Cover image for The Grid and the River: Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682–1876 By Elizabeth Milroy

The Grid and the River

Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682–1876

Elizabeth Milroy


$64.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06676-9

440 pages
9" × 11"
188 duotone illustrations

The Grid and the River

Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682–1876

Elizabeth Milroy

“[Milroy’s] book comprises a much-needed synthetic narrative of the early development of Philadelphia’s environment, built and natural, that will appeal to landscape professionals, urbanists, and park enthusiasts alike. . . . Milroy rounds out her expansive original research with an impressive array of specialized landscape scholarship, ranging from academic books by urban historians, literary scholars, and art and architectural historians to unpublished cultural landscape reports of particular historic sites. She offers more than a local history by setting the Philadelphia story in its broader context, showing how people who shaped local green places did so as self-conscious participants in international conversations about urban improvement, garden design theory, therapeutic landscape planning, and picturesque aesthetic conventions.”


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Winner of a 2017 John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize from the Foundation for Landscape Studies

Listen to a discussion with Elizabeth Milroy on WHYY’s You Bet Your Garden here.

Philadelphians are fond of quoting a letter in which William Penn described his vision of a “greene country towne, which will never be burnt & always wholesome.” Today, Philadelphia’s public parks cover more than ten thousand acres—roughly 11 percent of the city’s area. They encompass extensive woodlands and waterways as well as the largest collection of historic properties in the state of Pennsylvania, including the Fairmount Water Works, the Philadelphia Zoo (the oldest zoo in the United States), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Grid and the River is the product of Elizabeth Milroy’s quest to understand the history of public green spaces in William Penn’s city. In this monumental work of urban history, Milroy traces efforts to keep Philadelphia “green” from the time of its founding to the late nineteenth century. She chronicles how patterns of use and representations of green spaces informed notions of community and identity in the city. In particular, Milroy examines the history of how and why the district along the Schuylkill River came to be developed both in opposition to and in concert with William Penn’s original designations of parks in his city plan.

Focusing on both the history and representation of Philadelphia’s green spaces, and making use of a wealth of primary source materials, Milroy offers new insights into the city’s political and cultural development and documents how changing attitudes toward the natural environment affected the physical appearance of Philadelphia’s landscape and the lives of its inhabitants.

“[Milroy’s] book comprises a much-needed synthetic narrative of the early development of Philadelphia’s environment, built and natural, that will appeal to landscape professionals, urbanists, and park enthusiasts alike. . . . Milroy rounds out her expansive original research with an impressive array of specialized landscape scholarship, ranging from academic books by urban historians, literary scholars, and art and architectural historians to unpublished cultural landscape reports of particular historic sites. She offers more than a local history by setting the Philadelphia story in its broader context, showing how people who shaped local green places did so as self-conscious participants in international conversations about urban improvement, garden design theory, therapeutic landscape planning, and picturesque aesthetic conventions.”
“Though it considers one aspect of a particular city in a particular period, this work will be more widely beneficial than its title suggests. . . . Meticulously researched and painstakingly documented, Milroy’s study creates a blueprint for historical works and scholarly presentation.”
The Grid and the River is magisterial. It is both an immensely erudite history and a compelling narrative of the shaping of Philadelphia, whose famous grid plan and immense park system are among the world’s most distinctive man-made environments. Philosophy, sociology, technology, politics, and art are all shown to have been actors in the making of Philadelphia’s spaces from the city’s founding until the end of the nineteenth century. In telling their complex story, Elizabeth Milroy has written the best general history of the city in a generation.”
“Milroy has produced a grand history of public green spaces in Philadelphia, focusing on the development of, or rather, as Milroy reveals, the evolution of Fairmount Park through the 1876 centennial. . . . Thanks to Milroy, Fairmount Park can no longer be overlooked by city planning and design historians. Highly recommended.”
“Even to those who think they know the well-told history of Penn’s founding of Philadelphia, there is new information and deeper nuance to be gleaned in this richly illustrated and extensively researched text. And while ostensibly about Philadelphia, the history told here is much more broadly applicable. It is a history of Philadelphia and of the formation of a uniquely American concept of landscape. Milroy’s approach is telescopic. Her research is sometimes almost obsessively detailed, finding quotes from private letters and references to the city’s green places in seemingly obscure legislative acts. The depth of her research is extraordinary, quickly building a powerfully authoritative voice.”
The Grid and the River unveils the timeless and dynamic tension between nature and the city. In an increasingly urban world, this book is essential reading for those who can still see a future graced by green and wholesome cities.”

