Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Big Old Houses: A Walk in the Garden

A Walk in the Garden
by John Foreman

It is a beautiful day and I am sitting on the porch, thinking deep thoughts, and feeling a lot better. Beyond the parapet is my garden, the western section of a large 19th century installation, short perhaps on sophisticated layout, but beyond fantastic in terms of scale and stonework. I think I'll take a stroll down.
The center of the garden is a 2-acre walled orchard. It is bounded on the east by elaborate stone foundations from vanished greenhouses — a complex of some size. On the west a high retaining wall incorporates the picturesquely treated back wall of a tennis pavilion which opens onto an upper terrace. The former gardener's cottage, now a guest house, anchors the complex's northeast corner.
This garden was probably at its prime just before the First World War. Gravel paths were lined with perfectly pruned fruit trees. Three of the four quadrants within the walls were closely planted with vegetables and cutting flowers. The fourth was a hilly lawn with stone-lined fish pond at the low end and a giant specimen maple partly surrounded by a semi-circular stone bench. Today's moody palisade of 100-foot evergreens was planted during the Depression. Before that, the sun would have streamed relentlessly over the stone walls, all day long.

The owner's wife at that time collected lilies, 1600 species I am told. Whereas glass rooms full of hothouse palms and the showy "bedding out" of Edwardian gardens were impressive, the orchard and greenhouse during the Depression were still a wow. Then the Second War came along and the greenhouse was pulled down, the iron donated to the war effort. As soon as the gardeners went off to war, fast-spreading honeysuckle bushes invaded and eventually covered everything within the walls. Forty years later, I spotted apple blossoms buried in scraggly woods, and decided to cut a pair of perpendicular paths that eventually morphed into the large lawn that carpets the orchard today.
Here's the tennis house, built into the west wall. Although built to face a vanished tennis court on an upper lawn, its back wall lends picturesque dignity to the garden below.
The greenhouses were on the eastern side of the garden, reached via (probably baking hot) white gravel paths lined with apple trees from Elizabeth Arden. A thick but orderly riot of cutting flowers and carefully tended vegetables filled three quarters of the garden. Looking like a crystal palace, and extending some 200 feet from northernmost forcing bed to a mustering hall for day laborers on the south, was a great three-bay glazed greenhouse, complete with ogee dome.
If I were in the same league as my landlords, I would have not have been able to restrain myself from spending tens — let's be serious, hundreds — of thousands of dollars (maybe millions) to restore the entire garden. Then of course, I'd be right back out of their league, and the job probably wouldn't be done. As it is, stabilization of the stone infrastructure is underway, albeit at an indolent pace. Today's stonework, lawn carpet and towering trees contribute to a very different kind of garden.
The northeast corner of the complex, with the gardener's cottage nestled into the encircling wall, gives a sense of the unremitting sunlight that once poured into the garden and onto the greenhouse glass. Until a few years ago, probably 50% of the low walls and gateways bordering the paths had degenerated into piles of loose stone. The repairs have been quite good.
Let's return to the main greenhouse pavilion and have a closer look. The voluptuous curve of the vanished glass envelope is clearly discernible on the wall of the pavilion. The gardener's office was probably on the main floor, opening onto long glazed rooms extending west and south. These would have been packed to their glass ceilings with overscaled palms and an ocean of blossoming plants deemed too tender to keep outdoors. A coal fired steam boiler in the pavilion basement provided heat. I look at the excessive amount of square footage under glass, combined with the grandly scaled but not very original architectural plan and see a plot successfully hatched by the local nurseryman who landed the king of clients.

Garden aesthetics here depend not on architecture, but on the costly, fussy, do-it-again-every-year, but beloved by Victorians practice of "bedding out." This simply refers to transplanting annuals from greenhouse (or forcing frame) into the earth. Besides the showy geometrical flower beds that once ornamented the lawns, there must be close to half a mile of planter-topped stone walls on the estate, all of which were once filled with annuals.
Low glazed forcing frames, their foundation coping clearly visible in the image of the gardener's cottage below, extended from the left of it for about 80 feet. Another greenhouse, its ghost still on the cottage wall, extended south. A north-south roadway paralleling the east wall connects the cottage and greenhouse pavilion with a small stable courtyard.
Towering trees shade the south wall path. Outside one of the gates, a message from the '60s pulses on.
The stone steps leading up to the southernmost greenhouse pavilion are beautifully chased in organic patterns.
I continued along the south path, turned up the central axis, then detoured left to a stair beside the tennis house.
Can you hear the slow "thwok" of tennis balls on the lawn court? Or the meaningful laughter of white skirted ladies watching from the porch? Neither can I, but that's what it was like here once.
Time to go back, get the car, drive to the village, get the mail, and then a breakfast sandwich at the diner.
Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
Contact John Foreman here
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