by Margaret Bleecker Blades
The Highlands Mansion & Gardens is set back far enough from the intersection of Sheaff Lane Skippack Pike that many people traveling along these roads never notice the wonderful late Georgian house in its historic setting of nine outbuildings and two-acre formal garden.
Owned by only three families in its more than 200 year history, the mansion and gardens has entertaining stories to tell of the rise (and fall) of family fortunes and the establishment of an enduring view into the lives of the many families who have lived and worked on the estate.
Despite its high-style architecture, throughout its history The Highlands has essentially been a working farm, and it is a property that retains enough of the original acreage that it still gives hints about the historic importance of the land and outbuildings.
Anthony Morris commissioned Timothy Matlack to design his summer home in 1794. Morris’ Account and Day books from the late 18th century document Morris’ introduction and success with many (then) revolutionary new theories about farming — including rotation of crops and use of soil amendments.
Morris was successful at farming, but not in his financial dealings. A lawyer and politician, Morris also invested in cargo ships and real estate. By 1804 several of Morris’ investments resulted in substantial losses, and he was in financial difficulty. The Highlands was advertised for sale.
With the estate still on the market in 1809, Morris’ sense of urgency was increased by the untimely death of his wife, leaving him a single parent to his four young children. Fortunately Morris’ friendship with Dolley and James Madison gave him access to an important diplomatic posting in Spain during the War of 1812. As the sole US representative to the hostile Spanish court, it was Anthony Morris’ responsibility to persuade the Spanish monarchy to retain ownership and control of Florida (a Spanish colony) to prevent England from using the southern region as a staging area to re-take the newly independent United States. Morris was successful, though he stayed in Spain for almost three years.
The second family to own The Highlands, the Sheaffs, was the first year-round residents. During the family’s century-long ownership of the property, the Sheaffs added a “Pleasure Garden,” a two-acre walled garden which included two greenhouses, a grape-wall and parterre beds.
While the elder, Mr. George Sheaff, was a sober-minded businessman who continued his trade as an importer of wines and spirits during his ownership, his youngest son, John who became head of the household in 1851 was more “eccentric.” He used the largest and most elegant room in the house as his workspace for his carpentry projects, often allowing sawdust to drift around the house.
The final chapters of The Highlands’ private ownership began in 1917 when Caroline Sinkler purchased the property. Miss Sinkler, hired the renowned area architect Wilson Eyre to renovate the two-acre garden. Implementation of Eyre’s design won the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Gold Medal in 1933 for Miss Sinkler — and her gardener, Archie Coutts.
During her ownership, The Highlands gardens became known and were published in leading popular magazines and in several scholarly books.
Miss Sinkler’s niece and nephew, Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Roosevelt, were the last private owners of The Highlands. Having no children, they entrusted it to the care of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania upon the death of the surviving spouse in 1970. Responding to the threat of the demolition of the house and commercial development of the property, The Highlands Historical Society (HHS) was incorporated in 1975 to ensure the restoration, maintenance and interpretation of The Highlands to the public.
For more information about The Highlands, The Highlands Historical Society, and membership, call The Highlands at 215-641-2687 or visit www.highlandshistorical.org.