The Connecticut Gardens of Beatrix Farrand

All images by Julie Bidwell

Famed gardener Beatrix Farrand, a founding member of the 115-year-old American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), never liked the term “landscape architect.” If anything, the skill of the “landscape gardener,” as she preferred, was closer to that of a painter than a draftsman.

“A garden, large or small, must be treated in the Impressionist manner,” she once wrote. “Plants are to the gardener what his palette is to the painter.”

Farrand’s patrician background and connections—niece of Edith Wharton, darling of Henry James, Revolutionary War ancestors on both sides of the family—probably had something to do with her inclusion in the ASLA, considering her age (26) and gender (landscape design was a male-dominated profession at the time). Yet even at this early stage in her career, Farrand, born Beatrix Cadwalader Jones in New York in 1872, had toured many of Europe’s notable gardens, studied under Charles Sprague Sargent (cousin of painter John Singer Sargent), the founder and first director of Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, and was well on her way to becoming one of America’s leading landscape designers.

Her artistic eye, coupled with her sympathetic incorporation of the surrounding natural landscape and fondness of native plants, ultimately made her one of the most sought-after landscape gardeners of her day.

Of the dozen or so surviving Farrand gardens nationwide, Connecticut is fortunate to have four (in addition to her work at Yale): two at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, and one each at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington and Three Rivers Farm in Bridgewater. Designed between 1919 and 1921, on the eve of the most productive years of her career, these unique gardens reflect varying elements of Farrand’s distinctive style, with “waves” of carefully plotted floral colors (a trademark adopted from renowned English gardener, Gertrude Jekyll), lapping gently against granite walls and natural borders. Rescued and restored in recent years after decades of neglect, all of Farrand’s Connecticut gardens are now open to the public, at varying times of year (see sidebar).

The Harkness gardens, laid out in 1919, rank “among [Farrand’s] most majestic creations,” according to Judith Tankard, author of Beatrix Farrand: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes. They flank the east and west wings of Eolia, Edward S. and Mary Harkness’ elegant, Renaissance Revival summer mansion on Goshen Point, just west of New London, overlooking Long Island Sound. Harkness made his money the easy way—by inheriting it from his father, an early investor in Standard Oil. He spent the rest of his life donating much of his fortune to worthy causes, mostly in Connecticut, including his alma mater, Yale (think Harkness Tower and Memorial Quadrangle). Farrand met the Harknesses through her husband, Max Farrand, chairman of Yale’s history department and a director of the Commonwealth Fund, a Harkness family foundation.Her initial commission was to transform Eolia’s turf tennis court into an Oriental garden for the Harkness’ collection of Asian sculpture. The result was an intimate space, enclosed by a granite wall, with grass pathways surrounding a sunken garden and reflecting pool. She dabbed the neatly trimmed beds with baby’s breath, lavender, lilies and roses, while hibiscus and other ornamental shrubs defined the perimeters, together with nodding stalks of delphiniums. (The garden was doubly blessed in that it was slightly modified two decades later by another leading woman landscape designer of Farrand’s day, Marian Cruger Coffin.)

Delighted with the results, the Harknesses asked Farrand to reimagine the colorful but uninspired, regimental plantings of the original West Garden. Retaining the garden’s hippodrome shape, Farrand increased the number of beds and softened edges with “swirled drifts of blues in expanding, loosely circular patterns,” as she later wrote. She added dahlias (“not too tall,” she specified), feathery flocks of white northern bedstraw, and dozens of other species, including heliotrope, cuttings of which today are known as “Harkness heliotrope.” A wisteria-shaded, Italianate teahouse and pergola anchored the garden’s north end while gravel pathways lead to a break in the southern wall and an emerald green expanse of lawn, billowing down to the sea. For final touches, Farrand added a boxwood parterre (plantings arranged in a geometric design) and Alpine rock garden.

Mary Harkness willed Eolia to the state upon her death in 1950 yet left no endowment to maintain the property. By the late 1980s, the gardens, once tended by a staff of 40, were choked with weeds. Help arrived in 1992 with a campaign to restore the grounds and gardens to close approximations of Farrand’s originals, organized by the nonprofit Friends of Harkness Memorial State Park (FOH) and the state.

“Gardens evolve over time, and we decided to focus on 1930, the year Farrand’s plans would have been fully realized,” recalls FOH horticultural chairperson, Eileen Grant, who helped direct many of the organization’s volunteer gardeners.

And even though Farrand’s plans were at hand, the passage of time did not make the job of “forensic gardening,” as it is informally known, any easier. Plant species from Farrand’s day had since died out; botanical plant names had changed, making them difficult to identify. Volunteers spent hours scouring historical images of the garden with magnifying glasses, attempting to recognize particular species.

“It was a real piece of detective work,” says Susan Whalen of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which oversees Harkness.

Caretakers of the Hill-Stead faced a similar yet different challenge, working from a Farrand plan for a garden that technically never existed.

