Thursday, November 25, 2021

Walls at Public Buildings in Early America

State House Garden in Philadelphia. Jedidiah Morse 1789, describing the State House Yard in Philadelphia noted that “The state house yard, is a neat, elegant & spacious public walk, ornamented with rows of trees; but a high brick wall, which encloses it, limits the prospect.”

Brick & stone walls were usually enclosed the grounds of public buildings & grave-yards in early America. Most private homes & gardens were "well paled in" with fences made of wood. An act of the Virginia General Assembly of 1705, intended to protect the gardens from stray pigs, horses & cattle, required the owners of every lot on Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg, to "inclose the said lots, or half acres, with a wall, pales, or post and rails, within six months after the building, which the law requires to be erected thereupon, shall be finished."  The minimum height of the fence was set at 4 & one-half feet & but many were built higher. 

Early colleges in America often had walled grounds. My absolute favorite description of one of these walls was by Moreau de St. Mery (1750-1819), when he visited Princeton, New Jersey in the 1790s.
College at Princeton, New Jersey in 1764 "The central part of the facade protrudes. There are ten windows on each side of it, and below the pediment there are six other windows on the facade. All in all, this building has an impressive appearance for America...Before it is a huge front yard set off from the street by a brick wall, and at intervals along the wall are pilasters supporting wooden urns painted gray. This front yard is untidy, covered with the droppings of animals who come there to graze...In its center is an old iron cannon, a four-pounder, without a carriage. This cannon, the dilapidated condition of the encircling wall, the number of decorative urns that have fallen to the ground, everything bears the imprint of negligence, and one reaches the building grieved that the pupils have such an unpleasant example before their eyes." (Moreau de St. Mery on Princeton)" 

On May 8, 1704, describing in the Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia the construction in Williamsburg, Virginia, “Ordered. That the consideration of the proposall of the said Committee relating, to the Capitol being inclosed with a brick wall be referred til tomorrow morning. Ordered. That the Overseer appointed to inspect and oversee the building of the Capitol make a Computation what the Charges may amount to of inclosing the Capitol with a Brick Wall of two Bricks thick and four feet and a half high to be distant sixty foot from the fronts of the East and West Building and the said building and that he lay the same before the House to morrow.”

William Burgis's View Of Harvard College In 1726
New Haven, Connecticut, Yale in 1786
Pennsylvania Hospital, Eighth & Pine streets. William Birch print, c. 1800.

Pennsylvania Hospital, Eighth & Pine streets. Founded in 1751 as the first hospital in the Colonies, it also became the first place to provide clinical instruction to medical students in what would become the United States. (As of 1767, requirements for a Penn medical degree included one year attending the practice of the hospital. Students purchased tickets for hospital privileges, which included use of the library.) The public grounds of the Philadelphia Hospital, where patients & their families could find a few moments away from their cares, were also enclosed by a brick wall.

Peter Kalm wrote of New York City, "In addition to the hospital...there is another farther up Broadway... There is a yard where patients are allowed to walk, and plans call for planting trees in it." The hospital in Philadelphia also had a walled yard planted with trees and crossed with walks for its patients and their visitors to walk in.

In 1706, the act of the Virginia legislature authorizing the building of the Governor's Palace allocated 635 pounds for the construction of the garden with these instructions, "that a Court-Yard, of dimensions proportionable to the said house, be laid out, levelled and encompassed with a brick wall 4 feet high with the balustrades of wood thereupon, on the said land, and that a Garden of the length of 254 foot and the breadth of 144 foot from out to out, adjoining to the said house, to be laid out and levelled and enclosed with a brick wall, 4 feet high, with ballsutrades of wood upon the said wall, and that handsome gates be made to the said court-yard and garden." 

Bodleian Plate from about 1740 of The College of William and Mary and the Governor's Place and Public Buildings in Williamsburg.  The Bodleian Plan shows long rectangular parterres at William and Mary dissected by an Baroque axial walkway bordered by boxwood or similar plantings all adhering to a sense of classical proportion.

