Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

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While public debate continues regarding Boston’s bid to host the 2024 summer Olympics, I recently spent a weekday visiting London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Described as a lasting legacy of the 2012 summer Olympics at 560 acres in size, it is the largest urban park constructed in Europe in more than a decade.

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The issue of legacy aside, the park is part of a comprehensive scheme to transform a contaminated river and post-war industrial site into a new urban district of nearly 7,000 homes, cultural facilities and economic development opportunities integrated within a visually spectacular landscape which, among other attributes, includes 25 acres of wildflower meadows, purported to be the largest area of annual meadows ever to have been used in a park setting.

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Within the park eight permanent venues from the 2012 Olympics have been repurposed to support community and recreational activities and in the case of the stadium, provide a new (and not entirely uncontroversial) home for the West Ham United futbol club. A cultural quarter, including a branch of the V&A Museum and a Sadler’s Wells auditorium, is being planned and a summer beach was scheduled to open shortly after my visit.

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Developed in phases, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park evolved through a lengthy series of master planning and design processes.

Master planning by EDAW (which later became AECOM) in concert with a partnership between LDA design and Hargreaves Associates provided a framework for the public realm and park design.  The plan below is from LDA design and shows the park’s two distinct sections connected by the river.

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Inspired by Victorian and post-war pleasure gardens, the park’s design includes “sweeping lawns, a promenade, access to the river, ample seating and public spaces throughout the park that showcased live screens during the Games” (Hargreaves Associates). The photos below show how the river is accessed in the southern formal area of the park and the northern, naturalistic area.

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Following the Games James Corner + Field Operations, in partnership with Piet Oudolf, redesigned the south park as part of the site’s transformation for the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). According to Dr Philip Askew, post-Games architect and landscape planner in the July 11th article Parklife – Exploring the changing landscape of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park , Oudolf is responsible for the landscaping in the park, which ranges from wild meadows of hollyhocks, ornamental onions and foxtail lilies to “wonderfully imperfect, English” black pines.

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The park supports a diversity of landscapes and within its 560 acres are 250 acres defined as metropolitan open space, 112 acres of biodiversity action plan (an internationally recognized program addressing threatened species and habitats designed to protect and restore biological systems) 15 acres of woodlands, hedgerows and wildlife habitats, 4 miles of waterways and 4,300 new trees.

There are four themed walking trails – London 2012, Biodiversity, Art in the Park and a children’s trail – 525 bird boxes, 150 bat boxes and 26 permanent artworks. Below is the guide for London 2012 “Trail of Glory.”

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The southern portion of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park includes a formal and rather uninspiring entry that is easily accessible from the Stratford tube station (after passing through the Westfield Stratford Shopping Center).

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Designed to support civic events it is organized around a central promenade with plazas, fountains, play areas, a carousel and The EastTwenty Bar & Kitchen.

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The southern section of the park includes the Olympic Stadium and Britain’s largest piece of public art, the 114.5 meter (376 feet) high Arcelor Mitttal Orbit, designed by artist Anish Kapoor, engineer Cecil Beaton and architect Kathryn Findlay.

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In keeping with Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’s mandate to focus on native biodiversity and ecological systems, the southern portion of the park contains the 2012 pleasure gardens, a living timeline of British plant history that celebrates contemporary horticulture drawing upon the distinctive characteristics of plant communities found in the wild in Europe, North America, the Southern Hemisphere, and Asia. Planting design consultants for the 2012 pleasure gardens (as well as the park) included Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough and Sarah Price.

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The Great British Garden, the result of a public design competition overseen by the Royal Horticultural Society and London 2012, contains three themed gardens that reflect the colors of the Olympic medals and are designed to encourage a voyage of discovery.

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The park’s northern section, follows the river valley and integrates wetland habitat within an extensive network of walking and biking trails accented with open areas for sitting and informal gatherings.

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This is a serene and naturalistic environment with an undulating topography that frames the architectural features and provides a refreshing contrast to the somewhat overly active southern portion of the park which was described as “the visual equivalent of several mobile ring phones going off at once” by architectural critic Rowan Moore in the the April 5, 2014 article Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park review – no medals for visual flair.

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A new community hub, the Timber Lodge (managed by a social enterprise) includes a cafe as well as meeting rooms for public events and is sited next to the innovative Tumbling Bay Playground.

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Olympic venues repurposed in the northern section of the park include the Copper Box Arena and the Lee Valley Velopark (the only place in the world where where one can experience all four types of Olympic cycling).

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The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park integrates green technology with elements of British park design to create something totally new that is, as a landscape, still evolving. It has become a popular destination (visited by more than four million people last year) that in a dense, expanding  city like London “is the sort of place is a really necessary safety valve, a place people can come out to,” according to Dr Asker. “It’s a great place to play and learn.”

