A Healing Garden in a Therapeutic Landscape

by Rebecca W. Flemer, Affiliate ASLA

William Hamilton (1745-1813) was born in Philadelphia to a wealthy family of colonial lawyers and politicians. Hamilton was an eminent botanist and plant collector, and made The Woodlands a New World model of contemporary English landscape gardening techniques. / image: William Russell Birch (1755-1834). “Woodlands, the Seat of Mr. Wm. Hamilton, Pennsylvania,” from Country Seats of the United States, 1808.

Visit any hospital or healthcare facility in North America and you are likely to find a “healing garden.” This may be a revamped courtyard or a purposely composed landscape designed to benefit patients and their caregivers. Preliminary plans are underway in the Dell area of Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia for a healing garden and green burial site. At first glance, a healing garden in a cemetery may appear to be counterintuitive. However, the institution’s founders and early patrons believed in the therapeutic influence of nature and current plans build on those ideals. Close to the city and multiple healthcare facilities, the garden will serve as a place to learn, heal, and reflect. Aaron Wunsch, Associate Professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jessica Baumert, Executive Director, have been discussing this plan with Cherie Eichholz, PhD, a social worker at the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center. Outlines for such a scheme also appear in the cemetery’s 2015 master plan.

The Woodlands, a 54-acre historic cemetery and estate, is located near the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia VA Hospital (The Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center). The surrounding neighborhood is a mixture of students and professors, with a daily influx of patients and visitors to the nearby medical complexes.

At just under an acre, the ruggedly overgrown north-eastern corner of the Woodlands is known as “The Dell.” Steep sloping ground—20 feet in depth—discouraged burials here. A stream, Middle Run, ran through the area and held a water collection tank which fed an early irrigation line. The area is part of a buffer around the cemetery protecting the grounds from the surrounding commotion of city traffic and noise.

Image 2. A map from 1860 shows the location of the dell, site of the proposed healing garden, close to the current location of the VA Medical Center. / image: Smedley, Samuel L. “Atlas of the City of Philadelphia, 1862.” J.B. Lippincott Company, 1862. Map Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

The Dell garden is intended to complement one of the most storied landscapes in American garden history. Before the Revolution, landowner and plant enthusiast William Hamilton (1745-1813) established a “country seat” on the banks of the Schuylkill River, placing himself in a local tradition with strong English roots. Health, leisure, and the display of refined aesthetic sensibilities were all motivating factors. The English landscape garden movement was well underway when Hamilton visited Britain in 1784. [1] His subsequent “endeavor to make it smile in the same useful and beautiful manner” [2] is still evident in sinuous paths, hills and indeed, dells. The Woodlands was, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “the only rival which I have known in America to what may be seen in England.” [3]

The Woodlands also served as a repository of exotic and newly discovered horticultural specimens, many of which were studied for medicinal use. Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, used the Woodlands as a living classroom, bringing students there to learn materia medica or plants valued for their medicinal use. One of these students, Jacob Bigelow (1786-1879), went on to establish the first rural cemetery in America, Mount Auburn, in Massachusetts. Barton was charged with instructing Meriwether Lewis with plant collecting protocols, and specimens from the Lewis and Clark expedition were entrusted to William Hamilton’s care. [4]

Thomas A. Kirkbride, noted physician and mental health pioneer, influenced the design of hospitals and their grounds espousing the Quaker belief in self-reflection to benefit his patients—so-called moral-reform. His plan for the nearby Pennsylvania Hospital’s grounds, picturesque in form with undulating paths and rolling hills, reflected his views on compassionate care for those suffering from mental illness. Peaceful natural surroundings calmed the nervous mind while, in Kirkbride’s words, providing “the proper means of exercise for its patients in rambling over its pleasure grounds.” [5] Environmental Determinism, the idea that surroundings can shape behavior, became integral to nineteenth-century design. This concept would come into play at the Woodlands in the 1830s.

Leading real estate lawyer Eli K. Price (also a Quaker) repurposed the Woodlands as a cemetery. It served as a quasi-public park attracting visitors who wished to escape the crowded environs of the city. So many visitors used the cemetery it became necessary to issue timed tickets. Numerous people buried here are linked to innovative thought and compassionate care of soldiers and others suffering from mental illness. Today, evidence-based research proves again and again the benefits of ‘Nature-assisted Therapy.’

