City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts
by Catie Marron with photographs by Oberto Gili
(New York: HarperCollins, 2013)
As a young woman in Paris Catie Marron fell in love with the Luxembourg Gardens. Here on a “brisk, sunny morning”, moved by the contrast between the “formal, beautiful setting and its natural everyday humanity,” was born a passion that serves as the inspiration for City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts a series of eighteen essays by an eclectic group of contributors that includes well-known authors, designers, artists and one former President.
In her introduction, Marron shares that unable to find books about city parks frequented on her extensive travels, she set out to create her own, in partnership with photographer Oberto Gili. To highlight favorite parks and cities Marron sought contributors deeply connected to selected spaces infusing individual essays with personal recollections and insights. Thus, just as every park has its “own soul” formed by the interaction of nature and environment, each essay has its own perspective framed by the perceptions and memories of its author. As such it is a mixed lot.
Architect Sir Norman Foster (Grosse Tiergarten, Berlin) begins his essay with an overview of the role city parks play within the context of civic design, followed by a history of the park and how, in his six years working within the city on the Reichstag, the park, a constant presence, both informed and was informed by the project.
André Aciman (High Line, New York), an author and academic, ponders the mystery of then and now, in which an industrial artifact can become a modern park while retaining elements of affected imperfection within a framework of passing time. Travel writer Jan Morris (Giardino Pubblico,Trieste) describes a garden of “municipal worthies” where the park has absorbed the city’s character and serves as a microcosm of civic meaning.
And then, there are the stories where parks become the repositories of memory, places where personal, and often family, histories are nurtured. These include essays by Zadie Smith, who explored the Boboli Gardens in Florence with her father; John Banville, who shared precious memories of Iveagh Gardens in Dublin with his teen age daughter and Nicole Krauss walking her dogs at dawn on the long meadow in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York. Amanda Foreman recalls being with her grandmother in Hyde Park, London, a living “chronometer” where the seasonal rituals of daily life provide reassurance that memories are not only “visions but also tethers to a previous self that was not lost, simply changed.”
Given the rich material in City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, it is unfortunate that Marron includes three parks that charge fees and are thus not public in its truest sense: Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.; Al-Azhar in Cairo; and Parque Ecológico de Xochimilico in Mexico City. This is not to say that they are not important places, worthy of inclusion (although the essay by Bill Clinton on Dumbarton Oaks is not particularly inspiring), but that the phrase “public places” in the title, while reflecting Marron’s assertion that parks are places where one can be alone “in public,” implies a place available to all without charge.
This a large book generously illustrated with color photographs by Oberto Gill who specializes in shooting interiors and fashion. Most of the photographs are a full page in size and follow the essay which they illustrate. Integrating the photos with the text and providing plans would have aided in understanding how individual parks relate to their urban context.
As I read the essays, I found myself going on line to learn more about how each park relates to the city in which it is located as well as how it is managed and maintained. Given Marron’s current position as co-chair of the board of directors of Friends of the High Line, placing city parks within the context of current issues would have added an additional layer of meaning to the book.
City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts is worthy of consideration and will appeal to both those who love gardens and those who are passionate about the increasingly complex role city parks play within the ever changing urban landscape. While the essays reflect individual voices and insights as a group they speak to the interconnectivity of place and time and the important role that city parks serve as the setting for richly textured memories.
This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, January 2014.
Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved
“It is no little deed to make a garden,“that greatest refreshment to the spirits of man.” But to make a garden in the wilderness; to make the wilderness a tributary to it; and it tributary to the great centers of learning and thought on another continent: that is a great deed.” Elizabeth O. Abbott, March 1904
It has not been my intent to focus on botanic gardens. Yet on a trip to attend a conference outside of Philadelphia I could not help but notice how close Bartram’s Garden is to the airport. Established in 1728, the garden is considered to be the oldest botanic garden in the United States and its founder, John Bartram, the greatest natural botanist in the world (as described by colleague Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus). I had the pleasure of visiting Linnaeus’ garden in Uppsala last May and was curious to visit its American counterpart.
Located along the west bank of the Schuylkill River, Bartram’s Garden is remarkable for many reasons not the least of which is that it exists at all. Established almost three hundred years ago the garden borders a dense urban neighborhood and is surrounded by industrial uses. Challenging to locate, its is a rare example of an 18th century landscape that has been preserved in a most incongruous setting.
Originally more than 100 acres in size today its 45 acres contain Bartram’s home, coach house and stable, remnants of his nursery with original plantings and pathways, meadows that afford sweeping views of the Philadelphia skyline and a trail system connecting the river and wetlands.
John Bartram (1699 – 1777) was self-taught, a Quaker-farmer who from an early age was blessed with a profound curiosity and reverence for the natural world. From his Philadelphia base he set the goal of the“compleat Discovery of the Native Growth in America” establishing a lucrative business centered on the transatlantic transfer of plants and natural specimens. At the center of a horticultural network that included local as well as international colleagues he befriended the political elite of the day including Benjamin Franklin who published Bartram’s articles in his newspapers and almanacs and with whom in 1743 he founded the American Philosophical Society.
One of his most famous discoveries, the Franklinia alatamaha tree, is named in Franklin’s honor. Bartram is credited with saving the tree from extinction (it was never seen in the wild after 1803). Today all Franklinias are descended from those grown in the nursery. To read “America’s First ‘Rare’ Plant: The Franklin Tree” visit: http://www.terrain.org/articles/18/rowland.htm.
In recognition of his expertise in 1765 Bartram was appointed Royal Botanist by King George III and in 1769 he was elected a member of the Royal Academy in Stockholm.
Only a single illustration exists from the eighteenth century of the Bartram house and garden, entitled “A Draught of John Bartram’s House and Garden as it appears from the River. Attributed to William Bartram and dated 1758 it is both a plan and perspective drawing that provides a fair representation of the garden (although not true to scale).
In the illustration the grounds are divided into two major areas an upper terrace adjacent to the house with a lower area sloping down towards the river. Upper and lower kitchen gardens are depicted as are common and new flower gardens. Large specimen trees flank the walkway and a pond (seen below) fed by “Springhead convaid underground to the spring or milk house” is in the center of the lower garden.
