“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Pleasure Gardens: Escaping the Heat in Summertime Richmond


A public pleasure garden was a privately-owned ornamental ground or piece of land, open to the public as a resort or amusement area, and operated as a business. In privately-owned public gardens, man was attempting to control nature as well as insert his new ideas about the world--and occasionally even some of his curious machines--into a purely ornamental garden. The commercial pleasure garden was the ultimate garden. Here was nature so controlled by man, that the garden was purely an artform. Here art & capitalism wed. This garden produced no crops but still rendered a profit for its owner [American Garden History blog]. 

One of the prominent urban landscape features of  the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American city was the pleasure garden. Richmonds several public gardens were examples of this property type- the privately owned garden open to the public- that were operated for profit in both European and American cities. As leisure time and ready cash increased in the mid-eighteenth century, these offered a retreat from the heat and smells of the city as well as an opportunity for outdoor social interaction in the cool of the evening.  In the American cities, such gardens began attached to taverns. They featured formal designs made up of square parterres, straight, hedge-lined walks, and shade trees. 

In Richmond, these orderly landscaped environments contrasted with most of the public land available to the general public. Other than the rough terrain of c 1800 Capitol Square, the public "commons" set apart in 1737 consisted of flood-prone, undeveloped land along the east bank of Shockoe Creek, the edge of the north bank of the James, and nearby Chapel Island. While these were excellent for washing clothes, fishing and strolling, they didn't provide the more orderly setting needed for agreeable sociability. 

Thomas Rowlandson, Vaux-Hall Gardens, c 1779, depicting Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, 
Mary Robinson and other prominent Londoners during an evening concert under the trees.

One of the first in New York, appearing on a map from the 1740s, was Spring Garden, a rectangle 120 feet wide and 300 feet long, laid out in parterres and featuring a small building, probably a brewery. It shared its name with the New Spring Gardens, the prototypical English pleasure garden in London. Known after 1785 as Vauxhall Gardens, London's most famous garden was privately operated from as early as 1660 until 1859. New York's Vauxhall Garden opened in 1767 beside the Hudson River.  

The Vauxhall Gardens, Broome Street, New York City, its second location, 1803

Later in the eighteenth century, the proliferating number of pleasure gardens in the states emulated Londons public gardens by added covered areas for use in wet weather, arbors for private dining. Many included kitchens and a house for the proprietor, as well as fountains and other ornamental landscape features [Thomas M. Garrett, “A History of Pleasure Gardens in New York City, 1700-1865, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1978].

Richmond's Falling Gardens (seen at center at bottom) on Mijacah Bates Map, 1835

The earliest public garden in Richmond appears to have been the Falling Gardens, a five-acre tract remembered by Samuel Mordecai in 1856. It occupied a prominent hillside site behind Bowlers Tavern on the north side of Franklin Street, located where the City Hotel later stood. The garden, overlooking Shockoe Creek, was operated by an elderly Quaker gentleman named William Lowndes. The history of the Falling Gardens tract and the meandering of Shockoe Creek is told in a lawsuit between the heirs of Lowndes and a neighboring property owner [Thomas J. Michie. Virginia Reports. Jefferson..33 Grattan,1730-1880. 446-42].  In addition to a cool outdoor retreat, the garden provided a bathhouse with both hot and cold water. 

Pryor's or Haymarket Gardens at the end of 7th St. on Ross's Mill Canal and next to the 
Armory [Young's Map, 1809]

Richmonds best known early nineteenth-century pleasure garden was probably  Haymarket or Priors Garden, located next to the Armory, where the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Depot stood in the 1850s, near the south end of Eighth Street. It occupied “quite a capacious inclosure, with a graduated lawn in front of the large mansion, which, with its extended wings and pinions, divided the lawn from the garden in the rear. A succession of grassy or flowery slopes and terrace extended down to the river, or rather to Rosss canal (now Haxalls,) and the upper portion of the garden commanded a fine view of the river, the islands, and of the country beyond. Like the pleasure gardens of London, Haymarket Garden provided fireworks, equestrians, rope-dancers for spectacle, ice cream and cake for refreshment, washed down by lemonade and “porteree.  The Haymarket Gardens were operated by Maj. John Pryor, who provided the broad walks with serpentine alleys,” from which the view of the falls was excellent.

