'Lost Gardens' of New England unearths forgotten gems


Phyllis A.S. Boros

Of all the design arts, those dealing with elaborate gardens are the most ephemeral -- dependent as they are on the changing seasons and the boom-and-bust cycles of the economy.
From the Colonial era to present day, New England's great gardens always have been linked to the value of the land from which they spring. Over the years, many have been subdivided for building and housing developments or paved over for parking lots.
The region's rich garden-design history is the subject of "Lost Gardens of New England," a traveling exhibition from the nonprofit Historic New England preservation organization. The exhibit opens Sunday, March 1, (and runs through July 31) at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London.
Jane LeGrow, registrar and assistant curator at Lyman, pointed out in a recent chat that the apex of the American Country House & Garden era extended from about 1880 until the 1920s and the onset of the Great Depression.
"It was a period when the economy was booming, labor was cheap and there was no income tax. Emulating the English aristocracy" was appealing to the very wealthy and the ever-growing merchant and middle classes, she explained. And vast, extremely sophisticated gardens were designed and built, often featuring greenhouses, formal gardens of hedges and pathways, "cutting" gardens (where blooms were harvested for indoor decoration), herb or "kitchen" gardens and woodland areas.
The exhibition will features more than 40 paintings and photographs of lost gardens, garden ornaments, outdoor furniture, stereo view cards, garden supply catalogues and original design specifications, as well as objects from the Lyman Allyn's collection. The exhibition is divided into thematic groupings, including urban gardens, family gardens and professionally designed landscapes.
As the exhibition points out, New England gardens of the Colonial period and the New
Republic-era were greatly influenced by English design. From about 1850 to 1890, "a distinctive American style emerged ... (embracing) the native picturesque landscape while seeking, through design, to tame and refine the national character."
At around 1900, New Englanders "turned to history for inspiration, and created a wide variety of `revival' gardens," including `old-time' designs reflecting "classical gardens of Italian villas and the formal gardens of French chateaux."
By the middle of the 19th century, Andrew Jackson Downing "emerged as one of the most significant voices in the development of American domestic architecture and rural taste"... with his "Treatise on the Theory and Practise of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America" (reportedly enormously popular with the middle class).
Along with Downing, Hartford-native Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is "often considered a father of American landscape architecture ... Best known for his public parks, Olmsted influenced generations of landscape architects and garden designers," LeGrow wrote in her notes on the exhibition.
"Olmsted had already had a varied career as farmer, travel writer, journalist and public administrator when he turned his attention to landscape design in the 1850s," LeGrow said. "Olmsted was introduced to the talented English architect Calvert Vaux by Downing, a mentor to both men. Together, Olmsted and Vaux won a contest to design New York's Central Park, drawing on Vaux's practical knowledge and Olmsted's strong sense of social consciousness.
"Olmsted drew on early experiences in his approach to landscape design. Sympathetic to the plight of Southern slaves and the working classes in America and abroad, Olmsted believed that public green spaces should be available to all as a restorative antidote to the ills of urban living," LeGrow said.
"Landscape, he believed, could create a powerful emotional response, as well as a sense of shared community. This democratic sense of purpose, combined with an emphasis on naturalistic design and simple aesthetic unity, is a hallmark of his work."
Olmsted and his firm would have enormous impact throughout the nation, including in Bridgeport, where they created both Beardsley and Seaside parks, portions of which remain. He also is renowned for his work on Brooklyn, N.Y.'s, Prospect Park, Boston's Emerald Necklace, the park system of Louisville, Ky., the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.
LeGrow said that "Olmsted's stepson, John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), and son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957), continued the firm's work after his retirement in 1895 and death in 1903. The Olmsted brothers firm carried out hundreds of commissions, many of which are today credited to the elder Olmsted. But the brothers were accomplished landscape architects in their own right. Both were founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects."
LeGrow said that many of the gardens that are highlighted in the exhibition "were lost to changes in fortune and ownership. Grand estates were sold and subdivided."
" `Money is the best manure,' goes an old gardeners' saying," she said, adding that "as any gardener knows, even a modest plot requires a great investment of resources."
But not all great gardens were lost to declining fortunes and/or neglect, LeGrow said.
In Connecticut, for example, the stunning gardens at the 1906 Eolia mansion at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford (directly on Long Island Sound) were restored by volunteers in the 1990s followed by a state contribution of $3.8 million for the further restoration of the grounds and mansion. A project goal was to restore designer Beatrix Farrand's original design. "Unfortunately, not all plans for Eolia's gardens were found. In some cases only the pathways had been laid out, as Farrand liked to exercise artistic control by hand placing each plant," LeGrow said.
"The work of restoring and maintaining a site like Eolia does not end. Funds are currently being raised for the restoration of the historic Lord and Burnham greenhouse and restoration of the carriage house and water tower are on the horizon. With community support, Eolia will provide the public decades of enjoyment and escape," she said.
Another historic Connecticut home, the 1846 Roseland Cottage (also known as Henry C. Bowen House or Bowen Cottage, on Route 169 in Woodstock) is renowned for its Gothic Revival architecture and extraordinary parterre gardens (formal gardens with planting beds, typically in symmetrical patterns, separated and connected by gravel pathways, with or without flowers).
Lost properties included in the exhibition include Westomere and Meadow Court (New London); Medford Gardens (Medford, Mass.); Hamilton House Garden (South Berwick, Maine); and the Rundlet-May House (Portsmouth, N.H.).
Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 1 to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission is $10; seniors, students 19 and older and active military, $7; students 12 to 18, $5; children younger than 12, free. 860-443-2545. http://www.lymanallyn.org.