The garden supplied plants for Monticello and Mount Vernon. It is also credited with inspiring delegates of the Continental Congress to work together to resolve political differences. On July 14, 1787 a group of delegates, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison visited the gardens, where John’s sons, William and John Jr. continued the business founded by their father. Here, according to Andrea Wulff in Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation,“the delegates could see how the manifold flora of each state thrived together, their branches intertwined in a flourishing horticultural union.” Bartram had been the first to collect trees and shrubs from all thirteen states and if they could thrive together so too could the new country. Two days later a successful vote was taken and as Wulf notes,“it can only be speculation that a three-hour walk on a cool summer morning among America’s most glorious trees and shrubs influenced these men. But what we do know is that the three men who changed sides and made the Great Compromise possible that day had all been there and marveled at what they saw.” The image below, from the early twentieth century depicts a visit by George Washington to the garden.
In this digital age in which information is shared spontaneously it is difficult to imagine a universe where plants and seeds were valuable currency, exotic treasures that were coveted by collectors throughout the world. The Bartrams propagated more than 4,000 native and exotic plants and shipped plants regularly to Europe where wealthy clients anxiously awaited the arrival of “Bartram’s boxes” 3-by 2 ½-foot containers filled with live plants and seeds packed in sand or moss.
Enthusiastic explorers, John Sr. and William traveled from Florida to the Ohio River, often on horseback. William journeyed throughout the South for nearly four years writing and illustrating Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida. Deemed a classic volume of American nature writing the book depicts the relatively pristine environment of eight states and provided inspiration for other great American naturalists including Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. William’s talents as a naturalist were enhanced by his artistic abilities as depicted below in his illustration of the Franklinia (courtesy of the American Philosophical Society).
In 1976 the Bartram Trail Conference was established to locate and record the route of William’s travels and “encourage the study, preservation and interpretation of the William Bartram heritage.” You can learn more about their work and William’s legacy at: www.bartramtrail.org.
Many of John Bartram Senior’s travels were funded in part by Peter Collinson, his chief correspondent in London. Collinson served as a middleman for the exchange of seeds, plants, natural specimens and “curiosities” which were sent to, among other sites, the Chelsea Physic Garden (London), Leiden Botanic Garden in the Netherlands and Linnaeus’ Botanic Garden in Uppsala. This network of sites (including Bartram’s Garden) is included in a serial cultural landscape World Heritage nomination put forth by Sweden to recognize the “Rise of Systematic Biology” the science based upon the observation, collection and analyzation of organisms promoted by Linnaeus. The nomination spans eight countries and contains thirteen sites that contain extant populations of collections studied by Linnaeus and his peers.
Bartram’s sons John Bartram, Jr. (1743-1812) and William Bartram (1739-1823) succeeded him, expanding the botanic garden and nursery and continuing the international exchange of plants. According to the “Explorer’s Guide to Bartram’s Gardens” the “third generation of Bartrams in America issued the first printed plant catalogue in America.”
The gardens remained an active nursery managed by descendants of John Bartram Junior until 1850 when financial difficulties led to its sale to a wealthy industrialist Andrew Eastwick who preserved the historic garden as part of a larger estate. Upon his death in 1879 a campaign was launched by Thomas Meehan and Charles Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum to preserve the garden leading to its acquisition by the city of Philadelphia in 1891. A non-profit organization, the John Bartram association was founded two years later in 1893 with a mission “to protect and enhance the landmark Bartram’s Garden and House, advance the Bartram legacy of discovery, gardening and art, and inspire audiences of all ages to care for the natural world.”
A 2013 – 2015 action plan, developed by the Association in support of its strategic plan proposes that the gardens remain “a welcoming presence in an ever-changing environment; reminding us how nature shapes the world we live in.”
Today, the garden’s plant collection includes several extant examples dating from the Bartram family, remains of what was once the most varied collection of North American plants in the world. These include the magnificent Ginko (Ginko biloba), seen below, the oldest in North America. According to the “Explorer’s Guide to Bartram’s Garden” the tree is the sole survivor of three sent to the United States from London by William Hamilton in 1785.
The Bartram oak (quercus x heterophylla) is a rare hybrid of the red and willow oak which Bartram reputedly discovered on The Woodlands, an estate not far the gardens.
The garden’s rectilinear framework, designed and laid out by John Bartram during the second quarter of the eighteenth century is intact as is a cider mill and press carved from bedrock that, most likely used by Bartram, was sited along the river to serve farms on both sides of the river.
Other notable features in the garden include the recently restored barn, the oldest in Philadelphia (1775) which now serves as a function/educational space.
Bartram’s House and Garden and part of his original plantation are preserved in a city park administered by the Fairmount Park Commission and maintained and interpreted by the John Bartram Association. The site has an active educational program and in 2012 a Community Farm and Food Resource Center was created with a 1.5 acre farm, greenhouse, orchard, and community garden plots.
A Master Plan below, by Viridian Landscape Studios, aims to preserve the garden’s historic core while allowing for enhanced visibility and new uses through the addition of circulation and parking, the siting of a regional bicycle path through the property, a new Visitor’s Center, phased building improvements, educational landscape features and tidal restoration.
For more information about the Master Plan Visit:http://media.wix.com/ugd/95d585_8e727fda3e0ca54b6eba1d95b5b63a7c.pdf
For information about Bartram’s Garden visit: www.bartramsgarden.org.
Copyright © 2013 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved
“Can a great society generate the concerted drive to plan, and having planned, execute great projects of beauty?” Lady Bird Johnson
I recently spent a long weekend in Austin,Texas and had the opportunity to visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. As part of a research project on urban parks and landscapes I had read “The Proceedings of the 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty” and as a result had become completely smitten with Lady Bird Johnson. Dubbed the nation’s “Environmental First Lady” she co-chaired the conference (with Laurence Rockefeller), a two-day affair that brought together 115 of the nation’s leading design practitioners, theorists and political leaders including Jane Jacobs, Edmund Bacon, Garret Eckbo, Charles W. Eliot ll, Grady Clay, Christopher Tunnard and John O. Simmonds. The goal was to develop a comprehensive agenda to “beautify” America exploiting the synergy between parks, townscapes, highways, waterfronts, scenic roads, farms, utilities and the “new suburbia.” It was an ambitious undertaking.
Beauty. It’s a word not often used when discussing the design of public spaces or “placemaking.” Often shunned as simplistic or by the even more damaging term elitist, beauty was at the core of Lady Bird’s agenda. She wrote:
“Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean roadsides, safe waste-disposal, and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks, and wilderness areas. To me, in sum, beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”
Believing that the physical landscape of the country, rapidly changing through suburban expansion, was in danger Lady Bird called for measures that combined conservation and protection with restoration and innovation. In the introduction to the conference it states, “…the increasing tempo of urbanization and growth is already depriving many Americans of the right to live in decent surroundings. More of our people are being crowded into cities and being cut off from nature. Cities themselves reach out into the countryside, destroying streams and trees and meadows as they go. A modern highway may wipe out the equivalent of a 50-acre park with every mile. And people move out of the city to get closer to nature only to find that nature has moved further from them.”