Elizabeth Milroy is Professor and Department Head of Art and Art History in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel University.


List of Illustrations




1 The Origins of Penn’s Squares

2 Patterns of Growth and Governance in the Centre City


3 The Liberty Lands

4 Suburban Villas in the Schuylkill Valley

5 Nurseries of National Virtue: Private Estates and Public Culture

6 Agriculture, Horticulture, and the Origins of the American Picturesque


7 Reviving Penn’s Plan

8 The Fairmount Water Works: Picturing Civic Virtue

9 Rural Cemeteries, River Parks, and the Search for Rational Recreation

10 Greening the Consolidated City

11 The Fairmount Park Commission: Park Building for Preservation and Conservation

12 Spatial Politics and the Centennial Exhibition

13 A Work Unfinished




<CT> Introduction

In April of 1871 Thomas Eakins made his professional debut at an art reception at the Union League of Philadelphia. He exhibited two canvases: a portrait lent by league member Matthew Messchert and The Champion Single Sculls, a portrait of local oarsman Max Schmitt (frontispiece). Recently returned from three and a half years of art study in Paris, Eakins was eager to launch his career, and this was a singular opportunity for networking. The city’s leading artists contributed to the exhibition, as did important local collectors. Eakins selected his submissions with care. The Messchert portrait advertised that the young artist had already established a professional relationship with at least one league member. The Schmitt portrait was an astute piece of civic boosterism sure to appeal to the Union League audience.

The Champion Single Sculls celebrated a boyhood friend who had won a prestigious rowing race on the Schuylkill River in the fall of 1870. Oarsmen and their craft had been a trope in Schuylkill views since the 1830s, when competitive rowing became popular on the river. Eakins zoomed in to focus attention on what artists previously had treated only as incidental embellishments, showing Schmitt in his racing shell near the east bank of the Schuylkill, glancing over his shoulder to engage the viewer as he rests his oars and the boat glides across the water. Eakins advertised his own expertise as a rower by including himself propelling a single shell in the middle distance while farther downriver other boatmen ply their craft.

This painting was not only a tribute to a champion athlete. It was also a meditation on the setting of Schmitt’s victory, which Eakins rendered with great care. Beyond Schmitt and fellow oarsmen, the Girard Avenue and Connecting Railroad Bridges span the river in the middle distance. A puff of smoke rises from a train approaching from the west (right) past an eighteenth-century villa known as Eaglesfield, whose roof looms above a line of trees. Downriver one of the several steamboats that operated along the Schuylkill at this date can be seen approaching: the elevated vantage point suggests that Eakins imagined the viewer looking down from the deck of a similar vessel. He plotted the composition tightly, carefully positioning the rowers on the surface of the river so that the orthogonals of perspectival recession are described by the sleek racing craft and anchored by vanishing points at the bridges. Schmitt, the hero-athlete and his companions exercise in a landscape in which nature, technology, and history coexist—a setting Eakins’s contemporaries would instantly have recognized as the section of the Schuylkill River valley lately incorporated into Fairmount Park.

In 1867 the Pennsylvania legislature had passed an act of assembly creating the Fairmount Park Commission with power to expropriate land along the Schuylkill “to be laid out and maintained forever, as an open public place and park, for the health and enjoyment of the people of [Philadelphia],and the preservation of the purity of the water supply.” A second act, passed in 1868, authorized the sixteen-man commission to acquire larger tracts extending for three miles along the east and west banks of the Schuylkill and for six miles along its tributary, the Wissahickon Creek, forming the nucleus of what would in time become one of the country’s largest urban park systems. In an early annual report, the commissioners enumerated the park’s scenic features:


Lying in what in a few years will be the very heart of the city; exhibiting, singly and in combination, every variety of picturesque aspect; presenting contours, both smooth and broken, adapted to all forms of embellishment, and soils suited to all kinds of cultivation; bountifully endowed with stately and umbrageous trees; irrigated by numerous brooks . . . and partly composed of two romantic streams, flowing for miles between banks of verdurous lawn, or sloping woodland, or rock-girt precipice; Fairmount Park . . . may justly claim to be without a rival.

<end ext>

But this declaration contains a paradox. Philadelphia already had a “heart” in the two-square-mile center city that William Penn had mapped out between the Delaware and the Schuylkill two centuries before. Nor was Fairmount Park the first system of public green spaces in the city, because Penn’s plan had featured five public squares, four of which he explicitly intended to be laid out as landscaped parks. What then were the circumstances that led to the creation of a new system of public green spaces and the redefinition of the city’s spatial organization?

