A Spring Awakening at Morven Museum & Garden

The Princeton mansion-turned-museum blooms brightest before summer.

morven museum & garden

The Colonial Revival gardens at Morven date from the 1890s to the early 20th century, says Debra Lampert-Rudman, curator of education and public programs. Artists, part of Morven’s free artist studio for plein air painters, capture the stunning grounds. On this day, Debbie Pisacreta, of Lambertville, left, and Helen Mazur, of Princeton, set up their easels on the lawn. Photo by Laura Moss

Tucked away on five acres in the heart of historic Princeton sits one of the township’s gems: Morven Museum & Garden, the perfect cure for spring fever. 

Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, built the original home on the site in 1754. Stockton was a prominent lawyer and a graduate of the very first class of the College of New Jersey—now Princeton University. A fire on Christmas Day 1758 destroyed much of the original wooden cabin, but Stockton rebuilt—this time in brick—and christened his home Morven, which means Big Hill in Gaelic.

Seven generations of Stocktons lived at Morven through the early 20th century, when General Robert Wood Johnson leased the property. It was Johnson who added the midcentury modern poolhouse, along with a pool and tennis courts. 

morven museum & garden

The Stockton Education Center, opened in the summer of 2018; its front yard features campion roses and phlox. Photo by Laura Moss

Governor Walter Edge became the first governor to reside at Morven in 1945, when he purchased the home and moved in with his wife, Camilla. The Edge family eventually transferred the estate to the state of New Jersey, to be used as the official governor’s mansion. Four more governors lived there, and then Governor Brendan Byrne struck a deal in 1982 with the New Jersey Historical Society to swap it for nearby Drumthwacket. 

The Historical Society extensively renovated Morven, and in 1986 returned it to the state. After additional renovations and modernizations, Morven opened its doors as a museum in 2004. 

Countless dignitaries have visited (and often slept at) Morven in its 267-year history, including President John F. Kennedy; Princess Grace and her husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco; New Jersey-born astronaut Buzz Aldrin; actor David Niven; and Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro. “America marches right through our front door,” says executive director Jill Barry.

morven museum & garden

The Stockton Education Center, opened in the summer of 2018; its front yard features campion roses and phlox. Photo by Laura Moss

THE GROUNDS

While the mansion itself—now a museum—is a fascinating stroll through history, Morven’s grounds make it the perfect spring destination. Open from dawn to dusk, there’s always something blooming. More than 5,000 daffodils peak in late April; peonies take over in late May. “The place explodes with peonies,” says Barry. Wisteria, planted 145 years ago, adorns the home’s front porch; it’s a showstopper throughout the month. “One of the wonderful things about Morven in May is that nature seems to know, without fail, and the gardens start to get going,” says Barry.

[RELATED: Tour the Elegant Orchid Range at Duke Farms]

Morven’s front yard was originally landscaped to impress passersby on what is now Route 206/Stockton Street. Rows of apple and pear trees line the front walk. Over time, a terraced garden was added, as were a brick garden wall and a Colonial Revival garden. 

A small army of volunteers, plus two part-time horticulturists, tend to the gardens. Interpretive signage enhances the grounds; visitors can guide themselves or sign up for an organized garden tour by registering a day in advance. Morven’s draw is plantings and buildings alike, says Debra Lampert-Rudman, curator of education and public programs. “You can see four centuries of architecture from one spot,” she declares. 

morven museum & garden

An Eastern black swallowtail, the state’s official butterfly, rests atop an heirloom Lilliput zinnia. Photo by Laura Moss

SAFETY FIRST

The museum has social-distancing capacity limits and is closed briefly midday for cleaning. “We encourage purchasing online tickets in advance,” says Barry. Same-day tickets can be purchased, “but if we’re full, you may be asked to wait,” she explains.  

Outside, crowd control is not an issue, says Barry. There are five lush acres to wander. “We’d need a lot of people to reach capacity,” she jokes.

With more people looking for outdoor activities during the pandemic, Morven has been taking pre-orders for box lunches. “We did it in August and September, and it was really popular,” Barry says. 

Visitors must sign up for lunches a day in advance; all diners are assigned a spot to eat, generally around the comfortable poolhouse area. 

“It’s not a bad place to hang out,” says Lambert-Rudman. “There’s always a breeze.”  

morven museum & garden

A plein air painter at work. Photo by Laura Moss

HOW TO VISIT: Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Museum is open 10 am–4 pm, Wednesday–Sunday. Grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk. Special programs include painting classes, arts-and-crafts workshops and gardening demonstrations. Check the website or call 609-924-8144 for tickets and information.

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