Lady Bird’s love of nature was formed in childhood. She grew up in the country and found companionship in the natural world. Her experiences, whether exploring the cypress lined blackwater lagoons of Caddo Lake or the wildflower meadows of the Texas Hill Country, reinforced her belief that nature has the power to enlarge man’s imagination, relieve his spirit and restore his dignity. For her, the joy and solace she found in nature was essential to her well-being and a gift that she believed should be available to all.
Of her many ventures, including the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, the Landscapes and Landmarks Tour, the White House Conference on Natural Beauty, the Highway Beautification Bill, the promotion and expansion of the National Park System and once she returned to Austin, the development of a hiking and biking trail along Town Lake (later named Lady Bird Lake in her honor), it is the Lady Johnson Wildflower Center that is, perhaps, her greatest legacy. Located southwest of Austin, the Center is a tangible reminder of her vision – the nation’s foremost public botanic garden dedicated to native plants and sustainable design, renowned for research, education and information about native plants and native landscapes.
In 2012 the U.S. Postal Service commemorated the centennial of Lady Bird Johnson’s birth with the commemorative stamp seen below, endorsed by five former first ladies. For more information about the centennial and Lady Bird Johnson visit: http://ladybirdjohnson.org/about-lady-bird-johnson/.
Founded in 1982 by Lady Bird Johnson and the actress Helen Hayes the Wildflower Center began as a modest endeavor on sixty acres of land with a small house east of Austin and $125,000 donated by Mrs. Johnson. Two years later the Center had initiated research projects and established an academic portfolio. By 1988 the first edition of Wildflower, the journal of the Wildflower Center, was published as well as the book Wildflowers Across America (of which I have a copy) co-authored by Lady Bird and Carlton B. Lees.
In 1995 the Wildflower Center moved to its current location southwest of Austin gradually expanding to include 279 acres of land supporting 12 acres of gardens containing 650 plant species and 100,000 plants. Formally dedicated as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1995, the Center includes 2 miles of trails and an arboretum. Central irrigation is fed by a 70,000-gallon rainwater collection system and cisterns and ponds collect water for re-circulation.
Designed by Overland Architects and J.R. Anderson Landscape Architects the Center sits lightly on the land. The architecture of limestone, wood and metal provides a regional response to the sensitive landscape of the site and reflects the history of Texas by using forms reminiscent of San Antonio missions as well as the craftsmanship of farmhouses built by German settlers of the Texas Hill Country and the vernacular features of Texas ranch compounds.
In the Landscape as Mentor issue of the journal Places landscape architect Darrell Morrison describes his love of the Texas Hill Country and its influence on the site plan of the Wildflower Center which was inspired by the forms of live oaks and the textures of native grasses (there were 663 trees on the site six inches or greater in diameter). The architects, according to Morrison, were “sympathetic to letting the landscape influence the design of the buildings …..by focusing on views of specific trees through certain windows….and (let) the landscape win in the end.”
A mission statement for the project developed by Rick Archer and Tim Blonkvist of Overland Partners reinforces this point of view: “By design and context, the Center shall elucidate for the visitor a fundamental understanding of ecological issues, nature, and site specific environment, and in all ways the Center shall acknowledge the physical and transcendent value of native landscapes, and, by extension, the fragile precious natural Hill Country.”
In the rendered plan above, from the Journal Places, the relationship between architectural form and landscape features is visible. Dedicated to teaching people about the environmental necessity, economic value and natural beauty of native plants the Center’s educational facilities, including a botanical library and research facility are accessed through a central courtyard.
A naturalistic garden connects the courtyard to the display gardens bordered by greenhouses and a series of theme gardens. A learning center and butterfly gardens as well as a series of trails have been added to the facility since the original plan was completed. The plan below, from the website, shows how the Center has expanded since its founding.
Throughout the Center water features and shade structures are used to complement the interplay of natural and built form.
The Center’s newest addition is the 16 acre Mollie Steves Zachry Texas Arboretum the centerpiece of tree-related educational and research programs. Its extensive Oak Collection reflects the species’ diversity within Texas where 74% of all Oak species in the US are found.
Affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s applied research and demonstration projects advance the mission “to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes. In addition “its goals are national and ambitious: to learn as much as we can about wildflower propagation and growth and to be a clearinghouse to spread that knowledge to developers, park managers and private citizens everywhere.”
The Center is one of five U.S.organizations participating in the Millennium Seed Bank Project established by Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/save-seed-prosper/millennium-seed-bank/). It supports a landscape restoration program as well as an online native plant information network containing 27,000 native plant images available at the “Explore Plants” section of the website, www.wildflower.org.
In 2005 the Center developed the Sustainable Sites Initiative, an interdisciplinary effort to create voluntary sustainability standards for landscapes nationwide. Designed to motivate site developers and landscapers to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of landscape, the initiative uses market-based incentives and techniques to encourage the use of storm water management, biodiversity protection, pollution reduction and other varieties of resource stewardship activities. Partners include the American Society of Landscape Architects and the United States Botanic Garden. For more information about the initiative visit: http://www.sustainablesites.org/.
The Center’s newest project, the Luci and Ian Family garden to be completed in 2014, is a pilot of the sustainable sites initiative. Designed by W. Gary Smith of TBG Partners as part of a 2005 Master Plan the garden is 4.5 acres in size integrating concepts of biology, botany, geology, hydrology and ecology into its design. Features in the garden include a maze, grotto and a giant play lawn.
Before I conclude with an overview of individual gardens and features within the Center I wanted to return to the idea of beauty and the need to consider its value in the built environment.
I have been spending a great deal of time lately balancing between the worlds of “Placemaking” and World Heritage Management. World Heritage sites are places acknowledged for their Outstanding Universal Value while placemaking was recently described as the deliberate shaping of an environment to foster social interaction and improve a community’s quality of life….. placing people ahead of efficiency and aesthetics. Somewhere between the two lies another possibility,where beauty is integrated into the everyday lives of all through the design of the public realm.
As for beauty Lady Bird observed:
“Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool – all the threads are interwoven – recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty and parks…….It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.”
Indeed it does.