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Which brings me back to Boston. Perhaps it is a landscape vision that is lacking in the current plan which, as I read it, proposes 15 new acres of permanent parkland at Widett Circle, the completion and expansion of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace from Franklin Park to Columbia Road and improvements to the parks and open spaces that would be used, and thus impacted, as venues.

Additionally, according to the Bid 2.0 planning document (which I may not be fully understanding) that while permanent “open space” would be created in multiple phases, a legacy park would be constructed in phase 7 (2040).

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Let’s imagine that Boston’s Olympic legacy as a bold new way to reinterpret the city’s landscape and use the Olympic bid as an opportunity to reshape the city and its public realm.

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Book Review: HUMMELO: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury

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“In 1982 Piet and Anja and their two boys – Pieter, then aged nine, and Hugo, aged seven – moved into an old farmhouse on an acre of land outside the village of Hummelo, in the province of Gelderland, in the eastern Netherlands.” From this opening sentence, which feels rather like the beginning of a fairytale, the unlikely story of how, through the singular focus and extraordinary talent of celebrated plantsman Piet Oudolf, the manner in which gardens are designed changed forever.

Piet in 1992

Written to mark Oudolf’s 70th birthday, HUMMELO: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life is a lavishly photographed celebration of all that happened following the family’s move to Hummelo. While showcasing the evolution of Oudolf’s work and design philosophy, it is also the story of a place, the nursery he and his wife founded to grow plants that, at the time, were unavailable for purchase elsewhere. While the nursery flourished, drawing visitors from throughout the world, so too did Oudolf’s practice.

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Floral labyrinth at the Trentham Estate, Stoke-on-Trent, 2005, Photo: Piet Oudolf

A gifted plantsman, Oudolf is at the center of the movement in planting design that focuses on ecological considerations and the use of native perennials and grasses. Combining plants naturalistically, Oudolf deftly balances complexity and coherence, anchoring his designs with enough of a given plant to provide visual impact while also using a diverse palette of plant varieties. Form, texture and seasonality matter as much to Oudolf as color and his planting plans create landscapes that are often ethereal in their beauty, appearing deceptively natural despite being carefully designed.

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Pensthorpe Nature Reserve in winter, Photo: Piet Oudolf

Homage is paid to both the people and places that shaped Oudolf’s career introducing the reader to influential German and Dutch designers and horticulturalists. It is fitting that Oudolf would share his story so generously as throughout the book his independence as a designer is complemented by close collaborations and partnerships with others, including architects and landscape architects, patrons for whom he has created gardens and most critically those who maintain them.

Described as an artist first and a designer second, Oudolf eschews the trappings of a professional office and staff maintaining sole responsibility for his work. Planting design is by its nature a highly individualized and specific skill and according to close friend Rosie Atkins, former editor of Gardens Illustrated Magazine, Oudolf, “cannot delegate the design process any more than a composer could delegate a composition.” As a result he now completes approximately eight projects a year.

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The High Line, Manhattan, 2009, Photo: Piet Oudolf

The book’s final section Crossing the Atlantic, explores Oudolf’s North American work including Chicago’s Lurie Garden and New York’s Battery and High Line. Fittingly, these highly lauded public projects have brought Oudolf additional acclaim. In 2013 he was awarded the premier Dutch cultural award, the Prince Bernhard Fund, for “achievements in the field of gardening and landscape design,” particularly his “significant impact on developments on The Netherlands and abroad.” In keeping with Oudolf’s dedication to integrating natural landscapes into urban settings the award’s prize will be used to establish “Green in the Neighborhood” for community- based volunteer projects in urban neighborhoods.

Planting at Hummelo- Photo- Piet Oudolf

Planting at Hummelo- Photo- Piet Oudolf

Told in partnership with frequent collaborator Noel Kingsbury, HUMMELO: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life is part biography, part social history and part design manual. While the narrative is structured around three broadly defined sections with a brief introduction the book also includes plans, notes on topics relating to planting design and a listing of places to visit.

HUMMELO: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life
Written by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury
The Monacelli Press: 2015

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, June, 2015.

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Peacefield

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For weeks I have been fixating on Abigail Adams’ wisteria. Purportedly one of the oldest such plants in the United States, it cascades down (or is it up?) the side of the house that was home to four generations of the Adams family at what is now the Adams National Historic Site in Quincy, about ten miles south of Boston.

I’m not one of those people who routinely schedule their visits to landscapes around peak bloom time, eschewing a more felicitous approach to the entire process and generally hoping for the best. However, in 2005 I took a series of slides of said wisteria and hoping to do the same digitally, ventured forth. Below is a slide taken in 2005 as unfortunately on my recent visit I missed peak bloom (according to the gardener) by a week.

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John and Abigail Adams purchased what became known as Peacefield, including the house, gardens and farm in 1787 while in England. According to Wilhelmina S. Harris, former NPS superintendent of the site, Abigail was attracted to the property which she knew well for its garden containing the “finest selection of fruit trees on the South Shore.”