Hill-Stead was the brainchild of Theodate Pope Riddle (1867-1946), a headstrong Miss Porter’s School alumna, Lusitania survivor and distinguished American architect—the first woman architect, in fact, to be licensed in both Connecticut and New York.Born in Ohio, Theodate fell in love with the Farmington countryside as a schoolgirl. In 1901, she moved into a Mt. Vernon-inspired farmhouse she designed on a 250-acre estate she amassed by purchasing the smaller, surrounding properties. The farm was, ostensibly, a retirement property for the elder Popes, but became, in fact, Theodate’s personal Shangri-La. While her father filled the walls of the main house with his collection of French Impressionist paintings, Theodate (who married American diplomat John W. Riddle in 1916) spent her time meticulously directing the transformation of the rustic, Yankee landscape into a classic, English dairy farm, down to the smallest detail. She forbade power mowers, insisting “that all the lawns be cut by hand mowers and that the grass be kept shaggy, or around 2” high, which was her idea of a proper British lawn,” as one of her gardeners later recalled. There would be hell to pay if she spied a dandelion or buttercup on one her walks around the property, and groundskeepers routinely weeded the main lawn on their knees.Riddle had a sunken garden created for her mother in a natural, bowl-like depression near the southern entrance of the house. Inspired by the gardens of Monticello, it featured neat boxwood-lined brick pathways, a sundial and beds of foxgloves, hollyhocks, roses and lilies. At the center, was an octagonal, open-sided summerhouse that provided shade and a quiet spot for tea and conversation on sultry afternoons.

Riddle likely met Farrand in 1912, when Farrand was hired to plan a garden for Westover, a Middlebury boarding school that Riddle designed. After her mother’s death in 1920, Riddle asked Farrand to redesign the sunken garden but, for some reason, never moved forward with the plans. During the 1940s, the garden was turfed over and Riddle, then in her eighties, had lost much of her zeal for gardening. Upon her death in 1946, the property became a museum while Farrand’s plans were all but forgotten.

Then, in 1984, two local garden clubs decided to revive Hill-Stead’s gardens under the direction of New Haven-based landscape architect Shavaun Towers. Work on the sunken garden was about to get underway when the husband of a board member noted a reference to the unused Farrand plan in a catalogue of Farrand’s work at the University of California at Berkeley, where Farrand’s papers are archived.

“At that point, everything stopped,” recalls Towers. She sent for the Farrand design and the decision was made to use this plan instead, creating a garden that, up to that point, had only existed on paper and in Farrand’s imagination.

“It was really quite fascinating to see the way she changed the spatial relationships of the original garden,” says Towers, who had firsthand knowledge of Farrand’s work by restoring much of it at Yale. “Her walkways were larger than the original, her bed layouts addressed the topographic configuration of the bowl in a much more sympathetic way, and her color palette was much more sophisticated.”

Today, the garden blooms with the soft, pastel shades of phlox, iris, lavender and other perennials Farrand would have known, including heliotrope, culled from Harkness.

“It’s maybe ninety percent of what she had in mind,” speculates Hill-Stead’s garden manger, Lea Anne Moran, who says updating the garden to Farrand’s original plan is an ongoing process.

A similar, horticultural treasure hunt took place at Three Rivers Farm, country home of Dr. Frederick Peterson in the former village of Shepaug, near Bridgewater. A preeminent Manhattan neurologist, Peterson knew Farrand from New York, where she designed a small garden (now gone) for him at his office on West Fiftieth Street in 1909. As for her garden at Three Rivers, it was thought to have similarly disappeared long ago.That was until 1992, when garden historian Pamela Edwards of nearby Roxbury happened to consult the same catalogue that led to the Hill-Stead discovery and noticed the Peterson property among Farrand’s commissions in 1921. At the time of Edwards’ discovery, the house was in the hands of Promisek Inc., a group of local citizens who purchased the farm in 1978 to rescue it from development. The space behind the rambling clapboard farmhouse appeared to be nothing more than a tangled, thorny pit of wild raspberries and bittersweet. Still, Edwards could recognize Farrand’s hand through the mess. With the help of a small grant and a cadre of volunteers, she began exhuming Connecticut’s fourth known Farrand garden.

“There were stumps of plants that had been cut back that I realized were ornamentals, which nobody had recognized before,” says Kristin Havill, a Promisek volunteer who now administers the historic Bellamy-Ferriday House & Garden in Bethlehem.  

What gradually emerged was a rectangular, walled garden that, according to Farrand’s original plan, once bloomed with lamb’s ear, phlox, hosta and tea roses, together with various Oriental species, such as Japanese lilac, favored by Peterson, a frequent traveler to Asia. As such, it is something of a forerunner to one of Farrand’s most famous and magnificent creations, the fabulous, Oriental-themed Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine, begun in 1926.

“There are a lot elements that you see in that garden that she used here first,” says Promisek gardener Irene Meltzer.

This fall, Farrand will be posthumously inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to the state’s gardening heritage—a proud legacy.

“Before Farrand, residential gardens were not considered as important as public parks,” says Tankard. “She really elevated the art of residential garden design to a new level.”

Beatrix Farrand’s Connecticut gardens are part of Connecticut’s Historic Gardens consortium and are open to visitors at varying times of year.

See details below, or for more info, visit cthistoricgardens.org.

Harkness Memorial State Park

275 Great Neck Road

Waterford | 860.443.5725

Mansion tours Memorial Day – Labor Day

Weekends and holidays only. First tour starts at 10 a.m.; last tour is at 2 p.m.

ct.gov/deep

Hill-Stead Museum

35 Mountain Road

Farmington | 860.677.4787

Open year-round: Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. The last house tour is at 3 p.m.

Grounds open daily 7:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.

hillstead.org

Promisek at Three Rivers Farm

694 Skyline Ridge Road

Bridgewater | 860.350.8226

Open June and July: the last Sunday of the month, 12– 4 p.m., or by appointment.

promisek.org

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)

This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of Connecticut Magazine

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