Additional Noteworthy Gardens and Facilities in the Center include:
Opened in 2013 the kiosk was assembled off-site and is designed of sustainable materials. It’s 100% recycled green roof is planted with native prairie plants and its west-facing green wall provides shade from the late afternoon sun with plantings that are irrigated by condensate water from the building’s mini-split air conditioning unit.
Modeled after a mission courtyard, the central gathering space is surrounded by facilities including an auditorium, visitor’s gallery, library, cafe, children’s center and gift shop. A simulated Hill Country stream is at its center.
The Cafe Garden features plantings that replicate a mid-grass prairie community in a semi-formal design.
A gift from Lady Bird’s San Antonio friends the Observation Tower serves as a 10,000 gallon cistern while providing views of the Center and surrounding landscape.
Containing 23 themed beds highlighting the use of plants native to Texas the display gardens are enclosed by limestone walls and bordered by a shaded arbors of Texas Wisteria, Coral Honeysuckle, and Mustang Grape.
A series of homeowner’s inspiration gardens provide an opportunity to see plant combinations in a variety of settings including naturalistic, formal and a Texas mixed border.
Ann & O.J. Weber Butterfly Garden:
Designed by Judy Walther of Environmental Survey Consulting the Butterfly Garden contains more than 350 plant species arranged by habitats to create a healthy ecosystem for butterflies and other invertebrates throughout their life cycles. The garden demonstrates the codependent relationship of plants and insects and the critical role of pollinators in sustaining biodiversity.
The 15,500 square foot Trailhead Garden provides a transition from the Center’s formal spaces to its trail network. From here one can visit the new Arboretum, John Barr and Research Trails.
And while the Lady Johnson Wildflower Center is indeed beautiful I was reminded to…..
Additional information can be found at: www.wildflower.org.
Copyright © 2013 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved
The gardening season has barely ended when they arrive in the mail – seed and nursery catalogues touting tantalizing descriptions and images of new and improved plant varieties. Within every page lies a promise for the coming year of an improved and possibly perfect garden, enhanced by the latest wonders of the horticultural industry.
If you are seduced by the photos of amazing plants in miraculous shades of transcendent color and mesmerized by the graceful prose and practical advice that the seed and nursery catalogues contain don’t fret. They have been enticing American gardeners for more than a hundred years.
In America’s Romance with the English Garden, Thomas J. Mickey traces the evolution of the American garden style through the lens of the nursery and seed industries and the associated publications they developed, including catalogues, books and gardening magazines. Their profound influence on the American public had an impact on all levels of garden fashion, from the seeds and plants that were planted to the landscape designs that graced suburban homes. These designs, based upon the English Garden style with its verdant lawns, artfully sited trees and shrubs and planting beds adorned with native and exotic species, remain popular today.
The book is divided into four thematic sections beginning with an overview of British influences on American horticultural practices from the colonial period through the mid-nineteenth century. From the onset, Americans adopted British techniques and lacking professional gardeners relied upon their European counterparts. British horticultural societies, parks, rural cemeteries, botanic gardens and publications provided additional models for American interpretation.
What America lacked in gardening expertise was overcome by the entrepreneurship of the seed and nursery companies who, aided by advances in printing techniques, transportation and mass-marketing, transformed gardening from an act of utility to a social activity attractive to an emerging middle class. A well kept garden added value to the home and an aura of respectability. Everyone wanted one.
America’s Romance with the English Garden, provides an insightful overview of an aspect of American garden history that is under-appreciated. Today, it is difficult to imagine the profound influence that the seed and nursery industry wielded in defining gardening tastes for mainstream culture. The companies, mostly family run, were intensely personal endeavors and the catalogues with their anecdotes, testimonials and stories were both literary masterpieces and practical guides.
The book concludes with a chapter titled “Landscape Design According to the Catalogues” in which detailed landscape instructions and American home landscape examples, including those based upon the English precedent, are explored. A more critical question posed by Mickey on the very last page concerns Americans ongoing infatuation with the English Gardening style, an unsustainable model that continues to be promoted by the horticultural industry.
The advertisement below, depicting a home landscape with traditional English elements, is from Joseph Breck and Sons a Boston-based company founded in 1818. In the 1950’s the company was transformed into a Dutch bulb importer and flower bulb company by the fifth generation of the Breck family. Today Breck’s is the largest importer of Dutch flower bulbs in the U.S.
At 230 pages in length, America’s Romance with the English Garden is a thoughtful book with appeal for the gardener and historian alike. For those wishing to learn more there are extensive notations and a comprehensive bibliography. Generously illustrated, each chapter concludes with a bonus – a “featured plant” from Mickey’s own garden chosen based upon its relationship to the chapter’s contents and available to the home gardener.
America’s Romance with the English Garden by Thomas J. Mickey is published by Ohio University Press: Athens, Ohio, 2013.
This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, October, 2013.
Copyright © 2013 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved
If parks have personalities Kensington Gardens, envisioned by three queens (Mary, Anne and Caroline), birthplace of another (Victoria) and forever linked to Princess Diana, would be described as serenely elegant. Adjacent to and formed from land that was once part of Hyde Park, when one enters the garden (and please do not call it a park) they are transported into a realm more akin to a private estate than a public space, a fitting reminder of the garden’s royal pedigree.
I’m backtracking on my travels as I write this having visited Kensington Gardens last May. I was in London for several days and realizing it was a Royal Park that I had not spent much time in decided to rectify that oversight. I had read about the redesign of the landscape surrounding the palace by landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan as well as the restoration of the Italian Water Gardens with funding from the Tiffany Foundation. At that time I was blissfully unaware (possibly one of the few in the universe) that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George would be taking up residence in Kensington Palace.
Above all else, the history of the Palace is intimately linked to the development of the gardens and landscape that surround it – a landscape defined by its relationship to royal families and shaped by and beloved by queens and princesses alike.
The sculpture of Queen Victoria seen below, presides over the Broad Walk. It was sculpted by her daughter Princess Louise and presented by the Kensington Golden Jubilee Memorial Executive Committee in 1893.
The gardens are also forever linked to the innocence of childhood through their association with Peter Pan and the addition of the Princess Diana Memorial playground, opened in 2000 near the site of an earlier playground that had been funded by the author J.M. Barrie. Barrie lived close by and used Kensington Gardens as the setting for his children’s book, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, published in 1906.
