Friends Hospital, the nation's oldest private psychiatric hospital, is situated on 100 acres next to Tacony Creek Park — a rare piece of privately owned bucolic land in crowded Northeast Philadelphia off busy Roosevelt Boulevard.  And its owners with Quaker roots want it to stay that way.

On Thursday, the Natural Lands trust announced it struck a deal with the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation to place nearly half that land, 49 acres, under permanent conservation easement to protect it from development. As part of the easement, the public will have access to a forest on the property that adjoins the park.

"The Foundation is thrilled to place the property under conservation easement with Natural Lands," said Joe Pyle, president of the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, which owns the grounds. "We are committed to being good stewards of the land and honoring our Quaker roots by using the property to promote healing and recovery for all."

Map of the 100-acre grounds of Friends Hospital in Philadelphia. The area in green represents 49 acres that will be conserved.
Natural Lands
Map of the 100-acre grounds of Friends Hospital in Philadelphia. The area in green represents 49 acres that will be conserved.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement that permanently restricts the use of a property to protect land, water, historic sites or to provide public space.  In this case, the nonprofit hospital in the Crescentville neighborhood, founded in 1817, is designated as a National Historic Landmark.  Its grounds comprise buildings, lawns, and gardens as well as the forest.

"Urban green space is essential for the health and well-being of city residents, which makes the permanent protection of Friends Hospital's campus all the more significant," said Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands.

Natural Lands is one of the largest land trusts in the region with 125,000 acres under protection, including 43 nature preserves totaling about 23,000 acres.  Trusts such as Natural Lands have become a large force in the region, with tens of thousands of acres under conservation easements.

The easement was valued at $1.2 million, according to Natural Lands, and attempts to secure that funding began in 2014. The area will be restricted with limited use for hospital programs, such as therapeutic care or a community activity such as gardening.

Friends Hospital grounds that will be preserved under a conservation easement.
Mae Axelrod / Natural Lands
Friends Hospital grounds that will be preserved under a conservation easement.

The project was funded by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Financing Authority with funds from the Marcellus Legacy Fund; the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund; the Virginia Cretella Mars Foundation; and the William Penn Foundation.  The Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation will provide support for stewardship of the easement and monitoring of the property.

Friends Hospital celebrated its 200th anniversary last year and was founded at a time when people with mental illnesses suffered from inhumane treatment, with institutions even going so far as to charge the public to witness patient behavior while often chained in holding cells.  Thomas Scattergood, a Quaker minister, visited Europe and witnessed more progressive treatments.  He returned to the U.S. and founded Friends Hospital, providing patients with private rooms, natural lighting, and compassion.