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Watercolor of the Old House by E. Malcom, 1798

“Retiring to our little farm, feeding my poultry, and improving my garden has more charms for my fancy than residing at the Court of Saint James, where I seldom meet with characters as inoffensive as my hens and chickens, or minds so well improved as my garden,” wrote Abigail as she contemplated her return from England (according to Mary Brawley Hill in On Foreign Soil: American Gardeners Abroad). The property also afforded the space and style necessary for a family of John and Abigail’s prominence.

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Located on the west side of the house, the formal garden included three rectangular beds filled with apple, pear, plum and peach trees and grape vines underplanted with cowslip, daffy and columbine.

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The beds were lined with dwarf boxwood hedge imported from England surrounded by gravel paths, a plan which has been faithfully retained to this day.

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Aside from the aforementioned wisteria Abigail brought two plants from England, a cutting of the red rose of Lancaster and one of the white rose of York.

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Shortly after she moved in Abigail planted three lilac shrubs on either side of the path leading from the gate to the front door as well as two tree peonies. The lilacs, carefully tended by the National Park Service, frame the entry.

According to Harris, while Abigail’s writings reference the planting of daffodils, delphiniums, four o’clocks and nasturtiums the property was very much a gentleman’s farm and as such she focused much of her energy on growing vegetables and overseeing the construction of structures to support agriculture and husbandry.

“It is not large, in the first place,” wrote John six months after moving in, “It is but the farm of a patriot. But there are in it two or three spots from whence are to be seen the most beautiful prospects in the world.”

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John and Abigail invested considerable energy into improving the house and grounds for farming. They cleared meadows and established a herd of cattle. Between 1789 and 1801, while John served as both Vice-President and President, additional farm buildings were completed and the house enlarged and renovated to hold his library. In 1799 the Adams’ “homeplace” included more than one hundred acres of land.

1 1828 A drawing of The Adams Seat in Quincy by Mrs. George Whitney

A drawing of The Adams Seat in Quincy by Mrs. George Whitney – 1828

In 1826 the property passed to John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine. President, at the time, he would use it as a summer residence until 1848. Interested in tree cultivation, John Quincy Adams planted a wide variety of species on the property including the yellow-wood seen below, an important feature in the garden.

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John Quincy Adam’s motto “He plants trees for future generations” derived from a passage in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: Serit arbores quœ alteri seculo prosint—”He plants trees for the benefit of another age.” The seal below, an acorn between two leaves of white oak above a scroll inscribed Alteri seculo, “Another age” was used as the basis of the coat of arms for Adams House at Harvard University according to the The American Heraldry Society.

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Charles Francis Adams inherited Peacefield in 1849. He and his wife, Abigail Brown Brooks, dedicated themselves to repairing and restoring the house and grounds, embarking upon an ambitious program to improve the estate, according to the cultural landscape report published in 1998, transforming the character of the property from a country farm to a Victorian estate.  They rebuilt the garden to solely contain flowers and constructed a stone library (possibly the first presidential library) to house the family’s papers.

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Charles Francis consulted the leading architects and horticulturalists of the time, including Andrew Jackson Downing, who visited the property in 1841 dedicating a copy of A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Gardening to John Quincy Adams.  Downing’s stylistic influence is visible as the property assumed the characteristics of a country seat popularized by his writings.

Upon his death the estate passed to his heirs including Brooks Adams who with his wife Evelyn, took over and managed the estate until 1927.   The photograph below, titled The Adams Mansion, Quincy, Mass is by photographer Leon H. Abdalien and was taken on October 10, 1929.  The expansive flower borders, established by Charles Francis and his wife are clearly visible.

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During their tenure a rose garden was installed west of the house featuring Abigail’s York rose and the wooden fence in front of the house was replaced with a gated brick wall adorned with wooden urns.

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In the 1920’s the property was bisected by the Brook Furnace Parkway as the farming community of Quincy was transformed into a city.   The drawing below, from the Historic American Buildings Survey, completed in 1936, shows the impact of the parkway on the property, while detailing the layout of the formal garden and specimen plantings.

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The postcard below “Home of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, 135 Adams Street, Quincy, Mass” provided by Digital Commonwealth, dates from the same period.  The garden appears particularly colorful and the setting, framed by trees, deceptively tranquil.

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After being managed for several years by a non-profit trust the property was acquired by the National Park Service in 1946.  The original 5 acre site was augmented in the 1970’s by the purchase of an adjoining property, which while serving administrative functions, expands the landscape setting.  However as can be seen below, in the picture of the greenhouse, first referred to by Charles Francis in 1873  and the pond originally created by John in 1820 -1821 the site is but a fragment of a gracious past.

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As to the wisteria it features prominently in most every description of the property including as a dramatic backdrop for fictional accounts of the Adamses life in Quincy including this passage from The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams by Phyllis Lee Levin. “On this ravishing day, as John Quincy opened the front gate, the sky was cerulean, a canopy of deep lavender wisteria crowned the front path and looking left, he could see Abigail’s great rectangular garden, her red and white roses (York and Lancaster united) framed with a wide border of amethyst-flowering myrtle.”