Philadelphians are fond of quoting a letter in which Penn described his vision of a “greene country towne, which will never be burnt & always wholesome.” Today Philadelphia’s public parks cover more than ten thousand acres, or roughly 11 percent of the city’s area. They encompass extensive woodlands and waterways as well as the largest collection of historic properties in the state of Pennsylvania, including the Fairmount Water Works, the Philadelphia Zoo (oldest in the United States), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But Philadelphia’s park system is not the largest in the United States, as many residents claim. Nor are green spaces well distributed: a recent study found that one in eight residents does not have easy access to a public park or green space. The park system is extensive but diffuse. Tourists seldom visit many noteworthy sites, and most Philadelphians are familiar only with areas where they regularly assemble for recreation or with the parkways that have become major commuting arteries. Residents pride themselves on the city’s green spaces, yet the park system is among the poorest in the nation, a fact many attribute to the city’s economic decline since the 1960s. In fact, limited government support of parks and public spaces has been the rule since the city’s founding. Penn’s vision has been a daunting challenge.

Fairmount Park receives scant attention in histories of park design and city planning. Indeed, its name is often misspelled—even legendary landscape writer John Brinckerhoff Jackson called it “Fairmont.” And one must always clarify that what Philadelphians call “Fairmount Park” is more accurately the East and West Parks on the Schuylkill, the oldest sections of the Fairmount Park system under its modern administrative structure. Studies of public space in Philadelphia are numerous, but the most rigorous of these have focused on streets and architecture, with little attention paid to the squares or the park system. Historians of Philadelphia’s urban spaces seldom systematically examine how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century citizens used green spaces—both public and private—within which to exercise their political and cultural aspirations. And they rarely interrogate the valuable visual evidence preserved in paintings, prints, maps, and photographs.

In recent years scholars, park staff, consultants, and volunteers have compiled substantive historical documentation on individual components of the park system, but because most of these efforts are unpublished, their value is limited. At a local level, the absence of a rigorously researched holistic history of Philadelphia’s park system leaves residents, managers, and policy makers without a clear sense of why and how this ungainly municipal resource was conceived. At a national level, it means that Philadelphia’s incomparable public green spaces are simply overlooked.

This book is the product of my quest to understand the curious history of public green spaces in William Penn’s city. My original intention was to trace why private citizens donated money and land to force the city to create a new public park on the Schuylkill in the mid-nineteenth century, ostensibly to protect the municipal water supply. But I discovered that this interplay of private and public interests had a much older history. In the following essays, I examine the history of certain sites in and around Philadelphia that acquired political as well as aesthetic significance in the two centuries after Penn’s plan, and how these sites were employed to define changing notions of community and citizenship. More precisely, I explain how and why the Schuylkill River valley, anchored by the hill called Fairmount, gained renown for its scenery and was later developed as public parkland, both in opposition to and in concert with the squares Penn designated for public recreation in his city center.

This book’s essays may be read as self-contained studies of issues and episodes within the history of this development or as sequential chapters in the gestation of Philadelphia’s modern park system. I have grouped the essays into three sections—“City,” “Suburb,” and “Consolidation”—to signal the political as well as spatial changes that marked the trajectory of this history. The book begins with an account of the sources for the communitarian green spaces in Penn’s city plan. It ends with the 1876 Centennial Exhibition and decisions made by the founding park commissioners that would guide, for good and ill, the future development of Philadelphia’s parks. In between, I explore the vicissitudes of Penn’s “greene” town and how local pride, technology, and a pervasive nostalgia combined to produce a unique approach to park making and placemaking. My aim is to expand our understanding of Philadelphia’s political ecology by chronicling the ways in which certain places were created through literary and artistic representation as well as how the meanings that inhered in these places influenced the development and management of the urban environment.

It has been said that Americans did not truly begin to “see” their surroundings before the nineteenth century, when the Hudson River School painters adapted the conventions of the picturesque derived from the Claudean landscape tradition to the local scene. In fact, long before this, colonials were looking at their surroundings and thinking about pictures. Geographers, philosophers, historians, and art historians have debated the relationship between how humans comprehend the material environment and how they alter that environment, between “the world outside and the pictures in our head.” In a 1963 essay, city planner Edmund Bacon emphasized the importance of establishing what he called the “clear image” to guide urban development: “If American cities are to change into something worth having, there must be a clear image clearly conceived of what that city should be, and this image must be injected into and mature within the processes which actually dictate the form the city will take. If the image is not there, or if the image exists but does not make contact with the form-determining processes, the city will fail to achieve the humane character we seek for it.”