Benjamin H. Latrobe. Sketch of the lower end of the Falls of James River, Virginia, 1796 [Maryland Historical Society 1796. Jeffrey Ruggles has perceptively identified the structure at center right as the main building at the Haymarket Garden and the half-concealed building to its right as Ross's Mill. 

The large grounds had room for a number of attractions. Among the amusements were a “Riding Machine or Flying Gigs, wherein eight persons can be conveyed at a rate of two to five hundred yards in a minute. . . . Its effects are delightful to the riders and peculiarly efficacious to those of weak nervous habits.”  According to newspaper announcements, One thousand persons could be accommodated in the structures surrounding the musical gallery, and “the lower part of the dancing House is also open for entertainment when Balls, Ice Creams, Coffee Cake, and all kinds of Fruit and the best of Liquors will be constantly provided. Activities included masquerade balls, not to mention card parties, said by one correspondent to be the most dangerous, because “they afford many more opportunities for a display of those fopperies of love and habits of dissipation so fatal to the happiness of society.” The garden also catered to gaming activities, such “the Sports of the Pit,” cock-fighting and bear-bating, as well as quoits, bowling, and shuffleboard [Dabney (1976) 84-85]. 

Vauxhall Garden was shown on a plan for river improvements in 1829 [Survey of James 
River between the dock and the islands, Virginia Board of Public Works]. 

Another popular Richmond retreat, Vauxhall Garden, was in existence as early as 1802. Like its prototype in London, it was located in close relation to the river, although, in the provincial setting of Richmond, Vauxhall Garden offered refreshment and entertainment on a much smaller scale. It was placed on a small artificial island in the river shallows reached by a footbridge from Mayos Bridge. The garden was equipped with a small house for refreshments or other purpose [Jonathan Conlin, Pleasure Garden from Vauxhall Garden to Coney Island, 2013]. Later, in the 1860s, a larger, natural island in the river to the west of Mayos Island, was named Vauxhall Island. It was used for military encampments, barbecues, and political meetings.  

Another, but somewhat less popular pleasure garden, at least in Samuel Mordecais memory, was the French Garden, which occupied a site on nineteen acres along the ravines on the north edge of the city, purchased in 1792. These were operated for a decade by a refugee from Santo Domingo. Another garden was located at Mitchells Spring, northeast of Academy Hill. At one point, Jackson’s Pleasure Garden stood at the corner of Second and Leigh streets was “illuminated with 2,000 variegated lights” [Dabney (1976) 85].

The Rev. John Buchanan’s set aside a shady tract containing a clear, copious spring on his large holdings west of the city for use as a private park and water source. The spring tract was a popular recreational ground favored by Justice John Marshall and the celebratory games and barbecues held by the Richmond Quoits Club.

Illustration of Peter Stumpf's Brewery, 1890s, showing a circular spring house at the center of 
the historic Buchanan's Spring property, not far from the current Science Museum of Virginia.

Buchanan's Spring tract became known as Spring Park and a circular pavilion was added that helped to keep patrons cool. This tract, much reduced in size was redeveloped in 1868 as a beer garden and brewery known as the Spring Park Brewery. Owner E. J. Euker advertised a 4th of July Picnic in 1868 at the “coolest place around Richmond” and entertained by a “grand QUADRILLE BAND." He later took on Henry Bowler as a partner and the business was renamed “Eagle Brewery” in 1879. The historic Buchanan Spring was redeveloped by brewer and hotelier Peter Stumpf in 1893 as a beer garden and brewery with a new four-story brick building. It was known later as the Home Brewing Company. The building still stands at the corner of Clay and Harrison streets in the historic Carver neighborhood.

Similarly the James River Steam Brewery was opened in the 1870s by D.G Yuengling Jr. It 
included landscaped grounds that served as a beer garden, but closed in 1879.

Beginning in the 1850s, as the population increased, the city provided a series of public parks in addition to Capitol Square, which provided more accessible options of recreation. The need for private gardens decreased and they disappeared by the turn of the nineteenth century. One exception was Sauer's Gardens, that took the model of a privately owned and maintained public amenity at the center of a new residential subdivision. It was developed in the 1920s by Conrad Frederick Sauer, owner of the Sauer's Spice Company. The Japanese-inspired garden included a pagoda, fountain, lake and a range of "artificial mountains". 

Contemporary photograph of Sauer's Gardens