Next year I’ll do a better job.

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For additional information visit the website of the Adams National Historic Park.

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Ham House and Garden

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Until the past week spring has been slow to arrive in New England. As an antidote, I have spent time reorganizing images and virtually revisiting gardens and parks I photographed during the past year. On a day trip to Richmond, outside of London, I rented a bicycle and rode along the Thames with the intent of photographing Richmond Park. Along the way I visited the garden at Ham House.

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Described by the National Trust as “the most complete survival of 17th century power and fashion,” Ham House stands in the midst of a garden within a garden. The ensemble is most often described as majestic.

With verdant lawns, ancient trees, topiaries, terraces, kitchen gardens and a wilderness replete with structures perfect for clandestine rendezvous, the gardens design and survival are linked to a powerful and politically savvy woman, Elizabeth Murray (1626 – 1698), Countess, Duchess and often described as “more than a friend” of Oliver Cromwell.

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Ham House was built by Thomas Vavasour, a naval captain. In 1626 it was acquired by Scotsman William Murray who later bequeathed it to his daughter, Elizabeth. William was close to Charles I and shared his taste in architecture and art. Forced to flee during the Civil War of 1649, it is Elizabeth who is credited with preserving the property until Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.

ELIZABETH MURRAY, COUNTESS OF DYSART, DUCHESS OF LAUDERDALE, IN HER YOUTH (1626-98) by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), painting in the Duchess's Bedchamber at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

ELIZABETH MURRAY, COUNTESS OF DYSART, DUCHESS OF LAUDERDALE, IN HER YOUTH (1626-98) by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), painting in the Duchess’s Bedchamber at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames.
©National Trust Images/John Hammond

A woman of many talents, Elizabeth is described as complex, ruthless, and charming. In the 1906 Book of English Gardens, by M.R. Gloag is a quote about Elizabeth attributed to Bishop Burnett that opines, “She was a woman of great beauty, but far greater parts; she had a wonderful quickness and an amazing vivacity in conversation; she had studied, not only divinity, history but mathematics and philosophy. She was violent in everything, a violent friend and a much more violent enemy.”

In 1672 shortly after the death of her first husband, Elizabeth married the Duke of Lauderdale. A power couple extraordinaire, they traveled widely and spent lavishly, improving Ham House and expanding its gardens.

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Miraculously, both were little affected by changes throughout history and emerged relatively intact into the modern era. Like Rapunzel, they “slept” through most of the 19th and 20th centuries until 1948 when they were given to the National Trust of Britain.

The plan below by Slezer and Wyck is dated 1672 and while it may not have been fully realized during Elizabeth’s lifetime it was used by the National Trust as a framework to restore the gardens in 1975, using plants introduced in England before 1700.  The plan depicts a formal axis connecting the river to the house and the house to its garden.

John Slezer and Jan Wyck plan for the garden, c.1671-2, in the Library Closet at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

John Slezer and Jan Wyck plan for the garden, c.1671-2, in the Library Closet at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames.
©National Trust Images/John Hammond

In 2011 the National Trust commissioned artist and illustrator Louise O’Reilly to create an artist’s book about the 17th Century garden at Ham House, in collaboration with historian Sally Jeffery, as part of the Interaction Programme for the Garden of Reason Project.  The beautifully illustrated result utilizes historic plans and descriptions of the garden as well as documents from the archives dating from 1653 and 1698.

The plan below, from The Gardens at Ham House, is available online.

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The following is a brief tour of the gardens.  For additional information visit the Ham House and Garden website of the National Trust.

The Forecourt: The Forecourt is defined by a circular gravel path set in lawn with a sculpture of Father Thames at its center. Brick walls containing niches set with busts enclose the space (some of which has been replaced with a wrought iron fence allowing for more permeability).  The formal and symmetrical setting of the forecourt is enhanced by clipped bay topiary of yew cones and box hedges.

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The Cherry Garden: One of the property’s most iconic spaces, the Cherry Garden, in the north-east corner, contains triangular and diamond-shaped beds, enclosed with box hedges and cones filled with lavender and Santolina. A statue of Bacchus, the god of wine and the garden’s only original piece of sculpture, is at its center. Hornbeam tunnels, underplanted with clipped yew hedges, enclose the cherry garden which, according to O’Reilly and Jeffery, was in use when Elizabeth was at Ham House.   In 1653 eighty-four cherry trees were identified as being planted here.  The current design is based upon the Slezer and Wyck plan of 1671.

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The South Terrace: Providing a viewing platform from which to enjoy the garden, the gravel terrace retains the characteristics of the 1671 plan.  A herbaceous border, framed by an evergreen hedge, runs along its length, providing seasonal color.  During the summer months orange and lemon trees are placed here.

