HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Grey Towers National Historic Site


Grey Towers Welcome

Grey Towers Welcome

“Without natural resources life itself is impossible. From birth to death, natural resources, transformed for human use, feed, clothe, shelter, and transport us. Upon them we depend for every material necessity, comfort, convenience, and protection in our lives. Without abundant resources prosperity is out of reach.” ~ Gifford Pinchot

Today I take you to Grey Towers. Have you been? For those of you who aren’t familiar, Grey Towers was the home of Gifford Pinchot. Who was Gifford Pinchot? Twice the governor of Pennsylvania and before that the  first chief of the US Forestry Service. It is said that Gifford Pinchot is the ‘father’ of the conservation movement. Located in Milford, PA, “The Birthplace of the Conservation Movement”, Grey Towers stands upon a hill looking east towards France, a nod to the family’s French Huguenot heritage.  Originally a summer home of his parents, this sprawling estate became the permanent home of the Gifford and wife Cornelia in order to establish Pennsylvania residency so Gifford could eventually run for governor. Conservation, horticulture, historic architecture, politics, a dining room table where you float your food to the guests…who could ask for more from a road trip stop?



While originally occupied by his parents and used primarily for summer entertaining, the estate was an operating farm complete with sheep yard and orchard.  Cornelia and Gifford renovated the home and landscape to make accommodations for visiting dignitaries, family members and year-round residence. These renovations included the addition of several outbuildings as well as a more traditional landscape.  It was hard to bring myself out of the landscape to watch the historic movies (including that of a visit from John F Kennedy recognizing the estate as a historic landmark) and be in time for the guided tour of the home. Too my delight, even inside there was horticulture to be found in the form of antique books, terrific (IMHO) 70’s wallpaper (The Pinchot’s made their fortune in French wallpaper!) and paintings.

The inside tour ends outside at the “Bait Box” the playhouse built for Gifford and Cornelia’s only child Gifford Bryce. (Gifford Bryce would later donate the estate to the United States as a center for Forestry Research and Conservation.) Here there is a long pool and just one of the 20 nearly 100 year old Copper Beeches on the property. You can look down into an amphitheater where the Pinchot Family, and the Forestry service still today, hosts a yearly ice cream social. You can take a look at the “Letter Box”, a small building that acted as Gifford’s office and archive and now contains the theater in which you may watch home movies of the Pinchot family.

Beyond the buildings is a vista filled with forests, in fact it is difficult to see much of civilization from the view on the hill. When Gifford’s father owned the place, the forests has been clear-cut for industry and the view was of flat empty fields. Observing this indiscriminate taking from the land and reading Man and Nature: The Earth as Modified by Human Action by George Perkins Marsh inspired Gifford Pinchot’s father to guide Gifford into the career of forestry, which, at that time, didn’t exist in the US. Gifford crossed oceans to learn about sustainable forestry and brought the information back with him to the east coast. From here he devised methods and legislation that would lead to more sustainable harvesting of the woodlands across the nation.

His love of and fascination for trees is evident as you explore the grounds. In addition to the enormous Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica) dotting the landscape, a 100+ year-old Sugar Maple stands watch over the home. Planted by William Tecumseh Sherman, yes THE William Tecumseh Sherman of Civil War fame, this tree was planted as the initiation of a reforestation initiative ending the clear-cut harvesting of the country’s forests. You may follow the Tree Trail around the grounds, reading about the historic significance of the collection. In addition to the variety of trees there are quite a few fairly meticulously maintained ornamental beds filled with perennials offering many seasons of color.


“Gifford Pinchot is the man to whom the nation owes most for what has been accomplished as regards the preservation of the natural resources of our country. He led, and indeed during its most vital period embodied, the fight for the preservation through use of our forests … He was the foremost leader in the great struggle to coordinate all our social and governmental forces in the effort to secure the adoption of a rational and far-seeing policy for securing the conservation of all our national resources. … I believe it is but just to say that among the many, many public officials who under my administration rendered literally invaluable service to the people of the United States, he, on the whole, stood first.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt ‘The Natural Resources of the Nation’ Autobiography (1913), ch. 11. Quoted in Douglas M. Johnston, The International Law of Fisheries (1987), 44

As beautiful and well maintained as this estate is, I am confounded by something I saw there. During the tour, we visited the Finger Bowl – the outdoor, water-filled dining table on the estate. It is covered by an arching trellis covered by Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis). Wisteria just finished blooming around me, but is still in bloom to the north. This twining vine has engulfed acres of woodlands, strangled trees to their death and can spread dozens of feet (maybe hundreds?) in a single growing season. Of course all of that carnage can be easily, and often is, overlooked while distracted by the (I’ll admit it!) gorgeous purple flowers. The guide explained to us that this was the favorite spot of Pinchot guests, where they enjoyed dining outdoors and passing food across the 5′ deep water on floating rafts. Today it continues to be the favorite spot of visitors to the estate. What a perfect opportunity to educate about Wisteria and conservation. The Wisteria growing on the trellis was planted by Cornelia and is nearly 100 years old. I can certainly understand the hesitancy to remove this specimen from the property, as it a remnant of the history of the place and really creates a terrific canopy for the stunningly imaginative, fun and popular Finger Bowl.

Grey Towers’ Tree Tour brochure mentions an original allee of Norway Maples (Acer plantanoides) was removed, in part, due to the fact they were not native. They have been replaced by the native Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). So it is not as if this estate, and the US Forest Service, has not already responded to the invasive problem caused by introduced plants escaping from historic landscapes into the woodlands. So I am curious why there is no mention of the noted problems of Wisteria, I mean of all organizations that should know about it, it should be the Forest Service, some of their forests are full of it! Turns out, they do know about it – they even published a “Weed of the Week” document about it.

At the home of the ‘father’ of the conservation movement, I would think that more would be said about this impending decision. What I would like to see is a balance. We all know a plant will not live forever. As a person who has worked on historic landscapes, I am all too familiar with the public outcry caused when an organization attempts to remove a historic (read: old, big) plant for any reason.  I am curious what the replacement plan is for this stunning and aged specimen of Wisteria. Do they plan to replace it with cuttings from the original wisteria, as the original begins to die? Will they replant it with the native wisteria (Wisteria frutescens)(Yes there is one! Not nearly as aggressive as the Asian Wisteria and a little more trellis, house, fence friendly as well!) Or will they go an entirely different direction? What would you do if the stewardship of this estate, where the history of sustainable stewardship of the nation’s forests began, was yours to control?

Grey Towers is definitely worth the visit whether you are going to contemplate conservation, take the tree tour, explore the house or take some design notes on that fantastic dining room table. (Not close by? Take the virtual tour!) Now to see where I can fit a dining pool in my yard!


5 thoughts on “Grey Towers National Historic Site

  1. Pingback: A Virtual Revisit: Grey Towers | HORT travels

  2. Pingback: “Hortisculpture” | HORTravels

  3. Pingback: Burly | HORTravels

  4. Hi Kathy,

    I am totally in love with your blog! I have made a few attempts to comment on your posts but they appear.


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