January 24, 2018

The Unearthing of a Greenhouse Is Focus of Exhibit at Morven

BIRD’S EYE VIEW: This 1874 imagined aerial view of Princeton includes Morven, just off Nassau Street at Bayard Avenue, as it was then known. The tiny rectangle behind the house is evidence of Colonel Stockton’s greenhouse, which is the subject of the next exhibit at Morven Musem & Garden. The map is included in the exhibit.

By Anne Levin

At the front end of what is now the parking lot of Morven Museum & Garden, a small glass building once stood. Commodore Robert F. Stockton’s 19th-century greenhouse was filled with lemon trees, japonicas, cacti, azaleas, and other varieties, according to account books and inventories from the time.

Remnants of the greenhouse were uncovered during an archaeological dig in 2013. The building and the process that revealed it are the subject of “A Gentleman’s Pursuit: The Commodore’s Greenhouse,” an exhibit opening February 16 at Morven and running through June 3. The Trenton-based Hunter Research, Inc. conducted the dig, unearthing the building’s brick and stone foundation, remains of the cast iron furnace that provided heating, and numerous artifacts.

“Once the dig was done, we wanted to take it to the next step and put the full picture together,” said Elizabeth Allan, Morven’s executive director. “With Hunter on board, we are able to start at the beginning. Where did they dig, what were they looking for, what tools did they use? What did the dig find?”

Stockton’s greenhouse existed for about 30 years, from the mid-1850s till the 1880s. “It was surprisingly well preserved,” said Richard Hunter, of the archaeology firm. “This was a long, thin greenhouse that extended off of the property, so we only saw about a third of it. It was mostly brick, with some stone. We found the footprint of a good part of the building, and absolutely tons of glass and greenhouse kinds of things, like flower pots.”

Hunter Research has worked on and off at Morven for two decades, but this was the first time they had dug in the parking lot portion of the property. Plans to reconfigure the parking area prompted the project. “We kind of knew there had been a greenhouse in that area,” Hunter said. “But to see how much of it was there was a surprise.”

Morven was originally part of a 5,500-acre tract purchased from William Penn in 1701 by the Stockton family. Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived there, as did Robert Wood Johnson and his family and, later, five New Jersey governors. The house was opened to the public as a museum in 2004.

A press release for the exhibit reads, “The greenhouse denotes the refined gentleman’s pastime of the Commodore, reflecting his stature and financial standing to enjoy such a hobby. Maintaining the structure and the plants within would have likely involved a trained gardener and help from farm hands.”

The exhibit unfolds in several galleries, culminating with a scale model of the greenhouse that visitors can enter. Details throughout the show include an inventory of Commodore Stockton’s desk, letters from his daughter-in-law before she was coming to visit, and notations of places where she could buy orange blossoms.

One of the main goals is to highlight how archaeology works. “Most people just look at what’s above ground and not what’s buried underneath,” said Hunter. “But this exhibit enables us to take something very specific and set it in a broader context. This is mid-19th century gardening in the middle Atlantic states. There are many places, in Philadelphia, for example, that we can relate it to. This takes the findings many steps further.”

During the process, some public architecture days were held at the site, allowing the public to get their hands in the dirt. “It can be difficult, because there is a tension between professionals who want to do it all and do it right. But at the same time we owe it to the public to let them know how it’s done,” said Hunter. “People really relate to it well — especially kids.”

The official opening of “A Gentleman’s Pursuit” is Thursday, February 15 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. “We think people will love the exhibit,” said Allan. “It’s perfect that it starts in February, because it will be green inside the galleries while it’s still cold outside. And it gives us a chance to focus on our garden history, which is unique.”