By Maureen Flanagan
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the land purchase for Compton, John and Lydia Morris’ estate that would become the Morris Arboretum. In 1887, the siblings purchased 26 acres of farmland in Chestnut Hill overlooking the Wissahickon Valley with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. Their purchase would become one of the foremost Victorian gardens of its time and would lay the foundation for a grand public garden and educational institution that defines the Arboretum to this very day.
Today the “Two Lines” sculpture, at the top of the hill, marks the spot where the original Morris estate stood. Theopholis Parsons Chandler Jr. was hired as the architect to design the house, which was completed in 1888. The Morrises named their home and estate “Compton” after their ancestral home in England.
The estate also included a three-level carriage house (now the Widener Education Center) with horse stables. Between 1892 and 1910, John and Lydia purchased adjacent parcels of land to create additional garden areas and features. Eventually, with the purchase of Bloomfield Farm in 1913, their property encompassed more than 166 acres.
From the beginning, the Morrises shared a great vision for their estate, actively planning that one day the grounds would become a public garden, and more importantly an educational institution. The Morrises employed a large gardening staff from the local community who assisted them in adding garden features and many new and unusual plants to the landscape.
As avid collectors and frequent travelers to Europe and Asia, the Morrises created at Compton an American Victorian eclectic garden, a unique compilation of gardens and garden styles, unlike any found elsewhere in the U.S. or the world. Specimen trees, formal garden elements, open lawns and European and Japanese influences were unified within the classic setting of an English romantic landscape. John Morris worked with leading plant explorers of his time and added specialized structures to the estate, such as the fernery, log cabin and Mercury Loggia, which still grace the Arboretum today.
Committed to education, the Morrises sought to preserve their estate as a botanical garden and school for horticulturists. After John’s death in 1915, Lydia continued to cultivate the grounds and gardens. In 1924 she bequeathed Compton to the University of Pennsylvania for use as an educational and research facility. When Lydia died in 1932, the estate was left in trust to the University of Pennsylvania with a value of $4 million.
One hundred and twenty five years later, the Arboretum continues to reflect the vision of John and Lydia. On July 4, 2009, a much- anticipated new exhibit called “Tree Adventure” opened at the Arboretum. It features “Out on a Limb,” a striking 450-foot-long walkway that transports visitors 50 feet up into the treetops on a canopy walk, and it requires no climbing.
Tree Adventure explores the relationship between plants and people and communicates to visitors that in our communities we need trees, and trees need us. In 2011, the Arboretum was awarded the highest rating, LEED Platinum, by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for its Horticulture Center at Bloomfield Farm.
LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the nation’s preeminent program for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings, and the Horticulture Center is the first LEED Platinum certified building for the University of Pennsylvania, and only the second among not-for-profit organizations in the state of Pennsylvania.
The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania is located at 100 East Northwestern Ave. The 92-acre horticulture display garden features a spectacular collection of mature trees in a beautiful and colorful landscape.
The Arboretum includes numerous picturesque spots such as a formal rose garden, historic water features, a swan pond, and the only remaining freestanding fernery in North America. For more information, visit www.morrisarboretum.org.