A History of the Arnold Arboretum

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Lilacs_at Arnold_Arboretum_

The following is a transcript of a lecture by Richard Schulhoff, Deputy Director of the Arnold Arboretum, given on October 18, 2009. The lecture was held in the Hunnewell Building and sponsored by the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

In 1640 the colonial legislature granted to Captain Joseph Weld, for his service in the Indian Pequot War, 278 acres in what was then the town of Roxbury, now mostly Jamaica Plain. The homestead included much of today’s Arnold Arboretum. His son, who had been an officer in the Revolutionary War, lived on the estate and in 1806 he sold to fellow war veteran Benjamin Bussey approximately 120 acres of the original Weld holdings.

Bussey, after a poor and frugal childhood and a soldier’s life in the American Revolution, became a merchant, eventually amassing a great fortune from European trade. In 1815 he built a mansion – Woodland Hill – on his Roxbury property where he resided until his death in 1842. His wealth allowed for the entertainment of large groups – using French china, silver pitchers, and crystal goblets, all made for elegant service.

Much of the food grew on Bussey’s land: the cherries from the orchards, vegetables from the garden, and his livestock which provided the popular roasted veal and calves-head soup. Some lilacs on the grounds were planted by Bussey soon after purchasing the property, and those same hedgerows can still be seen on the east side of Bussey Hill, not far from the remains of a building foundation from that era. His neighbors included Enoch Bartlett of Bartlett Pear fame, and Joseph Story, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Bussey hosted visiting dignitaries when they came to town, including the Revolutionary War hero Lafayette, and later President Andrew Jackson, who came to Boston along with Vice President Martin Van Buren, and rode to the manse in Bussey’s yellow horse-drawn coach.

In his will, Bussey created an endowment at Harvard for the establishment of a school of agriculture and horticulture. Also included in his 1835 will was the grant of his estate to the President and Fellows of Harvard College as the site for the school. A number of years passed before the college acted upon the bequest, but in 1870, Bussey’s granddaughter released seven acres of the property for the establishment of the school, and by 1871 the Bussey Institute was established to carry out the terms of the will.

The school was never very large, with only ten graduates in its first decade, but later expanded and was eventually merged with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard in 1930. One of its graduates was Charles Eliot, son of Harvard President Charles Eliot, who was later employed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

The next important personage in Arboretum history was James Arnold (1781-1868). Born into a Quaker family in Rhode Island, he moved to New Bedford to work for a prominent family who had established the whaling industry in New England before the Revolution. Arnold later became a partner, married the boss’s daughter Sarah (who was highly respected in her time as a woman of impressive intellect) and became a wealthy man. He died in 1868 and his will specified that $100,000 of his fortune should be used to advance agriculture and horticulture. The trustees of his will suggested the sum be transferred to Harvard College and in 1872 the Arnold Arboretum was founded on 120 acres of the land originally willed to Harvard by Benjamin Bussey. In the deed between the Arnold trustees and the College it was stipulated that the trust be used:
“for the establishment and support of an arboretum which shall contain, as far as practicable, all the trees [and] shrubs … either indigenous or exotic, which can be raised in the open air.”

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) was appointed the Arboretum’s first director in 1873, and remained in that position until his death 54 years later. [Aside: he was a cousin of the famous painter John Singer Sargent.] He met Frederick Law Olmsted in the summer of 1878 while Olmsted was working on a commission for the Boston Parks Department. Olmsted had earlier suggested an arboretum in his plans for New York’s Central Park, but the offer was rejected. Instead he joined with Sargent in designing the Arnold Arboretum, agreeing on a design with both scientific and aesthetic purpose. The layout was based on the (then) generally accepted botanical classification system of English botanists George Bentham and Joseph Hooker, and was displayed in Olmsted’s usual naturalistic fashion. The Arnold Arboretum is the only extant arboretum designed by Olmsted.

