The Dorrance H. Hamilton Fernery

Text by Tim Hyland

WHAT: The Dorrance H. Hamilton Fernery at Penn’s Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill.

WHERE: The Fernery is one of the many hidden charms of the Arboretum, located at 100 E. Northwestern Ave. in Chestnut Hill. Tucked away between the ever-popular Rose Garden and the woodsy areas along Wissahickon Creek, the Fernery can be easy to miss. But it’s worth a visit—especially in winter.

WHY: Because there’s nothing else like it in North America. Literally. According to Arboretum staffers, their Fernery is the only remaining freestanding Victorian fernery in North America. Designed by none other than John Morris himself—original owner of the Arboretum property—and built in 1899, the Fernery was constructed at a time when Victorian gardeners were absolutely fascinated with rare and exotic ferns. Buildings such as this one helped gardeners recreate the near-tropical conditions these plants need, indoors.

MIRACULOUS RECOVERY: Like much of the Arboretum, the Fernery had by the mid-20th century fallen into serious disrepair. Only years of work—and a good bit of money—have restored it to its former glory. The most significant renovations—including the construction of a historically accurate roof, and restoration of the beautiful old waterfalls and ponds—were completed in 1994.

FINDING THE FERNERY: From the Visitor’s Center, you can take one of two winding paths to the Fernery. The more well-traveled path takes you past the Rose Garden, the Garden Railway and other popular garden features. The other path, which begins behind the Visitor’s Center near Bruno’s Cafe (worth a stop for a cup of coffee or hot chocolate), is a more direct route. Just keep follwing the path until you see the Fernery’s signature slooping glass roof.

IT’S ALWAYS SUMMER IN PHILADELPHIA: On a cold winter’s day, it is a true pleasure to walk into the Fernery, where it always feels like, well, Hawaii. The plants here demand warm, humid temperatures, and the Fernery provides just that with its greenhouse roof and advanced heating systems. The room is hot, stuffy and literally dripping with humidity.

SMALL BUT BEAUTIFUL: For a small space, the Fernery certainly offers a lot to look at. A stroll around its circular path takes visitors through, over and around two ponds (stocked with fish), a waterfall, a beautiful wooden bridge crafted from Arboretum cypress and a cave—home to a small Buddha. Then, of course, there are the plants—a stunning variety of ferns, mosses and more. They hang from the ceilings and grow on the rocks. Take your time, and take it all in.

FOR MORE INFO: Call 215-247-5777 or visit

Originally published on .