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.
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