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