A landscape cultivated for pleasure became an essential part of civilized living for many in the upper classes and European nobility during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the period two design styles reigned: the formal garden with symmetrical paths, geometric beds, and shaped hedges, and the enhanced natural landscape, which was popular in England. In the Netherlands, the formal garden held sway and came to New Netherland with the colonists.
Visible on the 1660 Castello Plan, one of the earliest maps of New Amsterdam, are rear gardens with walking paths interspersed with geometrically shaped planting beds, rectangular raised beds, and small orchards. Kitchen gardens like these were more than just places where vegetables and herbs were planted. They were also designed to allow for a private place to stroll, sit with family and friends, or read a good book.
From the late 1500s to the 1700s the Dutch were deeply involved in plant cultivation. Their gardens boosted a wider range of plants than many areas of Europe. During the period of European colonization, the Dutch actively collected specimens to return to the Netherlands. Their advancements inbreeding and growing garden plants, and the publishing of botanical books, many heavily illustrated during the golden period of Dutch art, were popular in both England and France.
Although we have no records of what the Philipse family's Manhattan houses looked like, based on the Castello plan, it is easy to assume that, like many of their neighbors, the Philipses also had enclosed rear gardens. With the purchase of several plots in New Amsterdam, and the building of houses upon them, it follows that creating a landscaping design that supported both food and ornamental plants would have been part of the process in which Frederick Philipse would have participated.
Having spent years in England, Frederick Philipse II and his wife Joanna may have returned to New York with the knowledge of various popular garden designs. Part of the expansion of Philipse Manor Hall included terracing the property around the house, the installation of an expansive lawn, and formal gardens on the east and north sides of the house. Currently, no historic family records have been located with a description of the grounds. The most detailed description comes from Thomas Cornell, written in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Cornell was the sole Civil Engineer in Yonkers. He directed nearly all of the early public improvements and made the official maps of the Village. Born in Flushing, New York, he came to Yonkers in 1847 as an engineer in charge of the construction of the Hudson River Railroad from Spuyten Duyvil to Dobbs Ferry. While there, he rented rooms in the Manor Hall. Later in his life, his chief recreation was found in historical studies and genealogical research. He was a member of the Westchester County Historical Society and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, and for six years served on its Board of Trustees. As part of his interest in history, he wrote for the Westchester Historical Society an essay entitled Some Reminiscences of the Old Philipse Manor House In Yonkers and Its Surroundings. It is in this document that he recounts his earlier years of living at the Manor and leaves a detailed description of the grounds as they were then:
"The old Colonial Mansion and its pleasant gardens and immediate surroundings apparently had hardly changed from the rural beauty of old colonial days when I first saw them, in 1847, now nearly half a century ago. The modest lawn in front of the house to the Post Road, and behind the house perhaps a hundred feet, and the acre or two of garden on the north of the house and lawn, where useful fruit trees and currant bushes mingled with flowers and ornamental shrubs and trees, and hedges of ancient boxwood, still retain the neat beauty and simplicity of their old days."
During the period of construction that expanded the house, it is unlikely that anything other than a functional kitchen garden and orchard would have been planted. Once the construction was completed, locust and horse chestnut trees were planted to create a visual barrier between the house and the mill complex. In his essay, Cornell references these trees as beings "ancient" when he saw them in 1847. He also shares a story from Anthony Archer:
“… one of the old men of Yonkers when I first knew him” and a conversation they had in 1850. Mr. Archer assured him that his grandfather had said that the terraces west of the house were not made when the house was built. Together they “computed this work was done about 1740 or 1750.”
This dates the terraces to the ownership of Frederick Philipse II.
By the time Cornell saw the Manor in 1847, the acreage surrounding the house had been greatly reduced, although the immediate grounds had remained intact. He recalled:
“I suppose that very little change had taken place in the Manor House itself, or in the four or five acres immediately connected with it. The lawn during all that period, and probably from a much earlier time, extended from the front of the house nearly three hundred feet to the Post Road on the east, without a break. The garden north of the house at this time extended to the Post Road on the east and back to the first terrace west of the house on the west, and north almost to what is now the south line of Wells Avenue. And I feel sure that some of the boxwood hedges in the western part of the garden had been growing there nearly or quite two hundred years.”
It is shortly after his arrival as a tenant in the house in 1847 that Cornell witnessed the destruction of the west side terraced garden.
As to what was in the garden itself, Cornell leaves few words:
“This was the Manor house garden as I found it in 1847, and as it remained during 1848 and 1849. Ornamental shrubbery and beds of flowers, mingled with gooseberry bushes and currant bushes, and with bearing fruit trees of many kinds and beds of asparagus and of strawberries, lent a home-like charm to the broad walk which bordered them.”
It is possible that somewhere, among stacks of unread or forgotten historic documents, are details of what the Philipses planted and harvested. But for now, we can enjoy knowing that the Dutch and English traditions of formal gardens for food and pleasure were part of the Manor Hall's history.