The playground, designed by Jenette Emery-Wallis of Land Use Consultants, eschews traditional play equipment and instead focuses on imaginative play informed by characters and places in Barrie’s books. One of three play areas within Kensington Gardens, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is located along the Broad Walk within view of Kensington Palace. Features in the playground associated with Peter Pan’s adventures include a pirate ship, beach cove, indian camp, musical garden and a rock with the imprint of a mermaid’s tail.
The world of the imagination and the appeal of Kensington Gardens for children is further enhanced by a popular bronze statue of Peter Pan, a gift from J.M. Barrie to the children of London. Located next to the Long Water between the Serpentine Bridge and the Italian Gardens the statue was mysteriously installed in 1912 by Barrie who took out an ad in a London newspaper reading:
“There is a surprise in store for the children who go to Kensington Gardens to feed the ducks in the Serpentine this morning. Down by the little bay on the south-western side of the trail of the Serpentine they will find a May-day gift by Mr. J.M. Barrie, a figure of Peter Pan blowing his pipe on the stump of a tree, with fairies and mice and squirrels all around. It is the work of Sir George Frampton, and the bronze figure of the boy who would never grow up is delightfully conceived.”
The map below of Peter Pan’s Kensington Gardens, presents an enchanting overview of the places important to Peter and provides a roadmap to those seeking to explore his imaginative world.
Kensington Garden was identified as the home of Peter Pan in the Underground Poster below, in the off-chance you arrived via the Tube.
Kensington Gardens is full of surprises and there is something very special about a landscape in the middle of the city that can amuse and delight both children and grown-ups alike. The family in the photo below is searching for butterflies (or perhaps fairies) within view of the Palace.
While writing this post I became hopelessly lost in research. So in order to finish (and work on other pieces) I’ve provided some preliminary history and social commentary augmented with impressions of my visit. The history focuses on the roles of the three queens who are most credited with the garden’s landscape transformation and an examination of the gardens evolution from a private to a public space. I conclude with some recent additions to the gardens as a reminder of their continued role as a canvas for creativity within London.
Somewhat fittingly the history of the Gardens begins with a royal couple looking for a peaceful place to live away from, but close to, London’s core.
In 1689 King William III and Queen Mary II purchased Nottingham House in what was then the village of Kensington to escape the “foul air” of the city proper. William was asthmatic and he and Mary had recently undertaken a similar project at Het Loo in the Netherlands.
To improve and enlarge the property they hired the preeminent architect of the time, Christopher Wren and embarked upon a series of landscape improvements. Wren, who is credited with designing 57 churches within London including St. Paul’s Cathedral, is attributed with the design the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the second oldest institution of higher education in America (after Harvard), founded by William and Mary in 1693.
According to The Gardens of William and Mary written by David Jacques and Arend Jan van der Horst the original property was 40 acres in size with a paddock and a few small gardens including a mount, a banqueting house and bowling green.
Under Mary’s direction George London was retained to create plans for a southern garden of 12 acres with a great walk in line with the Elm Avenue. Dutch in style with clipped yews, holly and topiary the gardens are described as “ a collection of elaborate unsymmetrical parterres and wildernesses which, although smaller, were even more intricate than any bosquet at Versailles,” Kensington Palace and Gardens transformation from a modest country estate to a residence befitting the royal family had begun in earnest.
The illustration below depicts the garden’s formal parterres.
To facilitate William’s safe passage to Whitehall an illuminated private road was cut through the gardens and Hyde Park. The Rue de Roi or “King’s Road,” labeled as The King’s Private Road on the Schmollinger Map of 1833 became known as “Rotten Row” the name it retains to this day.
In 1702 Mary’s sister Anne became Queen. Like Mary before her Anne loved gardens and immediately set about enlarging Kensington’s grounds. She appropriated thirty acres of land from north of the garden in 1704 and in 1705 acquired an additional one hundred acres from Hyde Park to create a paddock for deer and antelope.
Anne commissioned landscape designers Henry Wise and George London (who had begun working on the gardens during the reign of William and Mary) to create an English-style garden within the park. Anne built the Orangery, designed by Vanbrugh (seen below) added a sunken garden and built a mount.
The Orangery, a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, remains a popular destination. It is available for large events and in particular weddings for those harboring royal aspirations. “You’ve got your prince we’ve got your palace,” is advertised on its website.
In 1705 Anne commissioned Wren to create a covered seating area, known as the Queen’s Alcove. Moved to its present site in 1867 the Alcove is located near the Italian Water Gardens between Marlborough Gate and Buckhill Lodge and provides a welcome, if somewhat grand, site for a chat.
It is Queen Caroline to whom much of the present day character of Kensington Gardens is attributed. Working with Charles Bridgeman and later William Kent Caroline continued the work of previous monarchs while transforming the landscape into a fine example of the English Garden style with “wiggly walks” and glades of trees.
Caroline, who also established the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is fondly remembered for her role in creating two of the gardens most iconic features, the Round Pond and the Long Water/Serpentine. She is memorialized in Hyde Park.
During Caroline’s reign plans developed by Charles Bridgeman, appointed Royal Gardener in 1728 (with Henry Wise) were realized. Bridgeman, a seminal figure in the development of the English Garden style promoted the use of the ha-ha, a sunken invisible wall that allowed for uninterrupted, picturesque, landscape views. Royal Gardener for ten years Bridgeman also designed or redesigned the gardens at Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, St. James and Hyde Park.
The plan of Kensington Gardens below, attributed to Bridgeman, dates from 1733. The Round Pond, on access with the Palace is surrounded by wilderness with “wiggly walks.”
At Kensington Gardens Bridgeman installed a ha-ha and new wall boundary with Hyde Park, developed additional gardens, and constructed the Round Pond and the Long Water or Canal also known as the Serpentine.
Flower borders developed during Anne’s tenure were removed and replaced by lawns, plantations, promenades and vistas advancing the transition of Kensington Gardens layout to the English Garden style.
It is also during this period that the Gardens became fashionable for promenading, first by the monarchs and court and later, on a limited basis, to the public. According to Susan Ladsun in The English Park: Royal, Private and Public, Kensington Gardens were first opened to the public in 1733 once a week while the King and Queen were at Richmond. It would be almost one hundred years later, in 1837 during the reign of Queen Victoria that Kensington Gardens would be fully open to the public.
To place the concept of public access to the Royal Gardens within context it is useful to remember that the first publicly funded civic park was opened at Birkenhead, outside of Liverpool in 1847 more than one hundred years (and one American Revolution) after the public was first allowed access to Kensington Gardens.
