By: Joyce H. Munro, Morris Arboretum Archives Volunteer

“Fire Among the Flowers,” “Hot House Burned,” read the distressing headlines. It’s not often a fire in a greenhouse makes the newspapers. But this one was newsworthy because of its location. In the early hours of January 11, 1895, the Palm House on the Compton estate went up in flames. And even more distressing, it was a new facility. “Large and handsome” reporters called it—fitted with modern equipment and filled with specimen plants, some quite rare. The amount of damage varied widely; one reporter stating $1,500, another $5,000, a third topping out at $12,000. John T. Morris, owner of the greenhouse, had just left for a trip abroad with his sister Lydia and their nurse/diarist, Louise Kellner. He learned about the blaze by telegram.

Morris’s gardener spoke candidly to reporters about how impossible it was for fire engines to get down the steep hill to the greenhouse because of icy conditions. But he was at a loss to explain how the fire started—he had checked the previous evening and all was in “perfect order.” 

To say the Palm House was new is an understatement. Just three months earlier, its construction was touted in American Gardening:

Mr. John T. Morris, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, gardener Patrick Finerghty, is having a greenhouse erected by Hitchings & Co., which, on completion, will be used for decorative plants.

 Public domain, Google-digitized image, courtesy of Hathi Trust

Imagine double-thick glass panes for maximum light on short winter days. Imagine steady humidity from perforated pipes running the whole length. Imagine ventilation atop and around.  Imagine curvilinear ... Imagine everyone’s distress the day after the fire.

Patrick Finerghty (variously spelled Finnerty, Finerty) had worked at Compton for two years when his employer added this ambitious project to the to-do list. No doubt, such a complicated greenhouse required extensive instruction for operating the corrugated fire-box boiler and hot water apparatus and sash-lifting devices, innovations that won the Hitchings Company top awards at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

It’s unclear how Finerghty trained for such a high-profile gardener position. After immigrating to Philadelphia from Ireland at age eighteen, he likely learned on-the-job. In 1860 he was a farm laborer for Richard Pierce in Germantown and by 1880 he had worked his way up the gardener ladder to a position with Stephen S. Price, merchant and amateur horticulturist at Fern Rock (ancestral home of abolitionist/lawyer Thomas Leiper Kane).

Not long after fire ravaged Morris’s greenhouse, Patrick Finerghty left Compton. And Morris began making arrangements for a new head gardener.

 

Lydia’s Lovebirds

During her latter years at Compton, Lydia Morris had two lovebirds. Not the feathered kind, but the human kind. Lydia’s lovebirds were Bridget O’Toole, her maid, and James O’Neil, her chauffeur. Theirs is a wistful love story told in “Jetta” in The Copperfield Review. Be sure to listen to the music suggested at the beginning of the story for the full effect of this tale told in the present, with glimpses of the past.