High on a hill in West Philadelphia sits the most significant spot many Philadelphians have never heard of: the Woodlands, a historically and architecturally important mansion and cemetery that is home to many of the city's most notable dead.

It is 54 acres of green and calm on the west bank of the Schuylkill, an oasis directly across the street from a SEPTA trolley portal.

"It's this amazing place that nobody knows about," said Jessica Baumert, executive director of the Woodlands. "We're trying to change that. We want to be put on Philadelphia's map again."

The Woodlands was the estate of William Hamilton, who in the late 18th and early 19th centuries owned much of what is now West Philadelphia. The Woodlands boasts a large portico with neo-Classical columns and a lovely view of the river below.

Hamilton was a noted botanist and plant collector who introduced the ginkgo tree and blue hydrangea to North America, a friend of Thomas Jefferson's who nurtured specimens from Lewis and Clark's expedition and shaped the Woodlands into what became the United States' first Federal-style showcase.

In 1840, the grounds became a "rural" cemetery, now the final resting place of artist Thomas Eakins, surgeon Samuel Gross, and members of the Biddle and Drexel families.

These days, it's a grand but worn space, an unfurnished house and a still-active cemetery.

Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame drew inspiration from the Woodlands, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark District. The estate at the center of her 2013 novel, The Signature of All Things, was modeled after the Woodlands, she has said.

Runners, walkers, and parents teaching their children to ride bicycles have long plied the Woodlands' paths. A group from the neighboring VA Medical Center strolls the grounds daily; the University of Pennsylvania cross-country team also uses it.

But the grounds and buildings have become even more of a gathering place in recent years, with craft fairs, nature walks, lectures, and other events drawing visitors - 30,000 last year. You can even rent the Woodlands for your wedding.

"We want people to use it like a park," Baumert said.

That's in keeping with Hamilton's designs for the Woodlands. He loved to show off his estate, and curious visitors knew to stop there to see his grand home and gardens.

Still, much remains to be done. Years of decline have left the mansion and stables needing millions of dollars of restoration work. There are no public bathrooms and not much in the way of signs, and the stable lacks electricity.

Some work is already underway. Money from the state and from private foundations is paying for one construction project - renovation of the north terrace and cryptoporticus, the underground section servants used to move around the house in Hamilton's time.

A William Penn Foundation grant is paying for a master plan.

And another major opportunity beckons. If by Jan. 31 the Woodlands can raise $218,400 - the amount it would need to restore the stable - the William B. Dietrich Foundation will contribute $612,000 to restore the mansion's exterior. About $140,000 has been pledged to date.

Baumert hopes that balance can be raised in time. Once visitors learn about the Woodlands, she said, they're often hooked, as evidenced by the enthusiastic group of volunteers - including the 60 neighbors who use space in the community garden - who help in ways large and small.

"It's a place that's easy to fall in love with," she said.

And it has great potential.

Take the carriage circle, the spot where buggies would park during funerals, a patch of land between the mansion and stables.

It's now essentially a repository of construction equipment and dirt moved from other parts of the property. But it offers stunning views of the mansion and rest of the estate, and if you squint a little, you can imagine it as the site of a concert series or beer garden.

Baumert says it "has the potential to be one of the most amazing public spaces in Philadelphia."


To find out more about the Woodlands, the mansion and cemetery at 40th and Woodland in West Philadelphia, visit http://woodlandsphila.org or call 215-386-2181.


215-854-5146 @newskag