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The Solitude is an elegant manor house built in the architectural style made popular in eighteenth century England by Scottish architect Robert Adam and his brothers, James and John. The house sits on its original landscape on the bank of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, which today is part of America’s first Zoo.
John Penn, grandson of William Penn, built The Solitude in 1784. In 1788, John found it necessary to return to England, and, for reasons unknown, he never returned to America. The Solitude was inhabited by a succession of tenants during John’s lifetime. After his death in 1834, Penn family members inherited The Solitude until the death of Rev. Thomas Gordon Penn (John’s nephew) in 1869, the last direct male descendant of William Penn.
During this period, the city of Philadelphia had been assembling land to form Fairmount Park. The Park Commission initiated plans to purchase The Solitude estate after Thomas’s death. Then, in 1874, the newly formed Zoological Society of Philadelphia was given a lease on the land and “the house” for America’s first Zoo. The Solitude has been a cherished part of the Zoo ever since.
The eloquent motifs throughout the house, its historical significance, distinctive architecture and unique surroundings have inspired artists, preservationists, architects, poets, historians, academics and us, the staff of the Philadelphia Zoo and Friends of The Solitude, to write about its legacy and beauty. The House has also inspired individuals and groups to make wonderful contributions to upkeep the estate. Thanks to a recent gift from the Gray family, the gardens at The Solitude are currently being rennovated.
Please contact the Development Office to support The Solitude.
Through the years, the Zoo protected The Solitude without making substantive changes to the fabric of the house. Several years prior to the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, the Zoo, in cooperation with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was involved in sizeable repairs and improvements made to the house. In 1991, Friends of The Solitude was formed to preserve this historic structure and research its history.
Since the inception of Friends of The Solitude, the group has completed the installation of a new roof, and four columns for the east portico have been fully restored. On the interior of the house, structural stabilization of all ceilings has been completed, as well as a paint analysis of the Library and Parlor ceilings—and a full restoration of the original Library ceiling to its original eighteenth century colors has been completed.
The Friends of The Solitude also initiated an evaluation of the tunnel connecting the house to the kitchen dependency and its associated vaults in 2003, which revealed the unique quality and important historical significance of this structure. The Friends of The Solitude are interested in restoring the underground tunnel and kitchen vaults for future public access and interpretation.
Today, the Friends’ primary goal is the complete restoration of the parlor and entrance hall to its original colors. This major undertaking will require the help and support of individuals and organizations who understand the historical and architectural importance of The Solitude.
When John Penn built The Solitude, he commissioned a landscape plan for his 15 acre property, now at the heart of the Philadelphia Zoo. This plan is fully consistent with mid-18th Century English country estate garden conventions, as might be expected given his English upbringing.
John Penn lived during a key period in British landscape design and he was very aware of the landscaping fashions of the period. Penn grew up at Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire, England, an estate landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the leading landscape architect of his time. When John Penn returned to Stoke Park from Philadelphia in 1788, he engaged Humphrey Repton, the noted landscape designer of the late-18th and early-19th Century, to revise the landscape as part of a massive rebuilding program.
Beyond the necessities of an 18th Century estate, the landscape plan for The Solitude has many fashionable components: open views of the Schuylkill River from the house; footpaths offering carefully framed vistas and strategically placed clumps of trees; a “ha-ha,” a recent innovation to prevent livestock from entering the gardens; a picturesque flower garden; a bowling green; and a “wilderness” with carefully laid out trails.
In May 2008, master gardener Robin M. Potter was invited to develop a new landscape design for the gardens that surround The Solitude. Thanks to the generosity of the family of the late Walter Gray, the Zoo has been able to use Robin’s design to create the Walter Gray Family Gardens.
The design for the renovation of the garden is a careful balance between the history of the landscape, with its roots as a mid-18th Century Philadelphia country villa, and the landscape needs of today, as a focal point of the Philadelphia Zoo.
The original landscape plan for The Solitude provided the inspiration for the new design which includes carefully framed views to and from the house, and plants used in estate plantings of that period. At the same time, by incorporating attractive native plants into the design, the gardens also provide zoo visitors with an important education on the use of indigenous plants in a modern garden, promoting local wildlife-friendly habitats.
In a nod to the more informal approach desired by John Penn, and reflecting today’s busy lifestyles, the Walter Gray Family Gardens at The Solitude are designed for lower maintenance. Flowering and fruiting plants were selected for seasonal interest throughout the year. Plants were matched against specific site needs and growing conditions.
Included in the Gray Family’s gift is a wonderful challenge. They will match non-family contributions towards this project, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $125,000. The Grays’ intent is to bring Robin Potter’s inspiring design to life and to create the necessary endowment that will allow these gardens to be maintained in perpetuity.
You are invited to help make this wonderful dream a reality by answering the challenge. Please contact the Development Office at 215-243-5227 to support the new gardens at The Solitude.
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