Gardens, Landscape History, New England Gardens

The Gardens at Hamilton House: South Berwick, Maine

September 14, 2017

Sited on a bluff overlooking the Salmon Falls River in Southern, Maine, Hamilton House seems little changed by the passage of time.

In August I attended a tour of the gardens hosted by Historic New England. One of the first garden essays I published, in the British gardening journal Hortus, explored the region through the eyes of writers Sarah Orne Jewett and Celia Thaxter and the visit was a homecoming, of sorts, to a place for which I have a deep affinity.

Set in a landscape that remains remarkably serene, Hamilton House is a striking Georgian Mansion built by shipping merchant Jonathan Hamilton in 1785. With sweeping river views, the house is set on a “prospect” along what was, at the time, a busy commercial waterfront.

Hamilton House as seen in John Mead Howells’ Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (1937) by Charles Woodbury.

When South Berwick native Sarah Orne Jewett stepped in to save Hamilton House from being sold and subdivided, the property was in a state of decline having been used for agriculture and as a sheep farm for almost 60 years.

The Tysons in the Hamilton House Dining Room

In wealthy Bostonians Emily Tyson and her stepdaughter Elise, Jewett found stewards whose passion for Hamilton House matched hers. They purchased the property in 1898 and set about creating one of the finest Colonial Revival-style country estates in America.

The Tysons retained architects Herbert C.W. Browne and Arthur Little to restore the house and grounds. They added a kitchen wing, enlarged the dining room and built a partially enclosed piazza faced with trellising for entertaining.

Brown also designed a garden in the colonial style. Although the elaborate pergola which enclosed the garden was lost in a hurricane during the 1950’s, the original layout of the garden remains with a center path and walks placed at right angles.

Rectangular beds feature a mix of annuals and perennials with an emphasis on old-fashioned varieties. Garden rooms are enhanced by statuary collected on foreign travels.

At the garden’s center was placed a sundial, a common feature in Colonial Revival Gardens.

The Tysons viewed their garden as an extension of the house (for context Edith Wharton, who visited the Tysons in 1905 published The Decoration of Houses in 1897).  The formal garden was seen as a necessary transition between the house and the surrounding landscape.

Emily Tyson, an avid photographer, extensively documented Hamilton House’s gardens as well as the regional landscape. Her evocative photographs, preserved by Historic New England, record the nostalgic quality of the colonial revival era.

Irene Curtis “Gathering flowers,” Hamilton House, South Berwick, Maine. Photograph by E. Vaughan, 1903. Courtesy of Historic New England.

A series of images taken three years after the garden was planted, detail its arbors and fences draped in flowering vines with views to the river, carefully orchestrated through openings in the foliage. These have been used to guide the garden’s restoration.

Gardens seen through archway entwined with vines with flagstone path leading to center sundial. By E.Vaughan, 1905. Courtesy of Historic New England.

Both Tysons were passionate gardeners. They designed the planting beds and worked (along with the staff) on its upkeep. Along with their formal garden they maintained cutting, vegetable and reserve gardens. On the tour I took of Hamilton House it was noted that Mrs. Tyson refused to remove goldenrod, a common weed.

A garden cottage was built in 1907, constructed from salvaged materials from an 18th century house from Newmarket, NH slated for demolition.

A walled cottage garden planted with old-fashioned flowers including fox-glove, hollyhock, sweet-william and forget-me-nots is planted in front of the cottage.

While frequent guest Sarah Orne Jewett described Hamilton House as “a quiet place that the destroying left hand of progress” had not touched, it was, during the Tysons’ tenure, a busy social destination visited by Hildegarde Hawthorne, Louise Shelton, William Sumner Appleton and author Henry James who is purported to remark “there is nothing like it in America.”

In the November 1909 issue of American Homes and Gardens Louise Shelton described it as one of the most beautiful gardens in America.

Upon Emily’s death in 1922 Elise inherited the property. Active in the Garden Club of America, she lovingly maintained the gardens at Hamilton House until 1938 when she bequeathed the property to SPNEA (Historic New England).  The surrounding forest was gifted to the State of Maine to be preserved in a “natural wild state as the Vaughan Woods Memorial.”

The house and landscape, shaped by the remarkable sensibility of the Tysons, reflect a bygone era. Sara Orne Jewett used Hamilton Houses as the setting for her novel, The Tory Lover. Despite the incursions of the modern age, the property retains its romantic character and sense of place.

Using photographs taken by Paul Weber in 1929 for an article published in House Beautiful magazine, Historic New England is in the process of restoring the Tysons’ Colonial Revival garden.

Hamilton House is owned by Historic New England and located on Vaughan’s Lane in South Berwick Maine. The grounds, and the adjoining Vaughan’s Woods are open year round dawn to dusk.

Garden tours are offered of Hamilton House during the summer months when the house is open to the public. For additional information visit Historic New England.

 Copyright © 2017 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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