Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An Homage to Powelton Gardeners

This is a slightly revised version of a piece I wrote for the Powelton Post a year ago.

     Powelton’s tree-lined streets and its gardens have turned green again.  Fortunately, we have some information about the gardens and the gardeners during the Victorian era.
     The 1880 census shows seven gardeners/florists living in Powelton.  At least three of the larger homes had greenhouses: William Wilson’s house (3501 Powelton), Dr. Edward H. Williams’s (33rd & Arch), and David Paul’s house (33rd between Hamilton and Spring Garden).  In 1899, the Colton family added a plant “conservatory” to their house at 3407 Powelton.  We know there were formal gardens behind the Febiger’s (3421 Powelton) and the Scattergood’s (3515Powelton).  Cora Sellers (3301 Baring) had a large garden to the west of their house with a grape arbor that screened the view of the stables.  The Du Pont family (3500 Powelton) also had a grape arbor and fruit trees.  Notably at one time the drive at the Du Pont’s southern entrance circled a mounded planting area that was probably over 6' high and about 20' in diameter that held giant elephant ear plants.
     Alfred Lutz ran a commercial nursery in Powelton for about 45 years beginning about 1875.  He built two large hot houses on the 3100 block of Pearl St. (which no longer exists).  Each was about 70' by 15'.  In 1911, the site had a single 32' by 110' hot house.  In 1887, he won first prize for a window box at the Philadelphia Chrysanthemum Show and recognition for hydrangeas at the Spring Show of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
     The most famous Powelton gardener, was William Dreer (1849-1918).  The Dreer Nurseries were started in 1838 by William’s father, Henry, with a nursery at the Woodlands estate and a seed and florist store on Chestnut St. near Front.  In 1850, Henry moved the nursery to the 3500 block from Wallace to Mt. Vernon St. in Mantua where they remained until his death in 1873.

     The Dreers were “seedsmen.” Henry Dreer had immigrated from Germany and later he sent William to Germany to study the seed business.  When Henry died in 1873, his real estate was worth about $100,000 and his personal property about $25,000.  William then moved the nursery to Riverton, N.J. where it grew to 295 acres, 14 greenhouses, and 250 employees.  He moved to the Aldine Hotel in center city for a few years, then to 3312 Arch St.
Dreer Ad from 1894
     In 1887, William and his new bride, Anna Williams, took ownership of her family home at 101 N. 33rd St.  Anna was the daughter of Edward Williams, a partner in the Baldwin Locomotive Works.  Williams came to Powelton in the mid-1860s and built the mansion at 101 N. 33rd St.  Later it had a magnificent “Japanese Room” built by the Wilson Brothers.  The property was quite large and almost certainly included gardens or a greenhouse.

Dreer Ad from 1908
     Henry Dreer was one of the first to introduce color printing to bulb catalogs and seed packets.   The nursery specialized in bedding plants, and those great Victorian favorites: palms, ferns and water lilies.  At the turn of the century, Dreer was recognized as a pioneer in waterlily hybridization. Unfortunately, the nursery was later known as the inadvertent importer of the Japanese beetle.
      Dreer died in 1918 and the nursery closed in 1944.

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