History of the Park

History of the James G. Kaskey Memorial Park

This green space which we call today the James G. Kaskey Memorial Park, or BioPond, was created during the last decade of the nineteenth century, opening as a research garden in 1897. Although the idea for a garden on University of Pennsylvania campus was first presented by Dr. J.T. Rothrock, then chair of the Department of Botany, it was Professor of Botany, Dr. John M. MacFarlane who finally convinced the Biological Department of the special advantages to be gained by reclaiming the waste ground which surrounded the department. Although the area was a scant five acres, generally considered far too small a space for a Botanical Garden, Professor MacFarlane did succeed in transforming waste hills and hollows of sand and gravel into a garden which fulfilled not only the botanical research needs of members of the department, but was also a graceful addition to the University landscape.

The pond during initial construction

Within the first few years of its inception, the garden contained an extensive system of sixty-eight long plant beds for herbaceous specimens, two plant houses, two ponds for aquatic plants, rock gardens, a bog garden, and an iris garden. Later, the greenhouses were increased to eight, along with propagating frames. The greenhouses, which were utilized heavily by students and faculty alike, housed a varied collection of plants, including cacti, carnivorous plants, ferns, palms, rhipsalids, and orchids, although this list is only a fraction of the scope of the collection. Because of the nature of a botanist’s work, a great deal of research was done during the winter, hence the need for such an extensive array of plants year round. In the spring, summer, and fall, students and faculty both had more than 2000 species outdoors at their disposal.

Inside the early greenhouse

Professor MacFarlane was proud of the garden which he was instrumental in creating. In 1899 he was Director of the Garden, and he published a small pamphlet, titled A Short History of the Garden, which he prepared for The Ladies Auxiliary Committee of the Botanical Society of Pennsylvania. Copies of this exist today, and give us a good idea, along with a scattering of photographs which still survive, of the complexity, and beauty of the garden. Dr. MacFarlane took particular delight in noting in this booklet that the University of Pennsylvania was among the first universities in this country to insist “that its graduates in the Department of Philosophy shall spend practically a continuous year watching living plants in their seasonal activities in some botanic garden such as that now described.” He also mentions that the value of the botanic garden was not confined to university study, but that several valuable original publications were made possible by the facilities.

Professor MacFarlane endured a great deal of criticism for the small size of his botanical garden. At only five acres, it was thought that it would not be as useful as a larger garden. However, Dr. MacFarlane pointed to the small, compact botanical gardens of Europe, which gave finer scientific results than many larger gardens. And, although it was indeed a showplace, and a popular place to visit, Dr. MacFarlane clearly intended the garden to be utilized primarily for scientific endeavor. This of course, did not stop the Garden from being used for university functions, and each year it was used a number of times for outdoor events, a practice which continues even today.

The gardener’s cottage and laboratory

By 1898 the Garden contained a gardener’s cottage and laboratory, and two ponds. The smaller, lower pond was devoted to general aquatics, leaving the main pond for the cultivation of Lotus plants. At this same time, Pine street was closed between 38th, and 34th streets, becoming a walk lined with trees and flowering plants. Professor MacFarlane saw to the development of this avenue, planting it with memorial trees, which were each dedicated to prominent men who were connected with the university. It was reminiscent of the academic groves of European universities. This walk, which exists today, was named Hamilton Walk in honor of William Hamilton, who had been the original owner of the ground where the university and Garden were built.

In 1899, the Quadrangle dormitories were erected, directly across from Hamilton Walk. Rooms which commanded a view of the Garden were in demand, and a student had only to take a few steps from the dormitory to enter the Garden. But the BioPond was not to retain its original size for very long. Between 1904 and 1910, with the construction of the Medical Laboratories east of the Garden, and the Zoological laboratory, or Leidy Labs as it is known today, to the west, the Gardens were reduced to three acres.

By this time, the Garden was becoming increasingly attractive to students and the general public. The Botanical Society of Pennsylvania met there for scientific assemblies, and the Garden was even used briefly beginning in the spring of 1915 for a seasonal theatrical event, where a temporary amphitheatre was built on the grounds which united the Woodlands cemetery, and the Garden. This land contained a beautiful ravine, surrounded by old trees, and although was technically a vacant part of the cemetery, blended well with the rest of the Botanical Garden.

This arrangement never became permanent, and the beautiful ravine with its ancient trees was demolished in the Spring of 1936 so that 38th Street, or University Avenue could be built. This effectively severed the connection between the Woodlands, and the Garden, and created a traffic pattern which destroyed the rural nature of the Garden. The Woodlands still exists, and is among the largest green spaces in the University City area. As time passed, more and more of the garden was nibbled away. The greenhouses, Botanical Hall, and eastern part of the garden were claimed for buildings. New greenhouses were built along the western edge, but only two, and the scientific function of those houses was much reduced from what it had been. In the mid-eighties, the greenhouses were razed to make way for another building, with two new houses constructed south of the former site. Although in this case, some of the garden and eleven mature trees were destroyed to make way for a new building, a small portion of a parking lot was reclaimed as garden.

Kaskey renovations

In 2000, Richard and Jeanne Kaskey donated the funds to renovate the Garden’s small pond.  The pond had silted in over the years so that it began to overflow its banks, and although ducks, turtles, crayfish and goldfish found the environment acceptable, as an urban green space’s central feature it was sorely lacking.  With the donation from the Kaskeys, the pond was dredged, relined and the edges redefined.  A waterfall and weeping water walls were added on the edges to provide the sound of water and provide drinking spots for birds. Subsequently, the Kaskey family endowed the Garden, insuring that this well loved place will receive the funding it needs to continue its care.

Biology Department built Lynch Laboratories in 2005 in the location of greenhouses built in the 1980’s. Today the Biology Department occupies space that overlooks the Garden, begun by a past colleague so many years ago.  And, even if the space is far smaller than its original design, it is still well used and loved by the University and local communities.