Carpenters' Hall

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Gardens and Gardeners

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The first gardener and caretaker, Martha Stewart ("Aunt Mar")

In a display case just inside the Hall are a half-dozen fading but informative old postcards. Each one documents not only the building's appearance in a particular year, but the gardens flanking the walkway. For more than a century, gardens have brightened the Hall's façade, thanks to the efforts of custodians with green thumbs and, later, landscape contractors guided by the inevitable committee. Nowadays the summer-long display of flowering trees, shrubs and annuals is tended by the National Park Service.

But that is recent history. In colonial times noxious Dock creek flowed past the Hall's east side. Nearby were tanning yards, source of much of the pollution. Later, the Hall stood in the shadow of taller buildings. Formidable stone structures of "bankers' row" — the financial district — lined Chestnut St. Plants would have received, at most, only a few hours of sunlight. A suburban gardener's dream it was not. Nevertheless, to one 19th century member the gardens were an "oasis of green." Today, thanks to creation of Independence National Historical Park, the Hall — bordered with flower beds and surrounded by expanses of meadow-like lawns — can for the first time be appreciated for the architectural gem that it is.

Ironically, the first garden — at the rear of the Hall — has for many years been covered with brick. But that was not always the case. Several years before the Civil War (1857 to be precise) the Company voted to return to their "Old Hall" from adjacent "New Hall," which they erected and occupied for more than a half-century. The committee charged with refurbishing Carpenters' Hall specified that behind the building, in a space barely twenty feet wide and fifty feet in length, there should be plantings as well as paved walks. Quite an achievement. But by July the garden was complete and the Company returned to their original home, now completely restored. Another milestone: the east room of the second floor, at one time the location of Franklin's Library Company, was divided into "three chambers, a parlour and a kitchen" for the new custodian, Sarah Stewart, and her two daughters, Margaret and Martha. Unofficial gardener became part of Sarah Stewart's assignment. Sixteen years later, on Sarah's death, Martha would assume her mother's duties.

A newspaper clipping in the 1880's illustrates the difficulties of gardening without sunlight. "The tearing down of the buildings on South Fourth Street to make room for the new Fourth Street National Bank opened to view the south front of the Hall which has not been visible from the surrounding streets for many a year before... The old brick walls are almost covered with creeping vines... When the new building is finished, its north wall will tower far above the roof of the modest historical structure, but will leave a yard or well about twenty feet wide for light and ventilation..."

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How the Stewarts became associated with the Hall begins with James (elected 1794; deceased 1813) about whom we know little except that he subscribed to "The Young Carpenter's Assistant," an early book on American architecture authored by Owen Biddle, a Company member. James had two daughters, Mary and Matilda, and a son, John. For 13 years after Mr. Stewart's death, his widow received a "quarterly allowance" for firewood and other needs in addition to tuition and clothing for the two girls. Apparently, John didn't require assistance.

John's son, also named James Stewart (elected 1833; deceased 1856) married Sarah Potter and had four children: Reuben, Margaret, Martha and Sarah, the last of whom died at an early age. City directories list him as a "house carpenter" at 17 Plum St. (now Monroe) between Front and Second. He placed mechanics' liens against several properties for "carpenter's work and materials furnished." Four properties he apparently owned were sold after his death in 1856.

One year later Mrs. Stewart — the Hall's first live-in custodian — and two daughters moved in. Except for the garden, Sarah's duties are not specified, but it is noted that she was "such a cleanly woman that she even polished the coal." Perhaps that's why "a bathtub was placed in the room at the south end of the second story for use of the superintendent." Also, a "[gas] range was put in the superintendent's kitchen in place of the present gas oven." At 80, three years before her death, Sarah was still receiving regular payments of five or ten dollars "to procure seeds, plants, flowers and for gardening."

