When William Hamilton began to make The Woodlands his home in 1766, Philadelphia was a very different place than it is today. Botanical discoveries and cultural change were thriving, even amid political tension. Philadelphia was the most important city in the New World at a time when America was desperately trying to develop its own tastes and traditions, independent of England. The city was bustling with important people: scientist, politicians, and the very, very rich.
William Hamilton was one of the latter. Having been born into a wealthy and well known family, William inherited 356 acres of prime real estate--hill and dale farmland and forest abutting the Schuylkill River--at the age of two. When he came of age and began construction of his mansion, Hamilton envisioned a country estate much like the ones held by Washington and Jefferson in Virginia. He sought to join the ranks of wealthy botanists and plant collectors, as was popular at the time. Hamilton’s house remained an example of a pre-revolutionary war estate until 1785, when Hamilton returned from a trip to England, inspired to renovate his house, and entirely redesign the surrounding gardens.
From that point to Hamilton’s death in 1813, The Woodlands was an extravagant place. Hamilton went to great ends to procure exotic plants with which he filled an enormous greenhouse. The gardens were planted with oval-shaped flowerbeds full of exotic specimens, and foreign trees lined the walks. Parties were often held at the mansion, and Hamilton became one of Philadelphia’s most notable socialites.
After 1813, The Woodlands changed hands within the Hamilton family up until 1827, at which point the property was sold. Certain parcels were divided and split off until Eli K. Price and a few others took control of the estate in 1840, and decided to use the land as a cemetery. This decision was part of a larger movement to encourage a cultural transition from the overcrowded and unsanitary churchyards of the eighteenth century to green, park-like cemeteries. Price began The Woodlands Cemetery Company that year and designed a new landscape plan to accommodate the latest purpose of the land.
Today, The Woodlands stands much as it did in the mid nineteenth century. The original mansion is intact, and Victorian era mausoleums, monuments and headstones pepper the grounds, next to dozens of trees, some of which William Hamilton saw planted. Perhaps most unique about The Woodlands is that it now stands in the middle of West Philadelphia. So if you’re in the area of 39th Street and Woodland Avenue--stop by! The beautiful grounds hold centuries of Philadelphia history.
by Rive Cadwallader