They were also jointly responsible for the creative lease agreement that was forged between the City of Boston and Harvard in 1882. The negotiations went on for a number of years. The proposition first came to a vote by the City Council in October 1882, but after lengthy debate, it failed to pass. Proponents of the Arboretum on the Council quickly moved to set up an Arboretum Committee, and Sargent and Olmsted stepped up their efforts to rally support. A public relations drive was launched that had the “Arboretum Question” debated in the City’s newspapers, with such headlines as: “VOICES OF THE PEOPLE IN ITS FAVOR – THROWING AWAY A BARGAIN,” “THE ARBORETUM’S VALUE TO BOSTON,” and “AN EDUCATIONAL PARK AT A BARGAIN.” Sargent circulated a petition which more than a thousand powerful people signed. A story in the Herald of December 1st of that year read, in part:
“The petition to the city council in favor of the Arnold Arboretum is probably the most influential ever received by that body. It includes almost all of the large taxpayers of Boston. … Nearly all of the prominent citizens are there, including ex-mayors and ex-governors. … The petition would be a prize to a collector of autographs.”

Shortly thereafter, the proposal passed, and after another year of working out details, a thousand-year lease at one dollar a year was signed, and the unprecedented agreement between the City and Harvard began. According to the terms of the lease, the Harvard-owned land on which the Arnold Arboretum was established became part of the City park system, but control of the collections continued to reside with the Arboretum staff. The City was to maintain the perimeter walls, gates, and roadway system and provide security, while the Arboretum in turn agreed to keep the grounds open to the general public, free of charge, from sunrise to sunset every day of the year. As a result of this agreement, the Arboretum became part of the “Emerald Necklace,” the seven-mile-long network of parks and parkways that Olmsted laid out for the Boston Parks Department between 1878 and 1896. In the Arboretum, Olmsted laid out the path and roadway system and designated areas within the Arboretum for specific groups of plants. As Sargent envisioned it:
“A visitor driving through the Arboretum will be able to obtain a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the north temperate zone without even leaving his carriage. It is hoped that such an arrangement, while avoiding the stiff and formal lines of the conventional botanic garden, will facilitate the comprehensive study of the collections, both in their scientific and picturesque aspects.”

Sargent, an established dendrologist (woody plant expert) with many publications, some of which remain in use to this day, established the Arnold Arboretum as a leading scientific institution.

The Hunnewell Building was built in 1892 with an endowment from H. H. Hunnewell (1810-1902). He was a wealthy banker, railroad financier, philanthropist, and one of the most prominent horticulturists in America in the nineteenth century – probably the first person to cultivate and popularize rhododendrons in the United States. Both the town of Wellesley (founded 1881) and Wellesley College (chartered 1870) were named for Hunnewell’s estate, “Wellesley,” which remains an historical site in that town.

Peters Hill and the Walter Street Burying Ground
Benjamin Bussey purchased the land now called Peters Hill from farmer John Davis in 1837, and the tract of some 68 acres was added to the Arboretum under a second indenture with the City of Boston in 1894. Much earlier, in 1711, Joseph Weld and 44 other men organized the Second Church of Christ. The church building once stood on Peters Hill, and behind it to the south, the burying ground was created. This parcel of less than one acre is one of Boston’s fifteen historic cemeteries. There were ten Welds, including two who fought in the Revolutionary War, and their wives and children, buried in the graveyard. In the early 1900s much of the cemetery was destroyed, but a dozen headstones remain, dating from 1723 to 1776. Known originally as Davis Hill, it was later named after Andrew James Peters, a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1907 to 1914, and the Mayor of Boston from 1918 to 1922.

At present the Arnold Arboretum occupies 265 acres. It is administered as an allied institution within the central administration of Harvard University. As of March 2009, the living collections comprised over 15,000 individual plants representing 4,030 taxa or plant groupings. Taken together, the collections are considered to be one of the largest and best-documented woody plant collections in the world. Many of these accessions are of historical and botanical importance, representing the original North American introductions of Eastern Asian plants collected by Arboretum staff and affiliates such as Charles Sargent, E. H. (China) Wilson, John Jack, Joseph Rock, and others.

The Arboretum’s continuing involvement in botanical and horticultural exploration around the world, especially in eastern Asia, has brought many new plants into cultivation and greatly expanded our knowledge of their evolution and systematics. In addition, the Arboretum holds a library of over 40,000 volumes, while the herbarium contains approximately 130,000 specimens, both part of the extensive collection of Harvard held here as well as in Cambridge. The staff has published a periodic scientific journal continuously since 1888, currently titled Arnoldia. In addition to its research functions, the Arboretum conducts ongoing educational activities for adults, with free tours as well as a program for young children each spring and fall.

Production assistance by Kathy Griffin.