My favorite depiction of walls in the Middle Plantation, Williamsburg's early name, is from a 1702 drawing by a Swiss traveler Franz Ludwig Michel which depicts the brick walls at both the 1699 Capitol and the 1680 Bruton Parish Church. (Some of my way-back relatives are buried in that walled churchyard.) I know these aren't garden walls, but there is an antique peace that envelopes that graveyard.

There is some evidence that the walled gardens at both the Governor's Palace and the College of William and Mary were plotted by English garden designer George London, who was working on Hampton Court under architect Christopher Wren during the same period. London was building brick walls around gardens there as well.

In a letter from English garden writer John Evelyn (1620-1706) to Virginia planter John Walker, Evelyn wrote in 1694, "Mr. London (his Majs Gardner here) who has an ingenious Servant of his, in Virginia, not unknown to you by this time; being sent thither on purpose to make and plant the Garden, designed for the new College, newly built in yr Country."

Williamsburg Brick Wall

In 1706, the act of the Virginia legislature authorizing the building of the Governor's Palace allocated 635 pounds for the construction of the garden with these instructions, "that a Court-Yard, of dimensions proportionable to the said house, be laid out, levelled and encompassed with a brick wall 4 feet high with the balustrades of wood thereupon, on the said land, and that a Garden of the length of 254 foot and the breadth of 144 foot from out to out, adjoining to the said house, to be laid out and levelled and enclosed with a brick wall, 4 feet high, with ballsutrades of wood upon the said wall, and that handsome gates be made to the said court-yard and garden."

Further authorizations for money to construct the garden were made in 1710. The garden authorized in 1706 was not complete until 1720. When new Virginia Governor William Gooch (1681-1751) arrived in 1727, he wrote of a "handsome garden, an orchard full of fruit, and a very large park."

Brick Wall Around Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The entrance courtyard was separated from the rear formal garden by brick walls. A gate in the brick wall of the formal garden to the east led to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood's (1676-1740) "falling garden," a series of 3 terraces descending to a ravine where Spotswood had a stream dammed to create a "fine canal." 

While the Palace's formal gardens & protective brick walls reflected the Baroque style, which had been popular for years since Le Notre's Versailles, opening the gate in the brick wall & stepping out into the countryside to a natural ravine with its canal was an anticipation of the freedom of the picturesque jardin anglais just over the horizon.

Even Williamsburg's Powder Magazine, built in 1714, had an octagonal 10' high brick wall constructed around it in 1755, leaving a 20' wide green courtyard surrounding the building.
Powder Magazine at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. 

Hugh Jones (1669-1760) descibed the William and Mary College garden about 1716, "It is approached by a good Walk, and a grand Entrance by steps with good Courts and Gardens about it."

An onlooker noted in the Maryland Gazette on  January 4, 1770, describing the State House, “The General Assembly having been pleased to grant to the Value of 7500 Sterling, for building a State-House. . . & for enlarging, repairing, & enclosing the Parade, not exceeding its present Length of 245 feet, & 160 in Breadth, designed to be enclosed with Stone or Brick Wall, & Iron Palisadoes, if the Iron Inclosure should not exceed 500 Sterling.”

Joseph Scott, 1806, describing a public prison in Philadelphia, PA . “The yard belonging to the criminal prison extends nearly to Prune street, on which is the debtors’ apartment. The whole is surrounded by a lofty stone wall.”

In 1811, David Hosack, noted the establishment of the Elgin Botanic Garden, New York, NY 
“Accordingly, in the following year, 1801, I purchased of the corporation of the city of New York twenty acres of ground...At a considerable expense, the establishment was inclosed by a well constructed stone wall...The whole establishment was enclosed by a stone wall, two & an half feet in breadth, & seven & an half feet high.”