It is no coincidence that Bacon was a Philadelphian, for Philadelphia was a picture before it was a city. In the two essays comprised in the section titled “City,” I examine the plan, or “portraiture,” of Philadelphia designed by William Penn and surveyor general Thomas Holme to assure prospective settlers and investors that the Pennsylvania colony would be anchored by a healthy and well-designed commercial center. This became the effective “portrait” of an increasingly self-conscious and self-reflexive city, “the vast, firm chess board,” that Henry James later described, with its “immeasurable spread of little squares, covered all over by perfect Philadelphians.” But Philadelphia was never artlessly two-dimensional. To fully appreciate the novelty of the public squares within Penn’s plan, it is important to recognize the extent to which his vision for the new city grew from his love of gardening as well as the example of London’s public parks. Penn believed that well-ordered spaces, in addition to firm laws and responsible government, would ensure moral behavior. Just as the order and regularity presented by the new city’s street grid would promote social discipline, so too the neatly rectilinear landscaped squares, framed by the streets, offered spaces for the performance of virtuous behavior.

The realization of Penn’s vision for the squares was long delayed. So powerful was the implied instrumentality of the “portraiture” that some historians have assumed that eighteenth-century Philadelphia was a “wholesome grid of streets and squares.” City maps perpetuated this myth. But early settlement along the banks of the Delaware frustrated the smooth implementation of the plan. From the start Philadelphians struggled to balance the demands of private entrepreneurship and public works. The city was in constant flux, the center always shifting as sectors within the boundaries of Penn’s plan were developed. This instability was reflected most dramatically by the treatment of the public squares because Penn had provided no legal or political means to ensure that they were developed as he intended. As the city grew, the squares became vague marginalized spaces, vulnerable to abuse. Philadelphia’s vaunted reputation was diminished when visitors and residents alike lamented the absence of attractive public parks and promenades.

In the four essays grouped as “Suburb,” I move to the banks of the Schuylkill. As a native Londoner, Penn experienced city and country as zones within a fluid continuum, connected and mediated by suburbs—or “liberties,” as Penn dubbed the district adjacent to the “centre” city laid out in the “portraiture.” He signaled the importance of this zone when he began to build a house at Fairmount. In the 1730s Penn’s son Thomas completed the house and laid out extensive gardens, setting a standard to which members of Philadelphia’s developing upper class would aspire. While commercial and residential development crowded the banks of the Delaware, prosperous Philadelphians who gravitated to the rural districts west of the projected center-city limits adapted the ideal of villa life, derived from ancient Rome, to the Schuylkill valley. As forests were cleared, the closely clustered Schuylkill estates acquired an animated visual interconnectivity that, forming a green counterpoint to the city, advertised the sophisticated taste and transformative stewardship of its leading families.

After the Revolution, Philadelphians who had succeeded in business and politics continued to cultivate estates on the Schuylkill. When yellow-fever epidemics struck the city, the Schuylkill offered a salubrious retreat. As a result, the river valley was a formative site within the early republic’s literary and artistic canon: some of the earliest landscape paintings and prints produced in the new United States were views of the Schuylkill and Wissahickon. While Americans grappled with defining new forms of citizenship and governance, the river estates offered evidence that their owners were best qualified to lead the nation because they were the stewards of these picturesque landscapes.

In the third group of essays, titled “Consolidation,” I chronicle the role played by green-space development in the campaign to incorporate the center city and surrounding districts and its aftermath. Civic leaders pushed for a greater role in the financing and building of public works to assert the city’s independence from the state. At the same time, many of these individuals participated in campaigns to memorialize William Penn’s legacy by rehabilitating important historic sites and establishing museums and historical societies as venues for the exhibition of local views and the preservation of commemorative artifacts and historical documents. Reproductions of the Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia (see fig. 1) were circulated as Philadelphians looked to stabilize the still-unfinished center city by reestablishing some sense of Penn’s original grid plan and rehabilitating the public squares.

The public water system also provided artists and writers with a powerful image with which to promote Philadelphia as a temperate and healthy community. When the waterworks were moved to Fairmount, the nearby estates (though legally beyond the boundaries of the city) were incorporated into civic iconography to advertise the city’s commitment to public works and the technological innovations of the expanding industrial economy. Views of the river district joined portraits of Philadelphia’s public buildings in promotional print portfolios. Tourists extolled the waterworks, bridges, canals, and other engineering landmarks erected on the Schuylkill as markers of national progress.

