The Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield
STOP 1 (Terrace)
Welcome to the Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield, a rare example of the work of one of America’s most distinguished landscape designers. Bellefield was once the home of Thomas and Sarah Newbold, prominent members of New York society at the turn of the twentieth century. In their time, the house was part of an elegant estate that enjoyed a fine view across the Hudson Valley to the Catskill Mountains. Mr. Newbold served as a State Senator and was a close family friend and early adviser to his young neighbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Newbolds divided the year among several homes. Spring and fall were spent here at Bellefield and in the city, summers in Maine, Newport or Europe.
When the Newbolds decided to enlarge their house, they chose an old friend, Charles McKim, of McKim, Mead & White, the architectural firm that had recently designed the Vanderbilt mansion nearby. McKim turned the eighteenth-century farmhouse into the substantial house that we see today.
In 1912, the Newbolds asked their cousin Beatrix Jones to design the garden for the new house. Jones, who would become Beatrix Farrand upon her marriage the following year, was also born to the privileged world of old New York society. For young women, this was a world of afternoon teas, dress fittings and glamorous balls, all leading to marriage and motherhood. Unlike her fellow debutantes, however, Beatrix Jones had chosen to pursue a career, inspired in part by her accomplished aunt, the writer Edith Wharton. Although the Newbolds knew that she was an unusual woman, they probably didn’t realize that “cousin Beatrix” would go on to be one of the leading landscape designers of her time.
In those days there was no formal way for a woman to train as a landscape architect, so Farrand set out to educate herself. During childhood summers at her family home, Reef Point, in Bar Harbor, Maine, she had observed plants and plant combinations in the wild and kept detailed journals. But, at the age of twenty, she also began more formal studies with Charles Sprague Sargent, the foremost plantsman of the day and founder of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. With his help she created a study course for herself that included a tutorial on engineering and an extensive tour of the great gardens of Europe. By twenty-three, she had set up her own business, and four years later was the only woman among eleven founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Despite this honor, she always referred to herself as a landscape gardener. Her office, modeled on that of the firm of her friend Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, was known for its high standards of professionalism. Although the Bellefield commission was early in her career, she was already a seasoned practitioner. During the time she was working here, she would take on two more prestigious jobs, one as the first consulting landscape architect at Princeton University and the other, as the designer of gardens at the White House for President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.
Please join us at Stop 2, down the steps and to the right.
Farrand’s gardens all start with a clear structure. Here at Bellefield, she gave her cousins a plan with a formal outline, even though she expected it to be used informally as a family garden. She used the proportions of the Newbolds’ new living room as a starting point for her design, which imagined three garden rooms that simplify as they narrow and flow away from the house. As you can see, this narrowing creates a forced perspective that makes the garden seem much longer than it is, an idea reinforced by the use of the dark green hemlock hedging at the far end.
The hedges were completely overgrown and ravaged by deer when a group of volunteers took over care of the garden in 1993. The Newbolds’ grandson Gerald Morgan had donated the house and over 20 acres to the National Park Service in 1976, but by then the original plantings had long disappeared, leaving just weeds and the rough stone edging of the beds.
The volunteers, led by a landscape designer from the Hyde Park community and a newly hired horticulturist, gleaned hints about what the garden looked like from Newbold family photographs, but Farrand’s actual planting plans were nowhere to be found. Eventually, they decided to use plans for a nearby garden of similar size and shape as the template for the replanting. So the flower borders you see today, while not the originals, are Farrand’s genuine designs, with her groupings and color choices.
Please walk away from the house along the borders and meet us at stop 3.
The rich double border in this first room features drifts of subtle colors--cream, blush, and grey--an unusual combination that Farrand used repeatedly. She was a brilliant plantswoman and, unlike many of her male peers, prepared her complicated planting plans herself, usually supervising their installation using her trademark white stick markers for the layout. Farrand used flowers in a painterly, expressionistic way to “dress” her designs, paying close attention to shape and texture as well as restful color progression. For a family like the Newbolds, who were never at Bellefield in the summer, she chose plants that bloomed in the spring and fall.
Farrand’s flower borders reflect the influence of the pre-eminent English gardeners William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, both of whom she had visited on her European study tours. They were at the forefront of a garden movement that rejected stiff Victorian carpet bedding that clustered plants in orderly patterns in favor of looser, freer planting styles where a mixture of plants were encouraged to co-exist. There is an exciting tension between Farrand’s abundant flower borders and the restrained outline of her paths, walls and hedging. Her ability to address the bones of a garden—its basic architecture--as well as its decoration set her apart from other designers of the time. "Gardening is a gentle art” she once wrote “and yet it needs imagination, strength, and perhaps more than anything else the vision that sees the future through the present and bravely works toward that end."
