in laboratory and garden nor ashamed to don a blue apron and lead a class with skilled fingers in any line of practical work . . . one such school, well endowed and properly manned will do more for American horticulture than all our agricultural schools will ever do . . . to correct much that is now erroneous and ridiculous.” It was time to end the “great farce” of teaching horticulture without getting dirt under the fingernails.

In all likelihood, Morris paid close attention to this dispute. And when it came time to plan his own school, he could probably name all the practical work schools on the East Coast. But as with all Morris’s prior projects, he was aiming for the very best—a distinctive school with its roots firmly in the past and its hope in a new profession of practical gardening.

Now that he had a charter and a location, Morris turned to physical facilities. He favored the functionality of the I-shaped Pennsylvania Hospital. Could something smaller be designed for the north corner of Bloomfield Farm, leaving the center open for greenhouses and fields, he asked Bartram?  Regardless of architecture, he knew exactly how the school should operate—just as it had during his school days at Haverford College. He informed Bartram of this, more than once.

In early July, 1915, Morris told Bartram to start on the next project—designs for practice greenhouses with plenty of space for plant propagation. Together, they reviewed sketches and Bartram took notes as Morris approved this, nixed that. Though news of the war in Europe was taking up more and more space in Gardeners’ Chronicle from London, Bartram drew Morris’s attention to reports of a new professional diploma in horticulture. Could this program be refashioned for Philadelphia? How quickly could they get the course of study designed and the first class enrolled? Several well-respected horticulturalists had already offered to leave their positions and come to Philadelphia. Morris debated whether to go ahead and engage them.

The U.S. Commissioner of Education was ready with names for the Board of Managers; an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture was scouting potential faculty. Morris told Bartram he was willing to open the program with a small group of day students, even before buildings were constructed. Yet despite the approval of virtually all the leading agencies and institutions akin to the project, Morris reversed his decision: “Mr. Morris feels the school cannot open before 1916,” Bartram noted in February of 1915. Apparently, Morris felt a school wasn’t a school without dormitories and classrooms.

In August, John Morris and his sister Lydia vacationed at their usual place—the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. And Morris continued working on a myriad of design details, sending Bartram sketches and comments on student accommodations, dining hall, lecture hall, labs. On August 10th, Morris had a better idea about fixtures for the dormitory bathrooms, so he wrote another “long epistle” jammed with his latest thoughts on the administration building, auditorium, seed collection room and dormitory bathrooms. And why, he queried Bartram, hadn’t he received a response to his previous letter about the bath sinks. Time was marching on. He had a lot to attend to—permissions, contracts. “I am ready to go ahead at once if data is presented to me for consideration,” he wrote. That was Morris’s final letter. He died of acute kidney failure August 15, 1915.

Morris’s determination to start a school did not die with him. Lydia Thompson Morris picked up where her brother left off by commissioning Edgar V. Seeler to design the educational buildings and greenhouses at Bloomfield, and to draft a plan for converting the Compton mansion into a museum. Seeler began work with a trip to Boston to meet Arnold Arboretum staff, who provided positive feedback—the location was ideal, the demand for gardeners was high, the time was right.

Many in the world of horticulture were eager to see what would become of this “interesting proposition” of a school: “Its development will be watched with peculiar interest by all in the horticultural and floricultural business,” proclaimed the editor of The Florists’ Exchange. But as harvest season came and went, there was no further word of progress on John Morris’s vision. No press releases, no interviews, no small-scale models.

Frank Bartram finished up his journals and turned them over to Miss Morris’s staff. Then in the spring of 1917, as young men began leaving farms to enlist in the military, Bartram took on the resulting farmer shortage by joining a regional committee. The following spring, Edgar Seeler submitted drawings of Bloomfield buildings and Compton renovations then he, too, turned to war-related tasks. His next commission was to create a new community of 500 homes in Ridley Park to alleviate the housing shortage near war-related industries.

Miss Morris had her own tasks to attend to. Once the U.S. entered the war, she gave liberally of her time and money to the social welfare of thousands of sailors and marines stationed at the Navy Yard.

For these necessary and laudable reasons, the Morris Botanical Garden, School and Museum, as envisioned in the pages of a will, remained a vision . . . until 1929. That was the year Miss Morris updated her will and by then much had changed, economically, culturally and institutionally. Several attempts had been made in the early 1920s to establish cooperative gardener education programs, including the Massachusetts Agricultural College’s arrangement with the National Association of Gardeners. But the American system of gardener education has always leaned toward the scientific and theoretical. And most practical work programs did not survive long.

In 1929, when Lydia Morris was faced with how best to carry out her brother’s vision, she understood that his approach to gardener education was not in keeping with current trends. At the dawn of the 1930s, it was more important to conduct botanical research and disseminate that knowledge to the world than to prepare head gardeners for country estates; to offer advanced courses for students whose preliminary education was done elsewhere; to build offices and research labs rather than dormitories. And thus, under these terms as specified in Lydia Morris’s will, Compton and Bloomfield became the responsibility of the Botanical Department of the University of Pennsylvania, hereafter known as The Morris Arboretum.

~

This essay was made possible by original sources at the Morris Arboretum Archives.


Joyce Munro’s work can be found in Broad Street Review, Hippocampus, Minding Nature, Poor Yorick, The Copperfield Review, WHYY Speak Easy and elsewhere. She writes about the people who kept a Philadelphia estate running during the Gilded Age in “Untold Stories of Compton” on the Morris Arboretum blogsite. 

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