The relationship of the “centre city” defined by Penn’s plan to the Schuylkill district was transformed by the Consolidation Act of 1854, when Philadelphia exploded out from a tidy grid of two square miles to become a sprawling metropolis of 130 square miles. The campaign for consolidation had been led by a coalition of merchants, manufacturers, and professionals convinced that consolidation would regularize taxation and facilitate public-works improvements as well as upgrades in firefighting and law enforcement. Provision for green spaces was an important part of the new vision. The men who drafted the Consolidation Act recognized that Penn’s squares were inadequate, and they directed the city to establish new parks to better serve the burgeoning metropolis. Park advocates hoped that expropriating riverside properties would create a buffer to protect the city’s water supply and arrest the efforts of real-estate developers to extend the grid to accommodate speedy and cheap development.

Historians Andrew David Heath and David M. Scobey have linked the rapid growth of Philadelphia and other American cities to the pursuit of “manifest destiny” and continental expansion in the mid-nineteenth century. They describe park building as a local manifestation of the broader effort by business leaders to “improve” and thereby control space, much as they were remaking the continental economy by building railroads and steamship lines. As Heath notes, implementing these improvements required “new forms of class cooperation, state power, and institutional innovation.” But though business leaders in many cities may have shared the desire to remake the local urban geography, local conditions and local history dictated how these new places actually took shape.

Most nineteenth-century American urban park builders selected sizeable but delimited tracts for development, typically low in value and located some distance from high-value properties in the main business district. They then hired a single designer or design team to transform each of these tracts into a new and integrated picturesque park. By contrast, Fairmount Park was the product of a cumulative and opportunistic process of acquisition driven by the desire to conserve the municipal water supply and to preserve historic scenery. While the reluctance to give a designer the power to reconfigure the landscape may reveal some lingering Quaker distaste for centralized authority, it also reflects the relative unimportance of reconfiguration per se. The Schuylkill properties targeted for acquisition were long-standing components of the city’s civic imagery. The park commissioners were not building new spaces. Instead, they saw themselves as stewards of the city’s past, with a duty to preserve the river estates, both to acknowledge the deep history of the Schuylkill district and to create a conceptual link to the legacy of Penn’s squares.

The staging the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in the West Park was a culminating point in the park system’s early development. Growing out of efforts to develop cultural institutions that might unite the park and the city, the exhibition was also provided funding for much-needed infrastructure improvement within the park. But though it attracted international recognition and acclaim, the temporary “city” of exhibition pavilions also made it clear that as Fairmount Park had expanded, its relationship to Philadelphia’s historic center had attenuated.

The strategy of minimal intervention brought mixed results as the commissioners struggled to control the ungainly territories. With no integrated plan to complete and celebrate, their function and authority weakened. They were further constrained by city politicians, who, alarmed by the rapid acquisition of hundreds of acres, neutralized the commissioners’ power by limiting appropriations, starting a tradition of conflict that persists to the present day. Any unified sense of place was further destabilized by the roads and railbeds that broke through the park perimeters along many sections of the East and West Parks, and by the unclear perimeters themselves, vague and permeable boundaries between private and newly public property that wound through the forested ravines of the Wissahickon. The symbolic value of the surviving villa estates diminished because the commissioners made no effort to interpret them as significant historic sites. Most damning was the fact that the commissioners were unable to prevent ongoing pollution of the Schuylkill, dashing hopes that the park could protect the water supply. As founding commissioners died or retired, their successors were content to oversee only basic maintenance and minimal improvements.

And artists turned away. Scenic vistas and intimate forest glades lost their allure when hundreds of picnickers arrived on a summer’s afternoon. A polluted river was not viable as a symbol of civic progress. Thomas Eakins, who had celebrated the Schuylkill in his first exhibition picture, turned away from the park by the 1880s. But at the beginning of the next century, he returned to the river in a series of poignant self-portraits, hopeful perhaps that the fortunes of Fairmount and the Schuylkill were shifting. By this time, a new generation of community activists and park commissioners were embracing alternative philosophies of park use and political strategies to revitalize Philadelphia’s green places. A rapprochement between the Fairmount Park Commission and city government was signaled when the commissioners gained control of Penn’s squares early in the twentieth century and when the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was built to link city hall at Penn Square with the park at Fairmount. Yet even as Philadelphia’s park system began to consolidate, the unique history of the city’s green places continued to influence the dynamic tension between William Penn’s center city and the river that inspired Fairmount Park’s formation.