LESSONS IN DESIGN LEARNING FROM LOST GARDENS

by PATRICK CHASSE

Rome wasn’t built in a day, so the old maxim goes, and — except for the new “makeover” house and garden television shows—gardens aren’t either. They are products of careful planning, experimenting, refinement, and hard work. Neither are they as durable as the wonders of the ancients, and most gardens do not even survive their creators, or the houses they enhance. Rapid development — and redevelopment — of residential properties has led to the destruction of many gardens old and new. The memories and the documentation of these gardens are slipping away, depleting our culture of these creations. These gardens, though lost and often unrestorable, have much to teach us. Garden makers have made inspiring innovations unknown today, as we struggle to reinvent some of those very concepts. If we had a record of them, we could be building on this rich past.

I’ve been collecting fragments of garden images from lost gardens in my part of the world, Mt. Desert Island, Maine, for more than 30 years. Gradually, bits and pieces of garden puzzles — photos, plans, articles, postcards, oral histories—have come together to reveal amazing places that have vanished from our community. I’ve assembled a little virtual “tour” of three of these Bar Harbor gardens, pieced together from disparate sources, and demonstrating how exciting and inspiring they can still be.

BLAIR EYRIE

The summer home of New York banker DeWitt Clinton Blair, Blair Eyrie was bought in 1901 and transformed with his design team into one of the most renowned gardens of its day. It was designed by distinguished landscape architect James Greenleaf, to accompany the house wrought by the Boston architectural firm of Andrews, Jacques & Rantoul. The place was razed around 1935, and a nursing facility now stands on the site.

The house sat on a promontory with a commanding view of Frenchman’s Bay, with the garden set below to one side. The garden was laid out in an Italianate plan, with a Moorish-inspired pool basin in the center that contained a Japanese bronze dragon fountain. The fountain seems to have made a powerful impression, and the garden was often dubbed the “Japanese Garden” by visitors, despite its European inspiration. From a teahouse at the north end, the garden focused southerly on a spectacular mountain view, and was structurally defined by cedar hedges and precisely placed large pines and spruce trees—all of which had been brought in from some distance by sled in the winter. (It was said at the time that some of the largest trees cost $1,500 each to install—a staggering price for 1901.) The plantings were orderly in carefully edged geometric beds, much like parterres, and consisted of popular flowering plants: delphiniums, dahlias, astilbes, hollyhocks. It is evident from photos that over the years, different planting schemes, from bedding to herbaceous borders, were tried in these beds. The garden served for intimate and grand entertainments. The tea house, with its fireplace for foggy Maine afternoons, was a refuge for both family and guests—a refuge that is now lost for all time.

WINGWOOD HOUSE

The second garden offers a brief but telling story of the rise and fall of grand houses, and their gardens. (Only two photographs of this garden have been found.) Wingwood House, the summer residence of E. T. Stotesbury, was purchased from the Cassatt family (relations of the American painter Mary Cassatt) in 1923, and transformed through the talents of the architectural firm Magaziner, Eberhard & Harris into an extravagant 80-room Colonial Revival “cottage.” Famous for its 52 telephones and gold-plated bathroom faucets, it sported a surprisingly modest garden by Beatrix Farrand, comprising white trellis-fenced rooms filled with orderly beds of perennials and annuals, and decorated with architectural fragments. The scale of these rooms could well fit a suburban backyard, and seem unusually intimate for so grand an estate. The use of graceful elliptically arched arbors foreshadows some of the important ideas Farrand would later feature in one of her greatest works: Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C. The house was torn down in 1953, to become the site of the car ferry terminal to Nova Scotia. Asphalt is now the most conspicuous material on view.

CHILTERN

The last garden is a great surprise, given the same community context of rather staid summer homes. It was designed between 1901 and 1912 by Beatrix Jones (who became Beatrix Farrand in 1913) for Ambassador and Mrs. Edgar Scott. One of her earliest and most innovative commissions, this garden brought the color and massing ideas of Gertrude Jekyll together in a grand “organic” plan, and produced what I call an “Alice in Wonderland” garden, dwarfing the visitor to childlike proportions. The house, a large Tudor-style structure, was designed to stand on the shore and was barely visible from the garden, which was carved out of the native spruce and birch forest behind the house. A roughly circular lawn formed the core of the room, with sinuous grass paths connecting out to the house and other destinations. The garden had a large semicircular bench, designed by Beatrix, with a table in front, where tea was served every afternoon during the summer (weather permitting). The original plan shows this bench and table at the edge of the lawn, but the amazing thing is the scale of the space. The table, highlighted in red on the plan, is four feet long. If one compares this size to the planting masses, it is evident that many of the drifts of plants are up to 25 or 30 feet across. One plant type in one color forms each mass, a gigantic scale for an herbaceous border. The whole garden measures almost 300 feet long by 100 feet wide, without a single straight line in it.

The only color image found of this garden shows the richness of these huge masses, and the masterful vertical scaling of plants from the center to the shrub and woodland backdrop. The plant list for the original design was keyed to the plan, which was numbered without plant names. The list has been lost and only the plan exists in the University of California/Berkeley archive, where Farrand’s papers reside. Anna Scott Kennedy, who was raised in this garden, discovered fragments of a plan on which her mother, weary of checking between plan and list, had written in the plant names. This recovered information has allowed the plant list to be reconstructed—90 years after the garden was built. Mrs. Kennedy spoke passionately about how the family had lived in that garden, with teas, birthday parties, and children’s pageants all leaving an imprint on their lives. Through the snapshots and stories that survive, we can get a tantalizing taste of this garden experience. Chiltern was demolished in 1946, and Mrs. Farrand was sad to see it go. She salvaged four elaborately carved cornice sections from the house and transformed them into panels for a small garden fence at Reef Point, her own home nearby. In 1955, when she retired to a new home, called Garland Farm, she brought this fence along and incorporated it into her new—and final—garden, where it survives today.

Were it not for surviving documents, we would not know about these gardens, or the place they hold in American garden history. The photos, postcards, articles, drawings, and manuscripts that illuminate lost gardens lie in attics, scrapbooks, archives, historical societies, and landfills all over the country. Documents are discarded or lost daily, and the simple act of directing them to holding organizations can preserve much of this heritage. Western societies strive to preserve the treasures of Rome. Let us preserve these treasures of home—the garden milestones of our communities. H

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