The Gardens were fashionable and popular. Upwards of 50,000 people were said to have been seen taking the air at one time in Hyde Park and the Gardens and in the winter of 1813 – 1814 more than 6,000 people, chiefly skaters were counted on the Serpentine.
They also provided inspiration as a setting for notable fictional encounters. An example is Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) who wrote about visiting them in her letters and used them in the novel, Sense and Sensibility.
In the guide, The picture of London for 1808 : being a correct guide to all the curiosities, amusements, exhibitions, public establishments, and remarkable objects in and near London ; with a collection of appropriate tables, two large maps, and several other engravings Kensington Gardens are described as:
“……..one of the most delightful scenes belonging to this great metropolis….. The spacious gravel roads, within the park, are, on a fine Sunday, covered with horsemen and carriages, from two till five o’clock’jn the afternoon. A broad foot-path, that runs from Hyde Park corner to Kensington Gardens, is frequently so crowded during the same hours, with well-dressed people passing to, or retiring from the gardens, that it is difficult to proceed.”
The Gardens did however retain an air of exclusivity with Feltham noting that:
“All the doors of Kensington Gardens are open only from spring till autumn; and from eight in the morning till eight at night. There are four gates belonging to these gardens: two that open into Hyde Park, open all the year; one opening into the Uxbridge Road; and another opening into a road belonging to the king, and leading from the palace into Kensington. The last of these gates, called the Avenue Gate, is open till nine at night, all the year. No servant in livery, nor women with patterns, nor persons carrying bundles, are admitted into the gardens. Dogs are also excluded.”
Being well-dressed while in the Kensington Gardens was important, so much so that in the August 1807 edition of La Belle Assemblee (or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine Addressed Particularly to the Ladies) published between 1806 and 1837, Kensington Garden dresses were advertised.
As the Gardens transitioned to a fully public space new features and amenities, including water fountains and rest stations were introduced. The South Flower Walk was added in 1843 and the Italian Water Gardens in 1861. Combined with The Albert Memorial, unveiled in 1872, these new features added a Victorian flourish to the 18th century landscape.
The South Flower Walk:
A 500-yard-long path leading from the Albert Memorial to the Palace and Broad Walk the South Flower Walk is accessible via the Hyde Park Gate.
Each side of the walk is lined with flower beds accented by flowering shrubs, roses and ornamental shrubs. The South Flower Walk, one of the most popular features in Kensington Gardens, is gated and allows for a sense of tranquility from the city proper.
In the 1903 book, The Fascination of London : Kensington, the South Flower walk is described as the “quarter most patronized by nursemaids and their charges.”
The Italian Gardens:
Located near Lancaster Gate, the Italian Gardens are believed to be a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria. Albert, a keen gardener, designed similar gardens at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where the Royal family vacationed. Many of those features, including raised terraces, fountains, decorative urns and geometric flower beds, were replicated in the Italian Gardens, attributed to James Pennethorne and completed in 1860.
The gardens are centered on a Pump House where a steam engine, designed to operate the fountains, was housed. Combining utility with ornamentation, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s initials are etched on one of the walls.
As can be seen in the photo above the Italian Gardens remain a romantic setting and it is fitting that Tiffany and Company supported their restoration in 2011 through Tiffany – Across the Water a program of the Tiffany & Co. Foundation established to enable Americans to support the natural history and heritage of London’s Royal Parks.
The restoration was extensive and included the repair of severe frost damage, clearance of silt from fountain basins and ancient pipework, and removal of build-up of green algae from the Portland stone and marble. The cost was close to $800,000.
Work was completed on the Tazza Fountain, which overlooks The Long Water and ornamental marble decorative features throughout the garden. The project also improved the parks’ ecology and landscape architecture teams designed a display of aquatic plants, sited in the four perimeter basins, to reflect the garden’s historic design.
Vintage postcards were used to detail how the basins were originally planted and provide a framework for the updated planting scheme reflective of the original Victorian intent.
The Sunken Garden:
Created in 1909, the Sunken Garden was modeled on an 17th century garden at Hampton Court for Edward VII by historian Ernest Law.
The garden is terraced with an ornamental pond containing fountains, surrounded by paved walkways and seasonal, ornamental flower beds.
Located close to Kensington Palace and the Orangery this is perhaps one the most photographed areas of Kensington Gardens. Unfortunately, on my visit the seasonal flower beds were in the process of being replanted.
The plan of the Sunken Garden is below and with its relationship to the Palace and Orangery detailed. A Wiggly Walk (perhaps a tribute to Queen Caroline) leads from the Palace’s public entry court to the Orangery accommodating a change in topography.
A restoration of the cradle walk, an arched arbour of red-twigged limes affording views to the central sunken garden, has been ongoing following damage during a storm in 1987.
Tours of the sunken garden are offered twice a week and for additional information visit:
I wanted to also share two elements of Kensington Gardens which are, if you will, more modern – a testament to the ability of the landscape to continue to change and evolve over time
The first, the Henry Moore Arch was installed in 1980, 2 years after the sculptor’s 80th birthday celebration at the Serpentine Gallery. The six meter high sculpture, sited on the north bank of The Long Water, has recently been restored and when viewed through the right perspective provides a framed view of Kensington Palace. For a photo of the view visit: http://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington-gardens/kensington-gardens-attractions/the-arch-by-henry-moore
Established in 1970 the Serpentine Gallery is housed in a tea pavilion dating from 1934. Focusing on modern and contemporary art and architecture, the Serpentine Gallery annually commissions an artist of international acclaim to design a pavilion on its lawn.
The 2013 pavilion ( under construction in the photo above), by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, will be on exhibit through October 20th. The design intent of the pavilion, a lattice structure of steel poles, is described by the architect below:
“It is a really fundamental question how architecture is different from nature, or how architecture could be part of nature, or how they could be merged…what are the boundaries between nature and artificial things.”
For additional information about the Serpentine Gallery visit: www.serpentinegallery.org . The image below is copied from the Serpentine Gallery Website: (Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2013, Designed by Sou Fujimoto © Sou Fujimoto Architects, Image © 2013 Iwan Baan).
For me the pavilion is a fitting reminder of Kensington Garden’s landscape evolution, influenced by the most prominent garden designers and architects of their period. Almost three hundred years ago Queen Caroline’s temple, designed by William Kent was similar in its innovative quality described by historian Roy Strong as a structure that:
“..marked a revolution in royal – garden making : by cutting a swath through the avenue of trees west of the Serpentine, Caroline was given an uninterrupted vista that sloped to the water’s edge, while from the opposite bank the Temple could be seen across the reflective waters in the setting trees.”
