John Notman and Andrew Downing
John Notman, the architect of Guernsey Hall, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on July 7, 1810. He studied at the “School of Arts” also known as The Royal Academy of Scotland before emigrating to the United States in 1831. Notman arrived in Philadelphia with excellent drawing skills and a four-year apprenticeship which put him at great advantage to American practicing architects. He initially worked as a carpenter, quickly established his career as an architect around 1835, and became well known for his designs of churches, private homes, and public buildings. Notman was responsible for many of the great historic buildings that remain in Princeton, including Prospect House, expansions to Nassau Hall, and the Lowrie House, located at 83 Stockton Street. His biographer, Connie Greiff writes of Notman: “He introduced the Italianate villa to the United Stated at Burlington, NJ and was recognized by the chief apostle of the picturesque, A.J. Downing, as one of the country’s most skilled practitioners in that vein.“
The Princeton University Library has a drawing by Notman intended as a design for the garden of Guernsey Hall. It shows similarities to the current lay-out of Marquand park. In this drawing and an another for Laurel Hill, the first architecturally designed park-like rural cemetery in the country, the strongly influence of the landscaped garden principles of Andrew Downing on Notman can be observed in the meandering paths, clusters of trees, wide lawns, and open vistas. In his Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening and essays published in his magazine, The Horticulturist, Downing popularized landscape gardening among America’s growing middle and upper middle classes. Following British models, he categorized landscape design styles as “The Beautiful” (calm and serene) and “The Picturesque” (dramatic), with the style to be determined by the existing landscape context. Proponents of the Picturesque strove to make “improvements” to the natural landscape. They aimed to perfect nature by considering the real site-specific characteristics of a place, the genius loci or what we might consider a “sense of place.” This might be realized by recognizing the topography of a site or framing a view of a borrowed landscape. These approaches often were employed on a single site. Olmsted, Downing, and Weidenmann all created Picturesque landscapes, including many public parks. The Picturesque style remained popular from the 1840s well into the early 20th century.
In 1842, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society held its annual exhibit in a building that was originally the Chinese museum of Philadelphia. Covering the show, the Farmers’ Cabinet** reported an Urania Speciosa, a banana-like plant donated by Richard S. Field of Princeton as one of the star attractions. The plant must have been quite tall because the report notes that there was fortunately enough space for its towering stalks in the large exhibition room with high ceilings. A year earlier, a description of important green houses in Princeton*** lists an Urania Speciosa among a collection of plants in the hot-house of Richard S. Field. Thus, we can safely assume that this Urania Speciosa was the same plant as the one entered into the show in Philadelphia a year later. Richard Field who is also the first owner and creator of what is now Marquand Park, may have carefully cultivated this exotic and rare species to be exhibited in the show.
The Urania Speciosa or Ravenala madagascariensis (also known as the Traveler’s tree) is a tropical plant with large paddle-shaped leaves arranged like a giant fan. Although already mentioned in the 17th century by explorers traveling to Madagascar, it was carefully described and illustrated for the first time by Pierre Sonnerat in his Voyages aux Indes orientales et à la Chine of 1782. Arboreta like Kew Garden in London and Les Jardin des Plantes in Paris had an Urania Speciosa in their collection in the 19th century. They were considered rare and exotic specimens. Richard Field was an active collector of plants and trees and well known for his horticultural interests. Privately owning and exhibiting such a plant must have been especially thrilling for him.
**The Farmers’ Cabinet, and American Herd-book: Devoted to …, Volume 7; edited by Francis S. Wiggins, James Pedder, Josiah Tatum, 1842, p. 103
***The Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries …, Volume 7; edited by M. Hovey, Boston 1841, p. 123.