Tending the granddaddy of gardens The new director of Bartram's Garden, a firmly rooted city treasure, ponders how to branch out to the future.

Posted: February 26, 2008

Sometimes, Louise Turan daydreams about a door in the middle of the wildflower meadow at Bartram's Garden, which she now heads.

Walk through it, facing east, and you step into the garden's future: the dock just beyond the meadow, on the banks of the Schuylkill, poised to bring ever more boatloads of tourists from Center City. The skyline is that close.

Turn around, facing west now, and head back through the door. Suddenly, it feels so 18th century that John Bartram might be coming round the corner, hauling plants or carts of schist or apples.

"It's like time travel here, kind of other-worldly, like Brigadoon," says Turan, 53, who became executive director in January. She has thought of actually building a door frame, to help visitors understand this stirring, full-of-potential place.

Located at 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard in Southwest Philadelphia, Bartram's Garden was founded in 1728 and is renowned as the oldest surviving botanic garden in the country. It was home and laboratory to "the father of American botany," a place revered by historians and horticulturists for its unparalleled collection of North American plant species.

Yet compared to this region's many other public gardens and arboretums, Bartram's 46 acres - hard by the river and next to a public-housing project - cast a relatively short shadow.

Though only a few miles from Center City, Bartram's is considered hard to find and inconvenient to get to. "People say we're off the beaten path. They ask why anyone would come down Lindbergh Boulevard," Turan says.

And though about 35,000 people visit annually, the focus has been on children's educational programs; there's no one on staff promoting adult or group tours.

"Most of the bookings are reactive, them finding us rather than us being proactive," says Turan, who hopes to reassign a staff member in the next few months to help drum up business.

She also hopes to deliver a strategic plan by September that would answer some key questions:

What is the essence of this place? "We've been all things to all people - garden, house, historic site and education center," its new director says. "Just who are we? What are our priorities?"

Who are Bartram's "primary customers," and what do they value?

How can they be persuaded to visit, and what would make their trip easier?

Turan comes to Bartram's with a variety of work experience - planning, fund-raising, working with volunteers, boards, donors and foundations - at places like the Philadelphia Dance Alliance, the old Philadelphia College of Art, and the Schuylkill River Development Corp., which was all about building Schuylkill River Park and Trail. (By 2010, the trail is expected to connect Bartram's with the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Thirty years in the nonprofit world left her thinking, "I've seen enough craziness!" But she went from that to sheer lunacy with a stint in the restaurant business. "What was I thinking?" she asks now.

Then in September, she learned of the opening at Bartram's, where she was a consultant and development director from 1985 to 1994. The idea of returning to this quiet place by the river she loves, with the experience she has had, at this time in her life, was, in a word, perfect.

To explain, Turan quotes from novelist Katherine Mansfield: "How hard it is to escape from places! However carefully one goes, they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences, little rags and shreds of your life."

There have been many such places in Turan's life. She was born in Turkey to a Turkish physician-father and American mother; the family followed her father's military postings to Germany and Italy (twice) and several cities in the United States. Turan counts five overseas and four cross-country moves, and says she wouldn't have had her childhood any other way.

She was called Hayat in Turkey, Heidi as a child ("because I was always singing and picking flowers"), and Weeze (WEE-zie) as an adult. She was a singer-songwriter in college (Chatham, in Pittsburgh) and dreamed of being the next Bonnie Raitt. Or maybe a Proustian scholar.

She's been married to Bill George, chief executive officer of Health Partners, for 26 years; they have sons 20 and 23 and live in Center City. She's also writing a novel and thinking of getting back into songwriting.

And then there's Turan's new job, which seems to consume her in a healthy, nonobsessive way. There's so much history there.

Born in Darby in 1699, John Bartram was a self-taught naturalist who explored the New World from Canada to Florida and west to Ohio, discovering many previously unknown rare plants along the way.

The most notable, perhaps, was the Franklinia alatamaha tree, named for his friend Benjamin Franklin and, since 1803, extinct in the wild. Several specimens live on at Bartram's.

Members of the Bartram family lived in the house for 125 years. In 1891, it was sold to the City of Philadelphia and in 1963 became a National Historic Landmark. Today, it's administered by the nonprofit John Bartram Association for the Fairmount Park Commission.

Bartram's Garden has an $800,000 operating budget and a $3 million endowment, 900 members, and 10 full- or part-time employees, including head gardener Todd Greenberg, a Temple Ambler horticulture grad who came on board four years ago.

"You get back in here, and it's, literally, sort of jaw-dropping," Greenberg says, explaining that "it's not just about horticulture or history. To have this kind of natural resource so close to the city . . . it's also about community."

For curator Joel Fry, it's definitely about history. He loves the story of this independent-minded Quaker, a twice-married father of 11 who taught himself Latin and botany and was instrumental not just in collecting but also in propagating plants and sending seeds to Europe. George III named Bartram the King's Botanist for North America; he also was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

"So much can be traced back to this garden," Fry says. And while it may never rival the iconic popularity of, say, Rocky Balboa, he adds, it is "one of the city's most important cultural relics."

Such thoughts fill Turan whenever she stands in her favorite place, the simple front porch of the stone house John Bartram built with his own hands. There, she can see the 200-year-old yellowwood tree, a winter skeleton now, as well as the moss-covered paths and the river beyond.

Possibility is in the air.

So is a red-tailed hawk, a male. He's soaring overhead, his steam-whistle cry floating on the wind. It's high-pitched and haunting, perhaps gloating, for on this side of the river on this gray afternoon, he has the skies all to himself.

Contact staff writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

If You Go

Bartram's Garden is on Lindbergh Boulevard just below 54th Street in Southwest Philadelphia.

The grounds are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays (except city-observed holidays) and noon to 4 p.m. weekends, with free admission and parking. Admission is charged for tours of the Bartram House, a National Historic Landmark, which is open for tours March to December.

Information: 215-729-5281 or www.bartramsgarden.org.

Directions

SEPTA: The Route 36 trolley stops at 54th Street and Lindbergh.

From Center City: From 23d and South Streets, head south onto Grays Ferry Avenue. After crossing the Schuylkill, turn left at Paschall Avenue, then left at 49th Street. Follow the bend onto Grays Avenue, then bear left at the fork onto Lindbergh Boulevard. Just beyond 54th Street and immediately after crossing the railroad bridge, make a sharp left turn into the entrance drive, which is not visible until after crossing the bridge.

From the Schuylkill Expressway: Eastbound, take Exit 346A and turn left onto University Avenue. Turn right onto Grays Ferry Avenue and follow directions as above. Westbound, take Exit 346B onto 34th Street. Turn left onto Grays Ferry and follow directions as above.

From Interstate 95: Southbound, take Exit 14 for Bartram Avenue, then turn right at Essington Avenue (second light). Turn left at 70th Street (first light), then turn right at Lindbergh Boulevard (first light). Northbound, take Exit 13, keeping to the right for the ramp to Route 291 and Island Avenue. Turn right onto Island Avenue, turn right at Bartram Avenue (first light), then turn left at Essington Avenue (second light). Proceed as above.

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