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The Plats:  Comprising eight grass squares, the plats are visible in the Slezer and Wyck plan  and were reinstated by the National Trust in its 1975 restoration. The pathways provided an ideal venue for strolling and enjoying outdoor entertainments.

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The Wilderness:  In contrast to the plats the wilderness, which contains sixteen compartments, is densely planted with hornbeam hedges and field maple, providing an opportunity for privacy.  Grass paths, laid out in a pattern loosely resembling the Union Jack, connect to four summerhouses providing additional opportunities for respite and concealment.

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Kitchen Garden and Orangery: Occupying the south-west corner of the garden, the kitchen garden was redesigned in 2002-2003 based upon the Slezer and Wyck plan.   The Orangery was built in 1674 and may be, according to the National Trust, one of the earliest surviving structures built for this purpose.  The orange, lemon and pomegranate trees which were placed on the south terrace overwintered here.

Today the refurbished structure houses a café that features produce from the kitchen garden.

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The image of the Orangery below, by Katherine Montagu Wyatt, is from A Book of English Gardens which contains a romantic description of the property from the turn of the century, predating the garden’s restoration.

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Among other observations in A Book of English Gardens is the rich and verdant beauty of the riverside setting surrounding Ham House, which is enhanced by stately trees and greenswards.  Although I did not photograph what is described as The Melancholy Walk, there remain formal avenues of trees (or the reminders thereof) both within and outside of the property providing a palette of textures and multi-hued shades of green that adds to the elegance of the setting.

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Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Book Review: In & Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights by Zahid Sardar with photographs by Marion Brenner

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A collaboration between the design editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and a Berkeley-based photographer, In & Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights provides a rare treat: luminous photography and insightful prose seamlessly integrated and beautifully presented. The result is a literary and visual pleasure that will elevate a visit to Paris to the top of every garden-lover’s travel itinerary.

Comprised of forty-one garden “stories” loosely categorized as garden estates, public parks, and privately owned spaces, In & Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights traces the evolution and adaptation of Paris as a garden city, where contemporary design is infused with historic meaning. The large estates and public parks of the city provide context for its private, intimate spaces, which include courtyards, rooftops, those hidden behind hôtel particulier walls and within suburban locations.

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Pierre Bergé’s private garden designed by Louis Benech and Pascal Cribier. Photograph by Marion Brenner reprinted with permission of Gibbs Smith.

Beginning with André Le Nôtre’s 100-acre masterpiece Vaux-le-Vicomte and concluding with the interior courtyard and salon de thé designed by landscape architect Christian Fournet for the hotel Novotel Les Halles, the gardens portrayed within In & Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights inspire inquiry. They are presented from a distinct point of view that is not afraid to frame questions about design, management and maintenance, permanence and impermanence and the relationship between landscapes and gardens.

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Versailles. Photograph by Marion Brenner reprinted with permission of Gibbs Smith.

An introduction provides a concise overview of the history of the greening of Paris beginning with Catherine de Medici’s Renaissance influenced Tuileries Palace and Gardens, sited just beyond the walls of the medieval city. The transformation of the city by Baron Haussmann in 1853 into twenty arrondissements where boulevards, squares, public parks and gardens created an environment full of light and air created a “lyrical, magical garden city” which serves as a textbook for cross-pollinating garden ideas at every scale and a model for the city beautiful movement.

It is this spirit of cross-pollination which infuses In & Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights with vibrancy. Père Lachaise Cemetery, described as an “uncommon sculpture park,” is afforded equal stature to Christian Fournet’s Miami-esque poolside roof garden. Monet’s garden at Giverny, a “painter’s box of seasonal surprises” co-exists with Gilles Clément’s tropical gardens at the Musée du quai Branly. It’s an eclectic mix.

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Château de Courances. Photograph by Marion Brenner reprinted with permission of Gibbs Smith.

Exquisite full-color photographs abundantly illustrate each of the book’s two hundred and sixty one pages. Each is accompanied by descriptive text that includes an identification of the plant species depicted in the image. A resource section includes contact information about individual designers and a bibliography.

The introduction to In & Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights both begins and concludes with a quote from American statesman Thomas Jefferson, who “bedazzled” by Paris on a visit in 1844 noted, “A walk around Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty and the point of life.” The city of light continues to bedazzle with parks and gardens at its core.

Photographs by Marion Brenner from In & Out of Paris Gardens of Secret Delights by Zahid Sardar. Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

In & Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights
Zahid Sardar/Photographs by Marion Brenner
Gibbs Smith: Layton, UT, 2004

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, April, 2015.

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Russell Page: The Education of a Gardener

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   “I have always tried to shape gardens each as a harmony linking people to nature, house to landscape, the plant to its soil.  Everything that distracts from the idea of unity must go.”       

Russell Page, The Education of a Gardener, 1962

In the March 29th New York Times Style Magazine there is an announcement that London’s Garden Museum is presenting an exhibition of the work of British landscape designer Russell Page through June 21st.  For the first time his notes, personal photographs and unrealized design sketches are on view, providing insight into one of the most influential horticultural talents of the 20th century who humbly described himself as, “the most famous garden designer no one has ever heard of.”

