Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Ambition at Awbury

The old arboretum/estate in Germantown needs money and volunteers to reemerge grandly. Vision? There's plenty of that.

At Awbury Arboretum, new executive director Christopher R. van de Velde near a winter-bare weeping willow.
At Awbury Arboretum, new executive director Christopher R. van de Velde near a winter-bare weeping willow.Read more

On 55 acres of historic landscape in the heart of urban Germantown, the yellow aconite is blooming, the snowdrops and purple crocuses are up, and you can sense the fragile promise of spring.

That's a way of thinking about Awbury Arboretum, too, as it looks to reinvent itself - yet again. This grand old estate has new leadership and big plans:

To stabilize finances, to work with the neighborhood and local schools, to tackle long-standing maintenance and organizational problems, and to reassert ownership of what Christopher R. van de Velde calls "our primary mission - the care and feeding of the landscape."

Van de Velde is Awbury's second general manager in less than two years. (Citing personal reasons, his predecessor, Karen Anderson, left last spring after just 16 months.) And he certainly wasn't hired for his horticultural expertise.

"I mow the grass when my wife tells me to," he says.

But van de Velde has something that public gardens increasingly value in the 21st century, and that Awbury desperately needs: extensive experience promoting economic development, managing public-private ventures, running entities as diverse as Whitemarsh Township and the Philadelphia Gas Works, and advising governments and nonprofits.

Van de Velde came out of retirement to take the Awbury job. "I didn't want to see the place disintegrate," he says.

The arboretum has a bare-bones, $300,000 annual budget and a $750,000 endowment, which in today's market generates only about $25,000 a year in income. State money and programs the arboretum used to rely on have dried up; the Philadelphia school district no longer sponsors student field trips here; and foundation grants are more competitive than ever.

"It's a changed landscape out there," van de Velde says.

Still, the William Penn Foundation in 2010 awarded Awbury a $300,000 grant for two years of general operating support. The money also was intended to help the arboretum develop new funding sources.

"We have a very real gap," van de Velde says, adding that it costs about $65,000 a year "just to mow the grass, pick up twigs, and keep the house from getting eaten up by the elements.

"We don't want to use all our money to cut the grass. We want programs," he says.

Van de Velde is organizing a campaign to increase the endowment. He wants to start a plant nursery and refurbish the porch and parlors at the 1852 Francis Cope House, the arboretum's centerpiece, so it can be rented for events and weddings again. He's thinking of jump-starting Awbury's landscape company, so it can start making money once more; ditto for the arboretum's defunct firewood business.

Beth Miner, formerly education coordinator at Jenkins Arboretum in Devon, was hired about a year ago to do community outreach and to line up service-learning projects that would use Awbury as an "outdoor classroom" for students of all ages.

She's also trying to connect with neighborhood groups, community centers, local organizations, and nonprofits, and to rustle up more volunteers. "I need people power," she says.

Ultimately, all roads lead back to the landscape. In the words of landscape manager Denis Lucey, it was designed "to provide passive or peaceful recreation and education."

But Lucey has no illusions about the scope of caring for the plants and trees that offer that recreation and education. "It's enormous," he says.

Damaged trees, including a state champion river birch, need attention. Three large amur maples have languished for 20 years and should come down. An immense oak that crashed near the pond last year still hasn't been cleared away.

The pond itself is overgrown. Elsewhere on the property, Norway maple, kudzu, mile-a-minute vine, honeysuckle, and other invasives need constant attention. And because Awbury is in the middle of the city, and has a long, walled perimeter, litter is a perennial problem, especially along Chew Avenue.

"If we get a windstorm on trash day, it looks like a very big abandoned lot around here," Lucey says. "If not, it's glorious."

Lucey, a physician-turned-garden designer, grows wide-eyed describing the meadow in the full flush of summer, with native wildflowers blooming and birds darting about.

As he walks along, he rips out a rogue butterfly bush and scoops up some blown-in trash. Sometimes, he confides, visitors are disappointed to learn this arboretum isn't wildly colorful. "Most of it is pretty green, greens on greens, which was the intent of the Cope family," he says of the original Quaker owners who donated the land for a park in 1916.

Landscape architect Claudia L. Levy, who heads up a new landscape committee working on a long-range master plan for the arboretum, describes her own design preference as "towards more manicured gardens and deliberate design." It took her a while to appreciate the nuances of the "greens on greens" at Awbury.

"We don't have a rose garden like Morris Arboretum. There's no single outrageously unique feature to Awbury. It's a very subtle landscape," Levy says, "but the more time you spend there, it's really kind of magical."

That sentiment is what van de Velde and his team are counting on to get Awbury where they want it. The promise is definitely there, but much depends on engaging more people in that magic - and finding the money to support it.

"I'm fairly optimistic we have the next 18 to 24 months figured out," a cautious van de Velde says. "As for the long term . . . I'm still trying to figure that out."

Awbury Arboretum

Awbury Arboretum, at 1 Awbury Rd. in Germantown, has its main entrance on Chew Avenue.

The arboretum has 55 acres and the historic Francis Cope House. The grounds are open year-round, dawn to dusk, free of charge.

Awbury hosts educational and service learning programs and offers many volunteer opportunities. With other organizations, it also works on watershed protection, urban agriculture, horticulture, and food systems education.

Information: 215-849-2855 or

Hear landscape manager Denis Lucey talk about Awbury's restored meadow at