Monday, April 28, 2014

George Washington's Greenhouse


1790s Christian Gullager (1759-1826). George Washington (1732-1799).

One of the most intriguing greenhouse stories involves Virginian George Washington & Margaret Tilghman Carroll  of Maryland.

In her 1770 description of the gardens Charles Carroll the Barrister's home called Mount Clare in Baltimore, Maryland, visiting Virginia widow Mary Ambler mentioned, "there is a Green House with a good many Orange & Lemon Trees just ready to bear." Widow & mother Mary Ambler had traveled to Baltimore from Belvoir in Fauquier County, Virginia, with her 2 children to be innoculated against smallpox.

At Mount Clare, as in many 18th century households, the wife supervised the greenhouse activities, while the husband oversaw the design of the gardens and grounds. Margaret Tilghman Carroll (1743-1817) was renowned for her orange & lemon trees. After her husband Charles Carroll (1723-1783) died in 1783, she devoted much of her time to growing plants in her greenhouse.

1765 John Hesselius (1728-1778). Margaret Tilghman Carroll Mrs Charles Carroll the Barrister.

In addition to her greenhouse, Margaret Carroll also had a 39' by 24' brick structure at Mount Clare, which she called a Stove House, with an intricate hot air heating system for growing plants, such as pineapples, indoors yearound.

Her reputation & skill as a horticulturalist had impressed George Washington (1732-1799) who wrote a letter to her cousin Col. Tench Tilghman in August of 1784,  "I shall essay the finishing of my greenhouse this fall, but find that neither myself, nor any person about me is so well skilled in the internal constructions as to proceed without a probability at least of running into errors. Shall I for this reason, ask the favor of you to give me a short description of the Green-house at Mrs. Carrolls? I am persuaded, now that I planned mine on too contracted a scale. My house is (of Brick) 40 feet by 24, in the outer dimensions."

It is believed that Washington built his greenhouse copying Margaret Carrolls' building, which no longer exists. And in April the following spring Washington noted in his diary, "Planted and sowed in boxes placed in front of the Green House."

Greenhouse at Mount Vernon

In 1788, Lt. John Enys (1757-1818) stopped at Mount Vernon noting that, "The front by which we entered had a Gras plot before it with a road round it for Carriages planted on each side with a number of different kinds of Trees among the rest some Weeping Willows which seem to flourish very well. One the one side of this stands the Garden, green house &c." Enys had come to America during the Revolution and recorded his notes after he returned to England and retired from the British army.


Greenhouse at Mount Vernon

Early in 1789, Congregational clergyman & geographer Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) was also impressed with Washinton's garden & described Mount Vernon in his American Geography, "the green-house, school-house, offices and servants halls, when seen from the land side, bears a resemblance to a rural village --especially as the lands in that side are laid out somewhat in the form of English gardens, in meadows and grass grounds, ornamented with little copcies, circular clumps and single trees."

Greenhouse at Mount Vernon

Wishing to make a present of some of her prized greenhouse specimens to George Washington, including one grafted tree that produced both lemons and oranges, on 29 October 1789, Margaret Carroll sent by boat 20 pots of lemon & orange trees plus 5 boxes of assorted other greenhouse plants to Washington at the harbor in Alexandria.

Apparently Margaret Carroll had spoken about the financial possibilities of erecting greenhouses & stovehouses to George Washington; because the gift of Mount Clare's mistress was in response to a letter that Washington had sent her from New York, on September 16th 1789.

"Madam,
A Person having been lately sent to me from Europe in the capacity of a Gardner, who professes a knowledge in the culture of rare plants and care of a Green-House, I am desirous to profit of the very obliging offer you were pleased some time ago to make me.

"In availing myself of your goodness I am far from desiring that it should induce any inconvenience to yourself—but, reconciling your disposition to oblige, with your convenience, I shall be happy to receive such aids as you can well spare, and as will not impair your collection.


"Trusting that this will be the rule of your bounty, I have requested General Williams to give you notice, when an opportunity offers to transport the trees or plants in the freshest state to Mount Vernon, and to pay any expence which may be incurred in fitting them for transportation, and to receive them from your Gardner for that purpose.


"I have the honor to be, most respectfully, Madam, Your obliged and obedient Servant,

G. Washington"

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Margaret Tilghman (Mrs Charles Carroll the Barrister) This painting depicts Margaret Carroll standing next to the closed or lidded Lidded Campana Urn on a Classical Pedestal which stood on the grounds at Mount Clare in Baltimore.

Several years later, in 1792, French visitor Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville (1754-1793) wrote, "I hastened to arrive at Mount Vernon...after having passed over two hills, you discover a country house of an elegant and majestic simplicity. It is preceded by grass-plats; on the one side of the avenue are the stables, on the other the green-house, and houses of a number of negro mechanics." Brissot was a vocal supporter of the 1789 French Revolution.



This flurry of activity around the greenhouses of Margaret Carroll and George Washington was not new in America. The possibilites of growing tender plants in greenhouses had fascinated Americans since the 1st half of the century in colonial America.