PAH head groundskeeper Daniel Bangert
Walking the grounds of Pennsylvania Hospital can often feel like a trip through time. Remnants of the past are everywhere – from the Colonial and Federal architecture of the Pine Building, to the dome of the surgical amphitheater soaring over the rooftop, to the dry moat that encompasses the original hospital.
One of most unique components is the property itself. The grounds were never “designed” in the modern sense; their appearance and uses, like the hospital itself, shifted over time to meet changing needs (and aesthetic tastes). Farming, for example, was permitted in the 1760s, while gardeners in the 19th century utilized the space as a fundraising venture for the hospital by producing and selling rosewater. However, consistent since the PAH’s founding in 1751 has been the sense of serenity fostered by the landscape. The hospital’s location was chosen because it was outside the immediate hustle and bustle of the city. Physicians hoped the environment would provide a healthy, restful place for patients to heal, and the therapeutic green space that the grounds and gardens offer have done just that.
“We have visitors from across the country – whether they are tourists or guests of patients – that will remark on the grounds and their unique beauty,” said Daniel Bangert, head groundskeeper at PAH.
Since joining PAH in 2016, Bangert has worked to ensure he preserves PAH’s past while also developing innovative and eye-catching landscapes. In addition to his team of four, Bangert works with PAH lead curator and archivist Stacey Peeples and the volunteers who tend to the Physic Garden. A plan for the garden was created in the 1770s, but two centuries of financial constraints meant it could not be planted until the national Bicentennial celebration brought reignited interest in 1976. In addition to serving as a quiet, reflective space, the Physic Garden showcases plants that were used for medicinal purposes in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as foxgloves, lamb’s ears, and herbs. Bangert utilizes the space to plan landscape projects and showcase the property’s trees and other foliage.
“My favorite tree on the grounds is the Franklinia tree,” Bangert said. “It really symbolizes how the past and the present can converge.”
First brought to Philadelphia from Georgia by famed botanist William Bartram in the 1770s, the tree was named in honor of hospital co-founder Benjamin Franklin. All of the Franklinia trees – extinct in the wild since the early 19th century – are descended from seeds collected by Bartram and propagated in Philadelphia, which offers a clear connection to the early days of the city and the hospital.
The past isn’t Bangert’s only inspiration; he also draws ideas from his network of fellow historical groundskeepers around Philadelphia and even from unexpected sources, like his daughter.
“My team and I spend a lot of time planning around lighting and the time of year, but we can draw inspiration from anything,” Bangert said, “My daughter’s bright blue Elsa costume might trigger a new a color scheme or theme.”
Over the years, different trees and flowers were planted and removed as the certain plants become more fashionable. By the late 1800s, the groundskeepers began to take more care in planning the “look” of the property. Today, Bangert and his team spend approximately six months planning, designing, and ordering plants for the PAH grounds, and the day-to-day maintenance is year-round, rain or shine. Ultimately, the most rewarding part is the joy it brings to PAH’s many patients, guests, and visitors.
“I especially love it when we are out here working and overhear people admiring our work,” Bangert said. “Tour buses will stop out front or passersby will peak through the archways and snap a photo for social media. If I can brighten just one person’s day or give them a moment of joy, I know I’ve done my job.”