The Great Escape: Stoneleigh Natural Garden

There is one constant in this altered world we find ourselves in, and that is the beauty of nature. Even though the University has many beautiful spots across campus, there is a natural garden right by West Campus that offers a breather from campus life. The garden features lovely trails that wind through rugged, tall and entangled trees. You will also find colorful and lively flowers that border the trails. This wonderful escape is owned by Natural Lands and is named Stoneleigh, a natural garden.

The natural garden would not be accessible to us without the work of Edmund Smith. According to Natural Lands, Smith, a rising executive for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in 1877, purchased the 65-acre property (now 42 acres) at Villanova in exchange for a “gentleman’s farm” and dubbed his estate “Stoneleigh.” 

This began the long journey to the marvelous natural garden we see today. In 1932, Otto Haas, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Rohm and Haas Chemical Company, started a nearly 80-year ownership by the Haas family. Otto, his wife Phoebe’s son John and John’s wife Chara acquired the property in 1964 and lived there for the next five decades. In 2016, the Haas family generously donated Stoneleigh to Natural Lands, and it has been open for two years.

Ethan Kaufmann, the director of Stoneleigh, has much experience in natural lands management.  He explained how Stoneleigh is different from many others in its beauty and accessibility.

“Stoneleigh is open 10-5 Tuesday to Sunday, and many students come here to walk, run and set out their blankets to eat or study,” Kaufmann said. “There are neat insects, old trees, many over a hundred years old, and a circle garden.  The beauty is accentuated especially when students come later in the day to see the sun soften on the trees. We are constructing a new garden, called Catalpa Court, which will include a 50-foot long, gentle waterfall. The court can be enjoyed while sitting on its walls and eating at the pavilion.”

Another distinctive aspect of Stoneleigh is its free admission. The employees work year-round to keep the lands open all year except for major snowstorms. The free admission is made possible through many generous donations, including the Haas family.

There are other amenities that Stoneleigh offers to entice students to check out what they are all about. If you are interested in the environment and natural studies, you can apply for a membership. This is a good avenue to connect with people of similar interests. In addition, you will garner intimate access to certain events that are held for the public like Natural Land’s concerts, featuring Field Jam, food and drinks, as well as educational and children’s programs. Despite many companies struggling during this time, Stoneleigh is seeing a substantial increase in visits during the pandemic.  

Like any other entity, Stoneleigh changed its operations to combat the spread of the virus. This includes a policy that if the parking lot is full upon arrival, you must come another time. In addition, people of the same household must keep six feet of distance from others, and everyone must wear a mask at all times. Some facilities are closed, such as the public restrooms, water fountains and the Main House (as pictured). 

Stoneleigh is an amazing way to forget about all the class assignments and stresses of a job or internship for a few hours.

“Stoneleigh is a great place to come and recharge,” Kaufmann said. “Everyone likes beauty, and beauty is inspiring. Students can come to see the new gardens and learn about the plants.  We need the younger generation to keep being awesome on the environmental issues.” 

This great escape should be used by everyone to receive the full taste of what southeastern Pennsylvania nature has to offer.