Gardens, Landscape History

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden: Seal Harbor, Maine

November 13, 2017

I am a dedicated reader of the Financial Times Weekend House & Home section, whose coverage of gardens, landscape history and the environment often provides inspiration for my own writing. “How to be a good client: a garden designer explains,” by Matthew Wilson, is one such piece, which brought to mind my visit this summer to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine.

Designed collaboratively by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and landscape designer Beatrix Farrand, the garden was built between 1926 and 1930 and represents a harmonious convergence of their unique backgrounds and interests.

Sited within the evocative natural landscape of coastal Maine, the garden is influenced by the design aesthetics of both Eastern and Western culture.

The Rockefeller family purchased the property that would become their summer home, The Eyrie, in 1910.

The Rockefeller Family at Seal Harbor in 1921 (from NYC ago).

John D., Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller each brought to the endeavor a familiarity and interest in gardens, including those associated with the family’s Pocantico Hills estate in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Here, JDR, Jr. was involved in the creation  of a Japanese garden assisted by experts trained at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.

Beatrix Farrand’s preparatory sketch for the Moon Gate wall at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine. Beatrix Jones Farrand Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

Beatrix Farrand began work on a design for the garden at The Eyrie in 1926. To accommodate the Rockefeller’s expanding collection of Asian objects and art, it was sited a distance from the house and conceived as a sculpture garden with a cutting garden, to provide flowers for the house, to the side.

The plan, which evolved over time, is seen below.  The central lawn, a panel of verdant green, contrasts with the shaded, mossy landscape on the garden’s perimeter.  Together, these unique spaces provide a sensory journey of enlightenment.

Representing the sensibilities of both client and designer, the garden’s beauty reflects the ideal outcome that a true collaboration of extraordinary talent can yield. A visit is transformative and will remain in one’s memory for a long time.

The strong north-south axis, originally radiating from a pair of red spruce trees, is a defining feature of the garden. Enclosed by a Chinese Wall,  it is entered through a series of formal gates including the South Gate, seen above.

The Spirit Path, a walk lined with six pairs of antique Korean stone figures sited on a gravel path, lead to a vista overlooking Little Long Pond. Based upon Chinese tomb traditions and set within plantings of low-growing native plants, this is a place of serenity and peace.

Sited off of the Spirit Path is a wild sod garden and a frog pond.

Another early feature of the garden is the Bottle Gate. Designed as a traditional Chinese vase-shaped portal, the Bottle Gate leads to the shaded oval garden where a reflecting pool and pagoda are set in a planting of shade tolerant perennials.  A pair of benches provide a view the length of the garden to the Moon Gate.

The oval garden leads to the lawn, which is bordered by an opulent double-tiered perennial bed. This area is separated from the Asian garden by a low double wall running north to south.

The perennial beds, which were originally conceived as cutting gardens, are fully dedicated as an ornamental garden in the tradition of British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.

Combining perennials and annuals, the beds are designed to come into peak bloom during the first two weeks of August.

Native and herbaceous ornamental plantings are integral to the garden’s design and these are artfully integrated throughout the three design concepts underlying the garden’s conception: the Chinese elements, the flower garden and the native landscape in which the garden is sited.

In 1936 two bronze Buddhas were placed in garden terminating the north and south axes. These, like other the other sculptures placed within the garden, are sited in harmony with the natural landscape enhancing a spirit of contemplation.

Peggy Rockefeller, assumed oversight of the design of the garden’s flower beds in 1961, a responsibility held by her daughter, Neva Goodwin since 1996.

While the garden remains privately owned, it has been open to the public since 1930 when the Garden Club of Mount Desert visited. Today the garden is open to the public one day a week from mid-July to September by reservation only. These are highly coveted and can be made on-line on a first come first serve basis.

A visit to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden also affords an opportunity to spend time at Thuya Garden and the Asticou Azalea Garden.  Both contain plants from Beatrix Farrand’s garden at Reef Point and are owned and operated by the Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, a 140-acre land parcel that also includes the Asticou Terraces and a public landing in Northeast Harbor.  Eventually, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden will be added to this preserve, furthering the legacies of David and Peggy Rockefeller and Beatrix Farrand.

We should all be grateful to the Rockefeller family for their generosity in protecting, preserving and sharing this exquisite landscape. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden is one of the most beautiful I have experienced providing a reminder of the outcomes that a collaborative endeavor can achieve.

Copyright © 2017 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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2 Comments

  • Reply Laura Eisener November 14, 2017 at 2:55 am

    I just tried to comment but got a message “blocked as a suspected bot” – I am not a bot! Loved this post and all the pictures. It has been over a decade since I have visited the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden but I had been there many times since childhood, so I was delighted with your pictures and comments. I had heard that the central rectangle was originally filled with annuals, with an irregular pattern of stepping stones between them, and that it was changed to lawn during World War II when gardeners were in short supply. Pictures showed a dazzling display of color as you can imagine, but I like the contrast of the grass rectangle to the flowers in the surrounding beds.

    • Reply Patrice November 14, 2017 at 11:18 pm

      Laura,

      Indeed, you are not a bot! In the recently published book, The Rockefeller Family Gardens: An American Legacy, there is the original Beatrix Farrand plan of the garden which shows what is now the lawn as an annual garden bisected by two paths. According to the guide book in 1936 “a large part of the central cutting garden was converted to a simple lawn, including the perimeter path configuration that we know today.”

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