Continue to walk south along the hemlock hedging, noticing the single flower borders in this part of the garden. Please meet us at stop 4.
Farrand’s gardens seem to draw people gradually from the house to the natural world. This certainly happened at Bellefield. Twice a day, Thomas Newbold would leave the house and walk past the flower borders and hemlock hedges, to the opening at the southern end of the garden and continue down the boundary road in the direction of the Roosevelt estate, returning the way that he had come.
At Bellefield, Farrand made the house-to-nature progression quite specific. Looking back toward the house, you can see how the lines of the gravel paths and hedging match up perfectly with the living room windows. After the complexity of the flower borders, the dark green hemlock allee completely changes the mood, preparing us for the ultimate transition from garden to nature. This ability to shift the emotional temperature of a garden was one of Farrand’s great skills as a designer and is shown to great effect, even in this small space.
Please walk back towards the house along the right-hand paths and join us at the gate for stop 5.
The existing structural plans from Bellefield show Farrand’s fine eye for detail. The drawings for this door were very particular down to the hardware and the delicate tracery of the wrought-iron motif. Here, outside the gate, Farrand designed an informal wild garden to soften and enclose the formal walls.
Farrand frequently designed naturalistic areas as part of her gardens, and she liked to use native plants where she could. Her passion for them began during her childhood summers at Reef Point in Maine and she continued to champion them throughout her career. She also tried to use local materials where they were appropriate. Here, the rough, uncut stone walls that impart a rural flavor to the formal garden are made from Hudson Valley fieldstone quarried nearby.
Green walls are on the cutting-edge of today’s garden design but a hundred years ago Farrand was already looking at vertical surfaces, whether the side of a house or a stone wall, as an opportunity to extend the garden using climbers and vines. She liked to see the pattern of the vines on the wall and always expected that the climbers would be tied up in a neat and tight way on specially designed trellising of sturdy chestnut lathes with bamboo horizontals. Farrand was very focused on maintaining her gardens to her own high standards. In her major commissions, especially her masterpiece, the 54-acre Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., she often continued the relationship with her clients, returning year after year to make sure the gardens were evolving according to her plans. As she once wrote, “The owner of a garden is like the leader of an orchestra; he must know which of his instruments to encourage and which to restrain.”
Please join us at the bottom of the stairs leading to the terrace for stop 6.
Farrand was often remembered as a commanding and exacting presence, but she strongly believed that garden elements should fit into a landscape and not be imposed upon it. Often, this sensitivity to the site could result in exquisite details. The elegant indented corners of this section of the garden likely came about because she wanted to save the oak that still stands just outside the walls. She also designed the garden around a majestic American elm in the lawn. Farrand understood that though the tree’s placement was asymmetrical it was an important contrast to the garden’s formal plan and that its shade would bring the play of shadows that she had learned to appreciate in Italian gardens. Sadly, the original elm succumbed to Dutch Elm disease, but it was recently replaced with a Chinese variety.
In addition to the handsome elm, family pictures show spiky-white foxgloves growing throughout the garden beds as if they had self-sowed. When they were re-introduced by the volunteers, they took off and once again became a prominent part of the planting. Another plant we know grew at Bellefield was the peony. Farrand used them frequently in her flower gardens. When the volunteers began their search for authentic varieties, they were lucky to discover that a local minister had some of Bellefield’s peonies that Mary Newbold Morgan, the Newbolds’ daughter, had given him many years before. He generously donated them back to the garden. These pink peonies are a tangible link to earlier times.
Please join us back on the terrace overlooking the garden for stop 7.
The garden at Bellefield is over a hundred years old. Plants die and need to be replaced, woodchucks invade, the weather doesn’t always cooperate. But the garden remains a moving testament to the work of a group of dedicated volunteers and the lasting value of the work of Beatrix Farrand. The garden speaks to us today just as much as it did to Mr. and Mrs. Newbold a hundred years ago. Although it was a small project in an illustrious and prolific 50-year career, Bellefield vividly illustrates Farrand’s extraordinary gifts as a garden-maker.
Toward the end of her life, Farrand and her husband, Max Farrand, decided to open their home at Reef Point as a horticultural study center. Hundreds of students and visitors came to work in the library and in the herbarium, but Farrand was ahead of her time. The general interest in landscape gardening and environmental issues had not really taken hold, and she was forced to close Reef Point in 1955. She sent the horticultural library to the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and she made the difficult decision to dismantle her gardens and disperse her plants among friends and colleagues. Plants from her collection continue to thrive at the Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Lodge in Bar Harbor, Maine. She saved some of her personal favorites for the cottage at Garland Farm that she built for the last years of her life. Today her belief in education continues with work being done here at Bellefield by the non-profit Beatrix Farrand Garden Association, in partnership with the National Park Service, and through collaborations with other Farrand gardens on the East Coast.