Hunter Research recently aided Morven Museum and Garden with the preparation of a new exhibit entitled “A Gentleman’s Pursuit: The Commodore’s Garden.” This exhibit is currently on display through June 3, 2018 at Morven, which is located at 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. In highlighting the mid-19th-century greenhouse of Commodore Robert F. Stockton, remains of which were discovered during site plan development for the Stockton Education Center, now under construction, this exhibit offers an unusual blend of archaeology and regional horticultural history.
In 2013-14, excavations directed by Dr. Ian Burrow and Joshua Butchko of Hunter Research exposed the eastern end of a rectangular structure lying west of the Morven mansion and extending into a neighboring residential property. Soon identified from documents and maps as Robert Stockton’s greenhouse, the roughly 14 by 50-foot building was set on substantial brick and stone foundations and had a long, sloping, south-facing array of glass windows. A brick furnace with a cast-iron door was located in the northeast corner and accessed from outside the building. The archaeological evidence suggests that the greenhouse most likely began life as a cold house, but was soon adapted into a hothouse. The associated artifact assemblage, unsurprisingly, includes vast quantities of window glass fragments and flowerpot sherds, but there are also other critical items that relate to the building’s heating and ventilation system, as well as food remains and domestic objects recovered from the fill placed within the building footprint after it went out of use. By using statistical methods for dating 19th-century flat glass, Hunter Research intern Gail Hellman identified several phases of glazing at the greenhouse which helped in analyzing the structural history of the building.
Mid-19th-century horticultural books and catalogs and contemporary images, some of which are included in the exhibit, provided an excellent context for the archaeological findings. Morven’s own much-studied historical record was also an invaluable complement to the archaeological interpretation of the greenhouse remains, making reference to gardening activities on the property, revealing the name of the Irish-born gardener (Bernard Masterson) and yielding an inventory of plants in the greenhouse around the time of Robert Stockton’s death in 1866. The greenhouse was erected between 1852 and 1854 and continued in operation until around 1880.
The discovery of the greenhouse led to two well-attended campaigns of public archaeology in 2014 and 2016 during which members of the community and local schoolchildren assisted archaeologists in exploring more of the greenhouse interior. The remains were carefully reburied in 2016 with the building footprint being outlined in brick at the present-day ground surface. The bulk of the building’s foundations, as well as the furnace, are still intact below ground and available for future study.
The exhibit encompasses five connected galleries on the mansion’s second floor. One gallery explains the circumstances of the greenhouse’s discovery, placing it against the background of 30 years of Morven archaeology. Two galleries set Morven’s mid-19th-century gardening history within the broader context of the many fine formal gardens in the Mid-Atlantic region, highlighting the types of greenhouse structures that were built and the types of plants being raised. The final two galleries focus more specifically on the physical remains of the Morven greenhouse as documented by the archaeological investigations, culminating in a wonderfully accessible indoor life-size reconstruction of part of the building itself. The exhibit curators are Elizabeth Allan, Jesse Gordon and Brian Mackiw of the Morven staff and Patrick Harshbarger, Joshua Butchko and Richard Hunter of Hunter Research.