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Greenhouses of the Founding Fathers – Washington

Despite juggling the demands of a busy military and political life, it seems that George Washington enjoyed his time in the garden, particularly in his greenhouse. The Upper Garden at Mount Vernon was first designed and built in 1763. Then, fifteen years later, he added a greenhouse, and two long, low buildings that were designed as living quarters for slaves on either side. The residence of the slave responsible for operation of the greenhouse furnace was in one of these.

Washington studied different designs before he built, eventually taking features from a contemporary structure—one belonging to Margaret Tilghman Carroll, whose Baltimore estate was known as Mount Clare. Following her husband’s death in 1783, Margaret Carroll spent much of her time tending plants in this greenhouse. In addition to her main house, she had also built a 39’ by 24’ brick building which she called a stove house; it was equipped with a hot air system, enabling her to grow pineapples indoors year-round. Mount Clare wasn’t the only estate with such buildings—John Bartram had noted in July of 1740 that Colonel William Byrd of Virginia possessed a “little green house with two or three orange trees” and accounts from the 1770’s and 1780’s mention greenhouses in both Philadelphia and Charleston.

In 1784, Washington wrote to Margaret Carroll’s cousin, “I shall essay the finishing of my greenhouse this fall…shall I for this reason ask the favor of you to give me a short description of the the Greenhouse at Mrs. Carrolls? I am persuaded, now that I planned mine on too contracted a scale.”

Beginning in 1788, the reports of visitors to Mount Vernon include mention of the completed greenhouse. The greenhouse provided winter shelter for non-hardy plants, housing Washington’s coffee and citrus–orange, lemon, and lime– sago palm and aloe plants. These grew in tubs that could be positioned throughout the garden during warmer months. In the fall of 1789, Margaret Carroll sent a gift of twenty potted plants by boat to the harbor in Alexandria, including a grafted tree that would bear both lemons and oranges.

Surprisingly, the greenhouse Washington built was constructed mostly of brick. Its walls were punctuated by very high windows—they reached a height of nearly two stories. These were made from numerous smaller panes; bigger panes of glass weren’t yet available.

By century’s end, greenhouses would become popular in many of the small botanical gardens that had sprung up along the Atlantic coast. But George Washington’s greenhouse ranks among the earliest in the nation’s history.