Image 3. Called “hands down, the finest 19th-century American painting,” Thomas Eakins’ (1844-1916) The Gross Clinic (completed 1875) depicts Samuel David Gross, M.D. (1805-1884), the foremost surgeon in Philadelphia for much of the 19th century. Both men are interred at The Woodlands Cemetery. Although Eakins intended the painting for a general exhibition at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, it was deemed too disturbing and was displayed instead in a less prominent location in the U.S. Army Post among surgical tools and weapons. The artist and the subject embody Philadelphia as a center of culture, medicine, and industry leading up to the Centennial. / image: Philadelphia Museum of Art – Accession Number 2007-1-1
Image 4. Portrait of Dr. J. M. Da Costa by an unidentified photographer, c. 1880. Da Costa’s work Medical Diagnosis went through nine reprints during his lifetime. He observed what he called “Irritable Heart Syndrome” (also called “Da Costa’s syndrome”) in soldiers after the Civil War. Symptoms including fatigue, palpitations, sweating, tremor, and utter fatigue mirror those of what we now recognize as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. / image: courtesy of the Center for the History of Medicine

According to The Woodlands’ strategic plan, completed in 2015: for the next three-to-five years, The Woodlands will focus primarily on engaging its neighbors in order to position itself as a vibrant community-based institution with a significant story to tell about Philadelphia’s history. This approach is well-suited to ensure the preservation of the estate and promote its optimal use in the 21st century. An important component of the Strategic Plan is to develop a rich array of programs to encourage the surrounding community to use The Woodlands as their “backyard,” in order to solidify its role locally as a much-needed open space and to extend its reach city-wide as a cultural resource. [6]

The Dell Garden fulfills these intentions. The garden would include species supporting a broad range of native and beneficial wildlife and serving as a habitat for local biodiversity. Because several of the plants introduced by William Hamilton, such as Ailanthus and Norway maple, have become invasive species, returning native species to ground zero of their distribution serves as an opportunity to address the challenge of invasive species. With easy access to this nature sanctuary, the location benefits the broader community.

Image 5. Proposed plan for the Dell Garden with amphitheater, memorial wall, and woodland garden. / image: Mark B. Thompson Associates LLC. “Woodlands Connects.” Master Plan. Philadelphia, PA, April 2015.

The Dell Garden presents multiple functions for visitors to the Woodlands. First, a burial component with an opportunity to memorialize people interred there by cremation. Secondly, a restorative or healing garden to be used by the nearby VA hospital and Penn Medicine for various therapies. In addition, where Middle Run once meandered down to the river, memorials and other commemorative events will be held in an amphitheater, with a water feature built into the topography. A retaining wall, necessary to handle the change in grade, provides a place to remember a loved one with a plaque or carved stone, or even incorporate a columbarium for cinerary urns. Inside the garden, the Woodlands’ interpretation efforts will be bolstered by wayside signage citing the therapeutic themes, numerous medical connections to those buried here, and relevant history concerning materia medica. From a visitor’s perspective, they will gain a broader historical context for the site.

While the Woodlands stands out as a community resource integrally tied to Philadelphia’s history, going forward, the Dell Garden offers an opportunity for additional partners to join in creating a meaningful and inclusive place. From the VA hospital to local native plant enthusiasts to national pharmaceutical companies, foundations and partners from the community will have the chance to support a purposeful project which will serve the area in a myriad of ways. Ideally, this garden will provide comfort and a sanctuary space in a microcosm of Philadelphia’s historic landscape.


[1] Wunsch, Aaron V. “Historic American Landscape Survey: Woodlands Cemetery,” 2004.

[2] Smith, Benjamin H., and William Hamilton. “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 29, no. 1 (1905): 70–78.

[3] “Thomas Jefferson to Caspar Wistar, June 21, 1807.” Image, 21 1807. The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress.

[4] Ewan, Joseph. Benjamin Smith Barton: Naturalist and Physician in Jeffersonian America. St. Louis : Missouri Botanical Garden Press; 2006.

[5] Kirkbride, Thomas Story. On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane. With Some Remarks on Insanity and Its Treatment. 2d ed. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1880.

[6] Thompson, Mark B. Associates LLC. “Woodlands Connects.” Master Plan. Philadelphia, PA, April 2015.

Rebecca W. Flemer, Affiliate ASLA, received her MS in Historic Preservation in 2018 and her BS in Horticulture from Cornell University, 1985. This report was written with the support of Aaron Wunsch, Associate Professor, and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, and The Woodlands’ Jessica Baumert.

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