Morris Arboretum: The Intersection of Nature & Art

Morris Arboretum Photograph by Rob Cardillo

Nestled on 92 acres of land between Chestnut Hill and Lafayette Hill lies one of Philadelphia’s greatest hidden gems: Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. Now a renowned public garden with residents of The Hill at Whitemarsh as members of its Advisory Board, Morris Arboretum was once the private summer home of brother and sister John and Lydia Morris, heirs to the iron manufacturing firm I.P. Morris Company. As horticulture enthusiasts, the Morris siblings were able to transform the barren land into a lush plantscape with diligent care and devotion.

The Morris siblings traveled the world together and always brought new ideas, crafts, plants and art back to their summer home. They established a tradition of placing sculptures in their gardens, a tradition that remains today.

Morris Arboretum, a mere two miles from The Hill at Whitemarsh, now houses 17 permanent sculptures in its garden. The public art was installed with the intention of serving as a complement to the landscape and plant collections, as well as honoring the history of the property.

“John and Lydia Morris loved to travel and bring back ideas from places far and wide. The Swan Pond and Love Temple were designed in 1905, likely inspired by the popular 18th century design style of the English romantic landscape, and the Mercury Loggia was designed in 1913 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the building of Compton, their residence,” says Susan Crane, Director of Marketing for Morris Arboretum.

Art is such an integral component of the Arboretum’s garden that in 1994 the Madeleine K. Butcher Fine Arts Endowment was established to encourage up-and-coming artists to show their work at the Morris Arboretum. The endowment provides funding for changing exhibits at the Arboretum.

Back by popular demand is renowned artist Patrick Dougherty, who will be returning to Morris Arboretum for his third visit as an artist-in-residence from March 17-29, 2019, to create one of his signature sculptures. During those weeks, visitors to the Arboretum will have the chance to watch Dougherty at work before the completed sculpture opens to the public on March 30.

Dougherty is already an established fan favorite among visitors; his first exhibit for the Arboretum, “Summer Palace,” debuted in 2009, followed by “Waltz in the Woods” in 2013. Once his sculptures are erected, they remain in the garden for approximately one to two years, or as long as they can withstand the natural elements.

“The public loves the huge scale of Patrick’s work, which is typically 25-plus feet high, combined with the intimacy of entering the structures to peek out through windows and openings from inside,” says Crane.

Photograph by Al Goldman

Although there’s no telling what Dougherty will ultimately create, the end result is sure to amaze visitors to the Arboretum. Dougherty’s new sculpture will be built in the Madeleine K. Butcher Sculpture Garden, which has perfect site lines to be seen from farther points, like the Wisteria Walk below the Rose Garden and the path along the English Park. This upcoming installation for Morris Arboretum is one of more than 200 pieces Dougherty has designed in public spaces worldwide.

Combining carpentry skills and his love of nature, Dougherty works with volunteers and staff members to create unique site-specific sculptures made solely from twigs, saplings, branches and sticks that take shape as he works. Inspired by the garden’s surroundings, the name of each sculpture is not determined until after the design has been completed.

“Patrick’s structures have no nails or hardware that holds them together aside from the strength of the woven sticks and branches,” says Crane. “For a public garden to have such a natural and dramatic piece of art is so special. Garden follies have long been present in gardens as structures without a particular purpose, designed merely to add delight to the surroundings.”

To see for yourself what Dougherty will design for Morris Arboretum this time around, plan to check out his latest creation, which opens on Saturday, March 30. To learn more about the Arboretum, including its guided Winter Wellness Walks, a favorite activity of many residents of The Hill, visit the website: