Connecting the dots: George Vail’s new landscape at Willow Hall

willow hall
Willow Hall in Morristown has been designated on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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willow hall
Willow Hall in Morristown . Photo by Kevin Coughlin

By Margret Brady

As I continue to connect the dots between the activities at Willow Hall in the mid 1800s and the growing interest in all things sustainable today, I find that the innovations in landscaping begun at Willow Hall by George Vail remain as relevant today as they were then.

The idea of creating a landscape for the enjoyment of the public as well as the property owner was not common practice at the time. The concept of converting an industrial site to a thing of beauty that also could serve practical purposes was unheard of in 1843.

Many of Vail’s contemporaries, especially his father Stephen, considered his ideas odd to say the least.

His father had purchased the home of his son-­in­-law Dayton Canfield, after his daughter Harriet died.

That house was directly across the street from the home where George and his siblings had been raised.

Stephen began a major renovation of his new home, in what he considered the latest federal style. He gave his former home to his son George. He wanted to keep his children nearby.

George Vail
George Vail

His daughters had married the sons of his neighbors, the Canfields and the Cutlers. He had been disappointed when his gifted son Alfred had chosen to live elsewhere and study religion instead of devoting himself to the family businesses.

By making George the owner of the industrial complex and providing him with a home on the site, Stephen made sure that George maintained his ties to Speedwell.

Bringing Alfred back to Speedwell was most likely the primary motivation for Stephen, when he supported the efforts of his sons to help Samuel Morse develop his idea for a new form of communication.

The major renovation and remodeling of his new home at the time gave no indication that Stephen had any interest or knowledge of any of the the architectural design and landscaping techniques taught by Morse and promoted in the best selling publications of Andrew Jackson Downing.

Stephen’s diary made no mention of any activity of Alfred, George and Sam Morse except for those activities relating to the development of the telegraph and his complaints about the cost and the time spent of the project without results.

George’s involvement in the Baldwin Locomotive Company in Pennsylvania was a result of his design for an iron wheel that made cross-country railroad travel possible.

It had made him independently wealthy, and Stephen feared he would become less interested in the Speedwell forge and factories. Turning the industrial complex over to George and giving him the family home was a way to maintain George’s ties to Speedwell.

Stephen supported his son’s involvement in the local Democratic party and his election campaigns. His father was not surprised that George decided to build a new house, more suited to his current place in society, but he did not expect George to build what was then considered a radical new style of home and to redo the entire landscape.

As George’s plans evolved over the next few years, it became obvious that they were unlike anything that had ever been built in the area before.

His new landscape included flower beds and a series of lanes and paths to enable people to travel throughout the site and enjoy the scenic vistas he created.

He even kept the old ice house as a picturesque spot topped with a fence that incorporated the original jailhouse door, salvaged when the jail was removed from the Morristown Green in 1827.

Although most of the available records, focus on the joint efforts of Samuel Morse and the Vails to develop and promote the telegraph, it is hard to believe that Morse never discussed the theories of sustainable architecture and landscaping while he was in Morristown.

His classes were based on the design theories of sustainable architecture in England and the writing of Andrew Jackson Downing. I can’t imagine that he and George did not discuss Georges plan’s for his new home at that time.

Downing wrote in the forward to his book, in June 1842, of his desire to inspire others to appreciate the superiority of the well designed home and garden and grounds, “full of beauty and harmony.”

He wrote about these superior forms, and the higher and more refined enjoyment derived from them, “that may be had at the same cost and with the same labor as a clumsy dwelling, and the uncouth and ill­-designed accessories.”

In 1843, George had begun to plan the design of his new home and gardens. Those plans would contain many of the ideas and features of Downing’s Design V., a cottage Villa in the bracketed mode.

The plans included a treatment of the hillside in the rear and the preparation of the turf. There was an illustration of a layout of curving paths and flower beds and kitchen and fruit gardens.

The original site at 330 Speedwell Ave. had a continuous slope toward the industrial complex surrounding Speedwell Lake. George’s first task was to create a level plateau to accommodate the new layout.

It took many months to remove the tons of sand before actual construction could begin. In 1848, the home was completed and George began to entertain his family, friends and associates there.

Stephen Vail, Samuel Morse and George Vail all had quite competitive natures. They all had gardens, livestock and farmed their land.

It also appears, by the records that remain, that George was the most successful in his efforts.

While Stephen spared no effort or funds to achieve his goals and Morse wrote extensively of his efforts at his new estate in Poughkeepsie, NY., the evidence clearly indicates that George’s results far surpassed them.

His chicken produced more eggs than Stephen’s chicken, although Stephen had built a bigger more costly chicken coop. George’s horses won the top honors at various competitions and his gardens consistently had a larger output and his fruit trees were of the finest quality.

Morse eventually gave up his farm, claiming his efforts had been done on behalf of his brother, who had moved elsewhere. Meanwhile, although mocked by Stephen’s friends and associates, George’s Willow Hall estate flourished in spite of his many political and personal distractions.

Sustainable building, landscaping and gardening as demonstrated by George Vail continues to be relevant today.

Sustainable Morristown, Grow It Green Morristown and the Morristown Environmental and Shade Tree committees are just a few of the current efforts to sustain the efforts begun at Willow Hall by George Vail.

The current owner of Willow Hall is the Passaic River Coalition. The PRC has a long history of working to preserve the precious water resources of the Passaic River and its tributaries.

The Whippany River, which supplies Speedwell Lake, is one of those tributaries. The home and landscape were remarkably well preserved, 166 years after George began his plans for the site.

With the help of Morris County and Green Acres funding, the PRC moved its headquarters there in 2009 and had it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As the only remaining site of its kind in Morristown, the PRC has made a commitment to restore and preserve the home and the site for the benefit of the public today and for future generations. George Vail would have been pleased.

Margret Brady is a trustee of the Passaic River Coalition, headquartered at Willow Hall, and a long time contributor to MorristownGreen.com. As the founder of the Morristown Town Council’s Historic Preservation Committee and the owner of an 1887 Victorian home in the Franklin Corners neighborhood, she has been studying and researching the history of Morristown families and homes for many years.

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