Despite his self-effacement, Page’s sole literary endeavor, The Education of a Gardener (1962), was for many years the only gardening book included in the New York Review of Book’s hand-picked classics (recently joined by Katherine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden).  The Education of a Gardener is one of the best guides to designing and planting a garden ever written. I reread my dog-eared copy, the 1983 edition seen below, often.

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Born in the English countryside Page cultivated a love for nature and gardening at an early age. He assisted his family in the creation of a cottage garden at their home in Wragley, outside of Lincoln, and pursued his gardening education beginning in his teens, reading books in the local library and spending school holidays on his bicycle searching for plants to create rock gardens. His first professional job, for which he was paid one pound a day, was the design of a rock garden in Rutland.

Page’s formal education was by contrast “a hardship” until he discovered a talent for drawing, painting and the study of music, painters and sculptors. This led to an interest in architecture and “the depiction of objects in space.”

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After attending the Slade School of Art , University College, London, Page embarked on a series of horticultural apprenticeships and collaborations. He partnered with, among others, landscape architect Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe in England (Royal Lodge, Winsor; Great Park, Berkshire; Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire; Regent’s Park, London; planting guide for Broadway Village, Cotswolds; Charterhouse School, London) and French decorator Stéphane Boudin. Many of his projects were lifelong endeavors including Longleat House in Wiltshire where Page worked on the Capability Brown designed gardens beginning in 1932, when he was in his mid-twenties, throughout his career.

Longleat, England, 1951 Copyright RHS

Longleat, England, 1951 – Copyright RHS, courtesy of the Garden Museum

Another early project (1930) was a reorganization of Ogden Codman’s garden in France. Codman, an American architect and collaborator of Edith Wharton, possessed, according to Marina Schinz and Gabrielle van Zuylen in The Gardens of Russell Page republished in 2008, an extensive collection of garden architecture books that provided Page with an opportunity to “absorb the principles of composition and view the present world through the lens of the past.” In previous posts I wrote about The Codman Estate and gardens in Lincoln, MA and Edith Wharton’s classic book, Italian Gardens and Villas in reference to Villa Gamberaia, Florence.  I enjoy thinking about the connective thread between the three and like to imagine them deep in conversation.

Page’s client list reads like a who’s who of European royalty and the rich and famous. His work includes large estates and small courtyards throughout Europe, the Middle East and South America as well as urban planning and civic initiatives in Australia, Venezuela and the United States.

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Plan for San Liberato (San Liberato webpage)

One such project is San Liberato, the estate of art historian Count Sanminiatelli, located outside of Rome on Lake Bracciano. Beginning in 1964 Page, “captivated by its location and intrigued by the layers of time past” (Schinz and van Zuylen) transformed the landscape by reorienting the entrance, adding formal gardens and, in close partnership with the Count, an arboretum. Page wrote, “no garden is more magic than this one.”  Created over fifty years, the San Liberato estate remains in the Sanminiatelli family and its botanic garden is preserved and used as a wedding and event venue.  The plan above is from San Liberato’s  website which includes images of the garden throughout the seasons.

Page also designed the Festival Gardens at Battersea Park in London and advised Lady Bird Johnson on the beautification of Washington, D.C. including unrealized plans for a National Rose Garden in West Potomac Park.

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Russell Page FoB Battersea Park 1951 – Courtesy of the Garden Museum.

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Russell Page FoB Battersea Park 1951 – Courtesy of the Garden Museum.

Page’s American projects, undertaken late in his career represent, in a sense, the culmination of his artistic oeuvre. According to Schinz and van Zuylen, keenly aware of the impermanence of his work in the private sector Page hoped to offset this vulnerability through his American civic projects. So strong was Page’s desire that Schinz and van Zuylen conclude their two hundred and fifty page book by noting, “The gardens he designed in the United States, especially those for the Frick Collection, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the PepsiCo sculpture park, were his final wager against the erosion of time.” It’s a wager Page may have lost as the garden at the Columbus Art Museum was destroyed in an expansion project and the fate of Page’s garden at the Frick Collection remains uncertain.

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Frick Garden – Photograph © Navid Baraty, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

In 1973 Page accepted the commission to design a garden for the Frick Collection in New York City.  The viewing garden has a classic plan with formal elements that, according to Schinz and van Zuylen, are “not strictly traditional.” Within the garden seasonal planting beds, a lawn panel edged by gravel and a rectangular pool designed to expand the perception of space, are framed by asymmetrically planted flowering trees. Page worked on the garden for ten years and its simple beauty and elegant design is considered by many a work of art that is integral to the museum’s collection and sense of place.

