Boston/Cambridge, Gardens, Landscape History, New England Gardens

The Codman Estate: A Precious Jewel

August 23, 2014

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Every summer I develop two lists.  The first is of the books I plan to read.  The second is of the gardens I hope to visit.  By mid-August, as the possibility looms that I will complete neither task, I set out to visit local gardens to see them before the season changes.

Fortunately, there are many to choose from and, as is often the case, those that are geographically closest to my home are the ones that I am least likely to have visited. Many of these were created by wealthy families that maintained residences in Boston proper and summered in the countryside.  Here they engaged in rural pursuits as an antidote to city life while maintaining active social schedules.  The Codman Estate, (also known as the Grange) is one such example.


Comprised of sixteen acres of land that are the remnants of a seven hundred acre working farm assembled by Charles Chambers of Charlestown in the early 1700’s, the Codman Estate is located in Lincoln approximately 20 miles from downtown Boston.  The property has been occupied by Chamber’s descendants (with the exception of a 50 year period in the first half of the 19th century) until acquired by SPINEA, the predecessor of Historic New England, in 1969.


A ha-ha separates the formal from the informal landscape known as the Octagon.

Each generation shaped the landscape in their own fashion and as a result the Codman Estate contains diverse landscape features. Elements remain of the original plan, modeled in the English style. An Italianate garden, created by Sarah Bradlee Codman at the beginning of the 20th century is nestled below the house and a cottage garden, passionately tended by Sarah’s daughter Dorothy reflects the sensibilities of the Colonial Revival period.

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The plans above and below, were drawn by landscape historian Alan Emmet and are included on Historic New England’s web site and in the essay, “The Codman Estate – “The Grange”: A Landscape Chronicle.” The plan above details the current property while the plan below depicts Chamber Russell’s farm ca. 1767.  The boundaries of the current property are visible at the center and delineated with a dotted line.  Land that was once part of Chamber’s farm is now part of Drumlin Farm, Lincoln’s business district and conservation holdings.

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In the 1790’s John Codman lll remodeled the house in the Federal style with a plan attributed to architect Charles Bulfinch. Codman, a founder of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, developed ambitious plans for the estate although it is unclear how many of these were realized.

Upon his death in 1803 the property passed to his son who, with no interest in farming, incrementally sold off parcels of the estate. Most egregiously, a seven acre strip of land was eventually sold to the Fitchburg railroad and as a result the commuter rail passes less than 200 yards from the house.


In 1862 John Codman III’s grandson, Ogden, acquired a portion of the original estate with the intent of restoring his grandfather’s “demesne.”  Ogden harbored a deeply romantic connection to his grandfather and the property and ardently wished to restore the estate as an agricultural enterprise.  Married to Sarah Fletcher Bradlee the previous year he named the property “The Grange” and he and his children, an eclectic bunch (none of whom married), lived at the estate until 1969 bequeathing it to SPINEA with a desire to preserve their family’s stories.


Water color of the house and terrace gardens by Sarah Bradlee Codman painted in 1898.

An enthusiastic gardener, Ogden Sr. studied horticultural trends and planted a diverse assortment of ornamental shrubs and trees while developing an ambitious farming operation. He maintained horses, ponies for sport, a dairy herd, hens and pigs and cultivated corn, hay and all of the family’s vegetables. In collaboration with his brother-in-law, architect John Hubbard Sturgis, Codman improved the house and grounds adding plumbing, heating and a carriage barn.


The carriage barn as seen from Dorothy Codman’s cottage garden.

However it was Sarah who created the property’s defining landscape feature, the “secret” Italian garden.

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The statue of Bacchus is sited at the end of the lily pool on axis with the statue of Flora.

Located at the Northwest corner below the house in an area described as the “Pond Hole,” the Italian garden was begun by Sarah in 1899 when she was fifty-seven.  It’s classical style is attributed to the influence of her son, Ogden Jr, the successful architect and interior designer who collaborated with Edith Wharton on the influential book, The Decoration of Houses, and is in sharp contrast to the surrounding picturesque landscape.  Sarah designed and maintained the garden’s  plantings which included shade tolerant plants (ferns, foxglove and wildflowers) as well as roses, day lilies, phlox, lupine delphinium, gladiolas and peonies.

The garden’s construction and its architectural features were completed by the family’s coachman, handyman and Sarah’s son, Tom, who built the pergola’s concrete columns.  Sarah worked in the garden daily, often accompanied by her daughter, Dorothy.

The Codman’s maintained extensive records (including Sarah whose diary spans from her engagement to her death in 1922) providing detailed accounts of plant purchases and installations.  In 1892 Sarah’s diary records a visit by landscape architect Beatrix Jones Farrand a niece of Edith Wharton who most likely shared her expertise with the family.

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The curved arbor is supported by marble columns with Corinthian capitals taken from a building in Exchange Place, Boston owned by Odgen, Sr.


The pergola was made from concrete with rough poles placed across the columns.

Eschewing the formality of her mother’s Italian garden, Dorothy created one of her own, in the style of an English cottage garden.  Located near the carriage barn Dorothy’s garden lacks a formal axis yet contains planting beds that are geometrically arranged and connected by narrow walks. It is enclosed with a simple fence and accented with wire arches planted with climbing roses and clematis. Herbs were planted amongst the flowers and a lily pool was surrounded by Japanese irises.


Sarah’s garden in 1911 (above) and today (below).


According to sources, Dorothy was inspired by the writing of Gertrude Jekyll whose books, including Colour in the flower garden published in 1908, were extremely popular. Among her many accolades, Jekyll, the most influential garden writer in the English-speaking world was awarded the George White Medal of Honour in 1929 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.



As I was writing this piece the article “The dusty, important, endangered, historic House Museum” was published in the Boston Globe.  It appears that a vigorous debate is raging within the historic preservation community about the role and function of historic house museums. Historic New England, which owns and operates 36 public historic sites, including The Codman Estate, has assumed a leadership role in this debate.

The Codman House and its surrounding landscape form a remarkable ensemble shaped by individual dreams and aspirations.  Preserved as an example of an “elegant country estate” it is best described by historian Thomas Boylston Adams, a childhood neighbor, as “nothing but a silent exclamation point of beauty in a landscape itself as beautiful and arranged as the setting of a precious jewel.”


The Codman children with their ponies in 1872.

The House is open on the second and fourth Saturdays from June 1 to October 15 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.   The grounds are open to the public year round.


Flora in the Italian garden.

For additional information and to see a virtual tour of the house visit:


 Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved




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  • Reply August 23, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    Thank you for keeping me on your mailing list. I really look forward to receiving your articles

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Reply Patrice Todisco August 23, 2014 at 7:05 pm

      You are most welcome. I enjoy writing and sharing them.

  • Reply College Gardener September 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    This is so close, I should really make it out there sometime soon!

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