A Hothouse Found

The greenhouse at the Wye House Plantation is known for being the only standing greenhouse from the 18th century in North America. When Archaeology in Annapolis began its excavations at Wye, particular attention was paid to this structure, at the request of the owners. My dissertation research has been focused on the greenhouse and gardens, and the various ways in which they can be interpreted or understood. You can read here about the pollen analysis from this greenhouse and its attached slave quarter.

Landscapes never stand still, and though the Wye Greenhouse appears today on its own in the garden, directly behind the mansion with an unhindered view, the scene in the 18th century would have differed. According to the 1798 federal direct tax record, which contains a description of each building on the Wye Plantation, there were two greenhouses and one hothouse that were used simultaneously. The hothouse is recorded as being “16 x16 feet, 1 Story Brick with 4 wind.” A ledger entry from 1785-1787 additionally notes the employment of the workers to build a hothouse in those years.

Ground penetrating radar of the greenhouse and its surroundings.

Ground penetrating radar of the greenhouse and its surroundings. The square shape in red on the lower right represents the hothouse. Source: Bryan Haley

It wasn’t until the tax records were pointed out to us by historian Amy Speckart that we were able to make sense of the anomalies detected in a ground penetrating radar (GPR) analysis conducted by Bryan Haley in 2009. Haley’s report showed what looked to be the foundations of a 16×16 foot structure to the southeast of the present-day greenhouse, matching the description of the hothouse in the historical records.

Last spring, with the talented help of Amanda Tang, John Blair, and Kate Deeley, I directed excavations at Wye House to determine if the anomalies found by the GPR were the foundations of another greenhouse building that had become a ruin over time. Defining the walls of another greenhouse structure was an exciting prospect for my work, since I would be able to take soil samples for pollen analysis both inside and outside the building and compare them to our samples from the standing greenhouse.

The plant family that includes pineapples (Bromeliaceae) did not appear in any of the previous pollen samples analyzed of the greenhouse. However, several books in Lloyd’s library—including The Hot-House Gardener, or the General Culture of the Pine-apple by John Abercrombie—suggest an interest in pineapples and indicate that a hothouse could be used to cultivate such fruit that required particular care. This lost-and-now-found hothouse, which seems to have been used in conjunction with the still-standing greenhouse, opens up new opportunities to examine the plants ordered by Edward Lloyd IV, the owner of Wye House.

Northern wall of the hothouse.

Northern wall of the hothouse. Source: John Blair

We placed two excavation units in the area to the southeast of the greenhouse, hoping to find what remained of the northern brick wall. After digging through brick and mortar rubble, there was a small portion of the wall of the hothouse intact, about five bricks laid end-to-end. Interestingly, directly underneath this wall were two holes in the ground where posts would have been, indications of another structure. Whether these post holes were a part of the hothouse or evidence of an earlier structure built in the same location, we haven’t determined yet.

As we make these new discoveries, we change our perception of the landscape in the past. We have to add to our vision of the garden from the house two additional greenhouse structures. History isn’t static, and we’ll always revise and reinterpret our understandings.


Leave a Reply