Caring for the Hall was a family venture. In 1860, Martha, then 40, became librarian for the Company's collection, enlarged annually by the library committee for use both by members and their families. The Hall also witnessed the joys and sorrows of any family. Margaret lived there just three years before marrying James Rodes, grandson of Mark Rodes (elected 1785; deceased 1830.) Their daughter, Aline, came to live with aunt Martha after the mother's death from complications of childbirth. In 1887, after Aline's wedding at Gloria Dei (Old Swede's) Church, Martha — then the Hall's custodian for 15 years — hosted a reception at the Hall.

In March, 1872, one month after Sarah's funeral at the Hall, the Managing Committee voted "an order be drawn in favor of Martha Stewart toward defraying the funeral expenses of her mother (late our janitor)... Whereas daughter Martha Stewart being familiar with all the duties of the position, it was on motion resolved…that she be hired as janitress at the wage of $50 per month and that $250 be given for expenses related to her mother's sickness and funeral."

"Aunt Mar," as she was affectionately known, received just one payment of $15 for garden plants. When the front gardens were created in 1874 — two years before the Centennial Exposition — the Managing Committee turned to a professional. "William Boyle, gardener, of 42nd & Lancaster, [was paid] $10 for extra sodding on east side of yard in front and employed to cut grass and give needed attention…until next spring for $25." The following year "frames and trellis work [were] prepared for plants and vines in front yard of Hall."

Judging from reimbursements, Martha was unstoppable. "In favor of Martha Stewart, Argand [lamp] chimneys $.30; making carpet $4." She supervised maintenance: "In favor of Martha Stewart: repair of clock $1; Godfrey Krause, plumbing $7.42; carpenter work $4.32; plumbing $2.95." One problem she had to refer to the committee: "Miss Stewart complained of sewer gas escaping from the rain conductors, being so offensive at times as to prevent use of her room. Matter referred to a committee to inquire and report at the next meeting."

Nowhere is there a record of what must have occupied most of Martha's time – welcoming visitors by the hundreds ever since the Hall became a national historic shrine. By the Centennial, the stream swelled to a flood. During 1876, the year of the Centennial celebration, more than 70,000 signed a series of guest books. One estimate, perhaps too enthusiastic, placed the total number of visitors at 500,000. The commemorative booklet by Richard K. Betts ran to three printings for a total of 70,000 copies. In January, 1877, a motion by Mr. Betts was adopted: "whereas the large number of visitors... largely increased the duties of our esteemed superintendent, her ladylike bearing and courtesy to those visiting the Hall deserves the notice of the Company. Therefore... thanks of the Company is sent to Martha Stewart with a bonus of $200."

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Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia
Overshadowed by buildings, gardens at Carpenters' Hall were a challenge for Ms. Stewart and her successors. This 1859 photograph views the building from Chestnut St. entrance. Creation of Independence National Historical Park made possible present open space.

To members, Aunt Mar was more than an employee; she became family. In August, 1885, she accompanied members and their wives on a trip to Washington, D.C., and the Luray Caverns in Virginia. In 1887 Martha was part of an expedition to Niagara Falls and Watkins Glen. She died six years later on February 7, 1893, at the age of 68. Her funeral took place at Gloria Dei, where she is buried. But a private memorial service was held at the Hall, honoring the woman who served the membership 36 years, more than anyone before or since.

Every gardener has annual expenses for necessities — bulbs, plants, hose replacements to name a few — which inevitably increase in price. The Managing Committee's problem was no different. Bills for gardeners kept going up. Finally, in 1931 and possibly because of the Depression, the Committee threw in the financial towel. "The question of planting of the two flower beds was brought before the committee, which voted to... expend a sum not to exceed $250 for the work. The planting is to be soon and as permanent as possible."

Thus ends entries for the Hall's gardens until 1968 when the Park Service agreed to plant ivy (now long deceased) in front of the boxwoods on either side of the front door. A postcard dated 1942 does not show them. Yet Mrs. Penelope Hartshorne Batcheler, retired restoration architect at Independence Park and wife of member George D. Batcheler, Jr., recalls seeing them in the 1950's. But boxwoods exude a certain aura of mystery, and those at the Hall are no exception.

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Carpenters' Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
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