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Frick Garden – Photograph © Navid Baraty, 2014, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The garden provides a welcome oasis of greenery within the urban chaos of New York City.  There is growing support to save it from demolition and recently revealed information details the commitment of the museum to maintain the garden as a permanent feature. To learn more about efforts to save the garden and lend a voice of support visit Unite to Save the Frick and The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

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“Hat’s Off” by Calder

Page’s last major work, the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens at the PepsiCo Corporation in Purchase, New York, began with a 1988 commission to transform the existing landscape, designed by E.D. Stone, Jr, into a sculpture garden.  Working with Kendall, chairman and chief executive of the company, Page, although in declining health, labored nearly five years on the project spending six months a year on site and planting some 350 trees in one month alone.  I visited PepsiCo in May of 1993 and scanned my slides from that visit for this post.

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At PepsiCo Page deftly merged his artistic sensibilities with his horticultural knowledge using “trees as sculptures and the sculptures as flowers.” A “golden pathway” connects buildings and landscape and a series of discrete gardens showcase Page’s skill at integrating built and natural elements. These include an ornamental grass garden, a fall garden and a formal water-lily garden with a series of pools that reflect the sky. Not unlike his earlier project at San Liberato, the PepsiCo landscape includes large-scale plantings of ornamental trees and shrubs.

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PepsiCo,c1980 – Copyright RHS, courtesy of the Garden Museum

Just before his death, Page created a bog garden at PepsiCo, perhaps a memory of one of his earliest projects, a small stream and rock garden at Flete, completed when he was just seventeen.

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La Mortella, Italy, C1964 – Copyright RHS, courtesy of the Garden Museum

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La Mortella, Italy, C1964 – Copyright RHS, courtesy of the Garden Museum

Page’s gardens and landscapes are beautiful and his ability to integrate horticulture within a design framework unsurpassed. He understood and embraced formality yet infused his landscapes with the spirit of individual cultures, climates, sites and design features.  He was contemplative and collaborative, undertaking projects that are both complex yet disarmingly simple. As all gardeners are aware, there is an extraordinary ephemerality to the pursuit of perfection and as Page clearly understood a sense of both loss and gratitude permeate every horticultural endeavor.

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Russell Page did not have a garden of his own and offers a description of what his personal garden might be like in the concluding chapters of The Education of a Gardener.  Despite the grandeur of many of his projects his wish was for a small and simple English garden without a complicated formal layout which in his words, “like all gardens it will be a world for itself and for me.”

Upon his death Page was buried in an unmarked grave on the Badminton Estate where he worked for many years. Here he is forever part of the countryside he so loved.

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Badminton, England C1925 – Copyright RHS, courtesy of the Garden Museum

The Education of a Gardener: The Life & Work of Russell Page 1906-1985
Garden Museum – 25/03/15 – 21/06/15
Lambeth Palace Rd, London SE1 7LB
Tel: 020 7401 8865 | Fax: 020 7401 8869

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

Boston’s Charles River Esplanade: An Urban Jewel

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Several weeks ago, after one of our frequent storms, I decided to get up early on a Sunday morning to walk along the Esplanade. It’s a park I know well, having been the first executive director of The Esplanade Association.

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Inspired by Elizabeth Hope Cushing’s recently published book, Arthur A. Shurcliff: Design, Preservation, and the Creation of the Colonial Williamsburg Landscape, I planned to write about the Esplanade, one of his major Boston projects. As is often the case, although I have spent endless hours in the park, I didn’t have any winter images. At the time I didn’t realize how much snow would fall and that I need not hurry.

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Shurcliff has been very much in the news of late with Cushing’s book and a citation in the January 23rd Boston Globe op-ed piece, “Olympics can give Boston its overdue urban transit ring” by Alex Krieger. Described by Krieger as “Boston’s greatest transit ring dreamer” Shurcliff, who never drove an automobile, proposed a plan for a circumferential boulevard around the city that was never implemented. According to Krieger it remains a relevant concept and today “It’s hard to imagine a better line for creating social, economic, and transportation connectivity.”

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While Shurcliff’s vision for Boston’s transportation system was not fully realized, his vision for the Charles River Esplanade, the three-mile long, 65-acre park that stretches from the Museum of Science to the Boston University Bridge, was. Here he worked for more than twenty-five years, designing and redesigning the park to accommodate the construction of Storrow Drive in the early 1950’s.

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Charles Hassam, 1892. Charles River Basin and Beacon Hill.

The history of the Esplanade has been extensively documented. Made possible by the transformation of the Charles River from a tidal estuary to a fresh water river basin through the building of a dam, the park is a totally man-made creation, conceived as “the central court of honor” in a Metropolitan park system proposed by landscape architect Charles Eliot (1859-1897). His vision, for a waterfront park rivaling those of Europe, imagined the Esplanade as the “crown jewel.”

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The Charles Eliot Monument, designed by Shurcliff, is the focal point of the recently restored Charles Eliot Memorial.

In it earliest iteration, the Esplanade was just that, a promenade along the water’s edge. Officially opened as the Boston Embankment in 1910, the 100-foot wide walkway provided a clearly defined, formal edge between the river and the public realm.

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“Back Bay, Waterfront View: Looking Toward Longfellow Bridge,” June 3, 1916 by Leon Abdalian. BPL Print Department.

It was through possibly one of the most egregiously violated public gifts of all time, the $1,000,000 donation of Helen Osborne Storrow, “to carry out a comprehensive plan for the beautification and improvement of the Charles River Basin,” honoring her late husband, that the park as we know it today was created.

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Following Storrow’s gift a Special Commission on the Charles River Basin recommended that recreational opportunities be expanded along the river by removing the embankment walls and widening the park, using fill pumped from the river bed.

Augmented by $2.3 million dollars of public funding, the project added more than 40 acres to the Esplanade, creating the first lagoon, boat landings, plazas, playgrounds and a music oval following Shurcliff’s plan.

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Although in his later life Shurcliff lived in Ipswich, where he and his wife, Margaret Homer Nichols built a home on Argilla Road, he was born on West Cedar Street on Beacon Hill and both lived and maintained an office in the community throughout his lifetime. I like to imagine that his work on the Esplanade was for him the perfect project; the reclamation of the river that he knew as a child as a public space where formal and natural features combined to allow access for boating, fishing and swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

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Boys Fishing (approximately 1950). Copyright Leslie Jones, Courtesy of the BPL Leslie Jones Collection.

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Swimming at Charlesbank (1940). Copyright Leslie Jones. Courtesy of the Leslie Jones Collection, BPL.

In 1936, the Esplanade was formally dedicated as the “Storrow Memorial Embankment,” a name that never took hold. Four years later on July 2, 1940 the Hatch Shell, designed by architect Richard J. Shaw, was dedicated, replacing the temporary wooden shell seen in the image dated 1930, below.

Arthur Fiedler and Symphony Players 1930 BPL

Here, under the direction of noted conductor Arthur Fielder, the Boston Pops Orchestra performed summer concerts which have now been reduced to only one – the annual Boston Pops Fourth of July celebration. Fortunately the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, founded by the late Charles Ansbacher in 2001, has chosen the Hatch Shell as its principal home, returning the tradition of summer concerts to the park.

The quilt below, Esplanade on the Fourth, is by local fiber artist Sue Colozzi

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The country’s first community boating program was begun on the Esplanade in the mid-1930’s and a boathouse, designed by Kilham, Hopkins and Greeley, constructed in 1941.

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When Storrow Drive was built in the early 1950’s Shurcliff was retained to assist in both the layout of the road and replacement of parkland lost to the highway. According to Cushing he was at first opposed to the highway, which was highly contested by many, including his Beacon Hill neighbors.

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“The beautiful driveway along the Esplanade running along Charles River to Charles Street connects traffic to all northern points and Boston through underpass of West Boston Bridge.”

The two postcards from my collection, above and below,show the transformation of the carriage drive to Storrow Drive. 

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Charles River Basin from John Hancock Building, showing Storrow Drive and the Longfellow Bridge spanning the basin between Boston and Cambridge, Mass.

Shurcliff did, however, in collaboration with his son, Sidney, work to ameliorate the impacts of Storrow Drive on the park. According to Linda M. Cox in The Charles River Esplanade: Our Boston Treasure, he devised a “brilliant and simple solution to replace this lost parkland.” To do so he lengthened the outer barrier of the existing lagoon, created a new island connected to the original shoreline by footbridges, added a series of lagoons and added an undulating shoreline between the Harvard and BU Bridges. According to Cox, “trees, shrubs, and grass were planted everywhere.”

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Shurcliff was deeply impacted by the New England landscape with an affinity for historic sites and structures  and is described by Cushing as “an appreciator of and by extension a preservation advocate for, old places and open spaces.” It is ironic that his masterpiece, the Esplanade, owned and managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation, has throughout the years suffered from a lack of funding and maintenance, in need itself of preservation and ongoing restoration.

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During the last decade much of this work has been accomplished by The Esplanade Association, the non-profit friends group formed in 2001 to work to restore and enhance Boston’s Charles River Esplanade on behalf of the greater Boston community.

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In 2010, in recognition of the Esplanade’s one hundredth anniversary, The Esplanade Assocation, launched Esplanade 2020, “to forge a shared vision for the park’s future—one rooted in its nineteenth century origins, but looking forward to address the needs of the broad contemporary public.”

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It remains an interesting balance, weighing the restoration of historic park elements with the addition of new park features. Cushing quotes historian Karl Haglund author of Inventing the Charles River as describing Shurcliff’s plan for the Esplanade as superb,“grounded in simplicity and restraint.” These qualities are, for many, what continues to make the Esplanade a special place regardless of the season.  Hopefully they will not be lost or else, like the snowman on the river docks below, we will all be very grumpy.

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For additional information read: The Esplanade Cultural Landscape Report by Shary Page Berg, FASLA

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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