Kensington Gardens are managed by The Royal Parks. For additional information visit: www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington-gardens
For additional background information on Kensington Garden’s History visit British History Online: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/
To listen to a literary tourist podcast by The Guardian visit: http://literarytourist.com/2013/01
Copyright © 2013 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved
Landscape Architect Laurie Olin has been awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government to artists and art patrons “… deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.”
Olin, the fourth landscape architect to be acknowledged in twenty-seven years, was recognized for his “acute sense of harmony and balance between nature and design.” His portfolio of projects is noteworthy and includes; Bryant Park, Battery Park City and Columbus Circle in New York; the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles; and the National Gallery of Art of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.
In Boston Olin is responsible for the design (in partnership with Carol R. Johnson) of an important project, the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse Harborpark. Yes, it’s a long name and often is referred to simply as the park at Fan Pier.
Prominently located at the entrance to the emerging Seaport/Innovation District the park, one of the earliest (if not the first) open spaces in the area was designed in an intensely collaborative, public process with the client (the federal government) the architect (Harry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners) and the community (through a task force and advisory committee mandated by the Office of Coastal Zone Management within the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs).
The result, by all accounts a success, is a welcoming and thoughtfully designed public space that according to Olin, was intended to ” stimulate our senses and our spirit and educate our minds about Boston’s encounter between land and sea.”
As the first project to be built on the Fan Pier the park established a standard for future public spaces and the Harborwalk. This remains a relevant consideration as the Seaport/Innovation District is developed and new parks and open spaces are built by the private sector without benefit of the intense public process that vetted the design of the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse Harborpark. That process ordained that a landmark park be created on the site with a unique identity within Boston’s park system employing public art and plantings as significant elements in the design.
Located on a prominent site contiguous to the Northern Avenue Bridge, the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse Harborpark is at the entrance to Fort Point Channel. Despite its proximity to the downtown the district, a thriving shipping area during the early part of the twentieth century, remained undeveloped until the past twenty-five years. Now it is one of the city’s most active development areas.
The view below, from the nineteenth century, shows the distinctive shape of the Fan Pier, the terminus for railway lines used to transport raw materials, including wool, stored in the district’s brick warehouses.
When the decision was made to construct a new federal court house on the Fan Pier, deemed “the most beautiful site in Boston,” it was controversial. Critics were concerned that the building’s scale would be oppressive and the landscape inadequate (which somehow seems quaint given the scale of the development that now dwarves the building). According to Olin, a courthouse on this parcel of land was seen “by certain vocal critics as the wrong way to begin the rehabilitation and transformation of this derelict waterfront property,” part of a larger development scheme yet to be realized.
(The image below is from Childs Engineering Corporation the consultant responsible for the project’s marine components including the floating docks and piers).
To offset these concerns half of the 4.5 acre site was dedicated to a public park and the landscape and building designed to “welcome, encourage and enrich” the public experience of the site. The dramatic views of Boston, where the city meets the sea, remained accessible and the civic nature of the building and space were conceived as a harmonious unit, a distinct challenge given the security considerations of the courthouse.
Following the park’s completion in 1998, The Meeting of City and Sea: A Guide to the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse Harborpark was published. This document, combined with the Final Recommendations of the Federal Courthouse Special Task Force published in 1993 provides remarkable insight into the process through which the park was designed.
Included are essays by historian William M. Fowler Jr. and Hon. Gerry Studds on the site’s history and the clean-up of the harbor and an introduction by Hon. Stephen Breyer and Hon. Douglas P. Woodlock, the justices representing the courts in the design of the courthouse and park.
The Meeting of City to Sea: A Guide to the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse Harborpark also serves as a guide to the interpretive themes integrated throughout the park providing additional insight into the thought processes supporting the design.
Three key areas are highlighted; the history of Boston and the harbor during the 200 year period in which the federal courts were established; the use of horticulturally diverse plantings found along the New England shore; and the inclusion of a vantage point to view the harbor and learn about the federal litigation responsible for its clean-up.
All three themes are realized in the design and highlighted in eleven interpretive panels sited throughout the 2.3 acre park. “The Way to a Clean Harbor” and the “Future of Boston Harbor” are below.
Olin’s essay, “Simple, Clear and Strong” underscores his enthusiasm for designing a park “to make available to every citizen the extraordinary experience of the site at which, by virtue of its close encounter with Boston, the meeting of city and sea is most vividly dramatized.” He further notes that the park is designed “to show how civic building and civic space, conceived together, can each confer meaning and value on the other.”
The plan, seen above, illustrates how the concept “Simple, clear and strong” is realized in the design of the park and its relationship to the building and harbor.
The key organizing element is a 850 foot long waterfront promenade providing panoramic views of the inner and outer harbor. To create the promenade the granite seawall was rebuilt and edged with additional granite detailing to create a broad cobblestone and brick paved walkway. A floating dock provides access to ships
The promenade, the first section of the continuous public walkway around the entire Fan Pier was designed by Olin to be “robust” and serve as a prototype for future Harborwalk segments.
Two outdoor rooms, depicted on the map as the “Courthouse and East lawns” overlook the harbor and provide distinctly different experiences. Described by Olin as a circle and a lozenge these spaces “produce comfortably scaled rooms in which to stroll and sit between the wide-open expanse of the harbor and the tall building behind.”
The Courthouse lawn, supports programmed activities, as seen below and the trees which are planted on its periphery, provide shade while serving as sculptural elements during the winter months.
The East Lawn provides an intimate setting with gracefully curving paths and benches set within the landscape.
Plantings pay homage to the New England seaside, a hardy mix of species found throughout the coastal region with an ability to withstand the site’s harsh climatic conditions and endure potential challenges in long-term maintenance. While chosen for their durability these are also plants of great beauty and character with deep associations to the history and horticultural identity of the region. Hardy plants are sited nearest to the harbor and provide a buffer to the interior plantings.
Rosa rugosa, blueberry, bayberry and pines are planted in the park as well as other non-native species that are commonly planted along the New England coast. In “Simple, Clear and Strong” Olin makes the case that just as American society has benefited from cultural diversity, so too, has the plant world pointing out that our landscape is “a cultural phenomenon built up over decades and centuries, like our cities, our way of life, and our legal system” and that “purist’s views that demand the use of only native species in the an urban region are limiting or worse…..fraught with contradiction and distortion, as any other doctrinaire form of “ethnic” or “original” purity when dealing with living systems.”
The plants are labeled individually and on interpretive panels.
Olin concludes “Simple, Clear and Strong” with the observation that as the initial phase of a vast urban project to be realized by many designers over time it was important that the park design be “simple and clear” without attempting to be all things to all people. Simple is not to be confused with utilitarian , for it is clearly noted that this park, the first in a new urban district was intended to an optimistic expression of future opportunity, designed to stimulate the senses and spirit elevating and educating our minds about Boston’s “encounter between land and sea.”
In both its creation and execution the park is a model to be emulated in a district of the city that is rapidly developing with an ambiguous strategy for the public realm.
For additional information about the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse visit: www.moakleycourthouse.com.
To hear a recent interview with Laurie Olin visit: http://www.theolinstudio.com/blog/architecture-by-other-means/
Copyright © 2013 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved
It has been unbearably hot and humid in New England so much so that it is almost impossible to be outside during the day. As a result I have spent an inordinate amount of time “organizing” things around the house including my collection of garden and landscape history books and images. It’s an eclectic mix and in the midst of my summer torpor (perhaps predictably so) I find myself drawn to one particular genre – books about country places and “summer” estates.
One of these books, The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses, by the architectural historian James S. Ackerman, traces the evolution of the “country place” from ancient Rome through twentieth-century France and America. Ackerman observes, “the villa is a building in the country designed for its owner’s relaxation. Though it may be the center of an agricultural enterprise, the pleasure factor is what essentially distinguishes the villa residence from the farmhouse and the villa estate from the farm.”
As a setting where rural life is idealized, the “country place” provides a retreat from the travail of urban life where natural and cultivated landscapes coexist in harmony, as illustrated in the photo below.
Although it is most likely that the elite Boston families who owned country estates outside of the city thought of them as “gentlemen’s farms” rather than villas the desire to cultivate land for pleasure rather than utilitarian purposes is at the heart of both enterprises. It was to sanctified rural landscapes that the affluent residents of Boston’s Back Bay and Beacon Hill retreated during the summer months to connect with nature, recreate New England’s agrarian past and socialize with like-minded “gentlemen farmers.”
Fortunately for me there is one such property very close by that I visit often, the Stevens-Coolidge Place in North Andover. Owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) , the Stevens-Coolidge house and gardens embody a rural ideal where architecture, landscape design and agriculture merge into an art and country living is a virtue to be both practised and admired.
On a recent visit the raspberries were almost ready to pick.
Located approximately 30 miles from downtown Boston, the Stevens-Coolidge Place is situated on 90 acres of grasslands, wet meadows and woodlands. Owned since 1792 by descendants of John and Elizabeth Stevens (who migrated from England in the 1640’s) the property was originally named Ashdale Farm, possibly after a great White Ash Tree that is a commanding presence on the site to this day.
The “farm” passed through generations of the Steven’s family until it came into the sole ownership of Helen Stevens Coolidge in 1914.
Married to diplomat John Coolidge, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and nephew of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Helen devoted her life to the preservation and improvement of the Stevens-Coolidge property, spending summers there until her death in 1962. It was during her tenure that the farm was transformed into an elegant agricultural estate in the Colonial revival style.
To realize their vision for the property the Coolidges employed the prominent preservation architect Joseph Everett Chandler who between 1914 and 1918 reconfigured the house to reflect its current neo-Georgian Colonial revival style. Chandler’s work included the restoration of many important 17th and 18th century buildings in the greater Boston area including the Paul Revere House and the House of the Seven Gables in Salem.
In The Colonial House published in 1916 Chandler devoted a chapter to gardens and the process through which the ideal, a home which expresses the owner’s individuality, is attained through the embellishment of both interior and exterior spaces noting,”an astonishingly large part of this sought-for ensemble is found to be that of proper horticultural adornment.” Chandler extols the use of formal lines and garden architecture where “an occasional widening of lines in square, rectangle or circle with perhaps a central features of urn, decorative flower pot, statue or pool at once furnishes the subject for the picture – provided it be backed by a background of foliage sufficiently varied in form and color.”
Chandler partnered with the Coolidges for twenty-six years, a collaboration that produced, according to TTOR, “an exemplary Colonial Revival estate showcasing his own talents as an architect and landscape designer while expressing the Coolidges individual personalities and tastes.”
The plan below, provided by TTOR, shows the layout of the gardens illustrating how, as a series of outdoor rooms, they relate to both the house and landscape. The individual garden spaces are connected through a series of paths and cartways linking the formal and natural landscape through carefully articulated vistas and views.
Contiguous to the perennial garden is a walled rose garden designed by Chandler in 1926 at the request of Helen Coolidge. Located on the site of the property’s barn, pig sty and cow yard the rose garden is an intimate space with a circular pool set in a lawn panel and an ornamental fountain. Enclosed with stone walls and wrought iron gates the rose garden, although close the house, is at a lower grade, allowing for privacy from the surrounding landscape.
In 1931 a French garden and serpentine wall were added to the property. Designed by Chandler the garden reflects an interest in chateau gardens developed by the Coolidges who, as a result of John’s diplomatic career, lived in France during World War I.
TTOR restored the garden in 1999-2004 using historical records and today it is planted with herbs, vegetables and annuals.
An upper terrace, also designed by Chandler, was added in 1940 to provide a perspective view of the rose garden and connect to the greenhouse complex. The upper terrace represents Chandler’s last known project in the garden culminating his twenty-six year involvement with its completion.
The property is graced with a series of views and vistas that connect the formal gardens to each other and provide an opportunity to experience the designed landscape within the framework of the natural landscape of fields and meadows surrounding the property. As much as I love the gardens when I visit I am drawn to the places that connect the two where architectural elements placed within the landscape connect artifice with nature.
In 2011 TTOR completed a management plan for the property that among other goals sought to enhance its value as a community resource while conserving and managing its natural areas, historic buildings, collections and designed and agricultural landscapes. The possibility of developing a sustainably focused agricultural operation on the property was proposed on 17 acres of land and although this has yet to happen on my visit last week I was told that a herd of cattle would be arriving the following weekend.
For more information about the Colonial Revival style of architecture and gardens visit Historic New England’s style guide: www.historicnewengland.org/preservation/your-older-or-historic-home/architectural-style-guide#colonial-revival-1880-1955
Additional information about the property and the work of The Trustees of Reservations can be found at: www.thetrustees.org.
Copyright © 2013 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved