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A Poet’s Garden: Edna St. Vincent Millay at Steepletop

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A Poet’s Garden: Edna St. Vincent Millay at Steepletop

August 18, 2017

It is a conversation you often hear in New York City, people saying the noise and the crowds are driving them crazy and that they need to move away.  Of course most of them never seem to go, but it is interesting to note that this is not a new dilemma.  As far back as the 1920s people were seeking relief from the city’s hubbub. One such person, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jazz Age poet identified by her many fans as a symbol of Greenwich Village bohemian life, was Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1925 she answered a New York Times ad for an abandoned blueberry farm in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains:

Photography by Jeanne Rostaing except where noted.

Millay explained her decision to move to the country by telling a reporter that, while the city was exciting and gave her a lot of ideas, she needed to go somewhere quiet to write.
Above: Millay explained her decision to move to the country by telling a reporter that, while the city was exciting and gave her a lot of ideas, she needed to go somewhere quiet to write.

Quiet doesn’t begin to describe her rural retreat, which still sits today along a narrow country road a long drive from the nearest village, the tiny town of Austerlitz, New York.  When Millay and her husband, Dutch businessman Eugen Boissevain, arrived they found a neglected Victorian farmhouse, some derelict barns and 700 acres of clear cut land.  Despite the many challenges the place presented, Millay described it in a letter to her mother as “one of the loveliest places in the world.”

Millay named her property Steepletop after Steeplebush (Spirea tomentosa), a spiky pink wildflower (also known as hardhack) that was growing there in abundance.
Above: Millay named her property Steepletop after Steeplebush (Spirea tomentosa), a spiky pink wildflower (also known as hardhack) that was growing there in abundance.

The couple adapted the old house into a writer’s haven complete with a book-crammed library.  The land around the house eventually became the site of 13 garden rooms surrounding a tiny writer’s cabin where Millay spent her afternoons in creative solitude.

As befits a poet who frequently used images drawn from nature in her work, Millay loved plants and would routinely devote time every day to working in her gardens. Photograph courtesy of the Millay Society at Steepletop.
Above: As befits a poet who frequently used images drawn from nature in her work, Millay loved plants and would routinely devote time every day to working in her gardens. Photograph courtesy of the Millay Society at Steepletop.

Her mother, a divorcee who supported Millay and her two sisters by private duty nursing, was an herbalist and taught Millay which plants were useful as remedies for female maladies, as well as how to use an infusion of calendula flowers to keep her trademark red hair looking its best.

The south terrace garden beside the house has not been restored but has been cleaned up so the plants which are left from Millay&#8\2\17;s time  (ferns, forsythia, hosta, hollyhocks, roses, and a crabapple tree) can grow unimpeded by invasive weeds.
Above: The south terrace garden beside the house has not been restored but has been cleaned up so the plants which are left from Millay’s time  (ferns, forsythia, hosta, hollyhocks, roses, and a crabapple tree) can grow unimpeded by invasive weeds.

The Millay Society acquired the house in 1986 after the death of Millay’s younger sister, Norma, who had lived in the house since shortly after Millay’s death in 1950. Like her famous sister, Norma loved gardening; she lived into her nineties and, by the 1980s, the property had been neglected for many years. The society restored and opened the house to the public in 2010 and then turned its attention to the grounds.

The first step was to commission a cultural landscape report that showed what was planted where, and how Millay and her husband used the gardens.
Above: The first step was to commission a cultural landscape report that showed what was planted where, and how Millay and her husband used the gardens.

Michael Minchak, former head gardener at Steepletop, led the restoration for three and a half years.  To create as authentic a restoration as possible, he says he used the landscape report extensively as well as records in the Library of Congress and the meticulous notes and lists that Millay made about what she planted.

The first garden to be restored was the kitchen garden where Millay grew a bounty of produce for the dinner table as well as flowers and herbs.
Above: The first garden to be restored was the kitchen garden where Millay grew a bounty of produce for the dinner table as well as flowers and herbs.

Minchak says in the process of pulling by hand invasive weeds and hacking away overgrown plants, a number of perennials were uncovered that he believes Millay may have planted and that include Asian poppies, Siberian iris, day lilies, wild bergamot, and quince.  Empty spaces he filled with plants that were popular in the era and which Millay might well have grown.

The restoration of the kitchen garden was completed by Minchak in \20\14. Photograph courtesy of the Millay Society at Steepletop.
Above: The restoration of the kitchen garden was completed by Minchak in 2014. Photograph courtesy of the Millay Society at Steepletop.

He says Millay was really ahead of her time in practicing companion planting and in combining vegetables with flowers. She acquired many of her plants through mail order and from friends and family. But she was apparently not above  “rescuing” plants by digging them up on abandoned neighboring farms.

The stand of white pine which Millay planted as seedlings around her writing cabin reminded her of her childhood in Maine and were given to her by her mother.
Above: The stand of white pine which Millay planted as seedlings around her writing cabin reminded her of her childhood in Maine and were given to her by her mother.

Originally the area was also planted with viburnums that Millay called “snowball bushes” but those are gone, having been decimated by the viburnum beetle and shaded out by the now mature pine trees.

In old stone-lined pathways used by cattle, Millay created beds for hollyhocks, rudbeckia, and bachelor buttons.
Above: In old stone-lined pathways used by cattle, Millay created beds for hollyhocks, rudbeckia, and bachelor buttons.

As a visitor to the gardens today, you walk down a slope from the kitchen garden to the area Millay and her husband used for the madcap parties they famously threw for friends.

An area called &#8\2\20;The Ruins&#8\2\2\1; was designed by Millay to fit into the stone foundations of two dilapidated antique barns that the couple had pulled down.  Photograph courtesy of the Millay Society at Steepletop.
Above: An area called “The Ruins” was designed by Millay to fit into the stone foundations of two dilapidated antique barns that the couple had pulled down.  Photograph courtesy of the Millay Society at Steepletop.

An outdoor barroom was central to the couple’s festivities, where liquor flowed even during Prohibition. The original mahogany bar, which was purchased in Albany and came complete with bullet holes, was recently restored and sits in its original place.

Walking through these gardens, you begin to notice the soundtrack. Yes, there is bird song but there is also sporadic low-pitched grunting. It comes from the old concrete swimming pool, where it is said Millay dictated that only nude swimming would be allowed. Photograph courtesy of the Millay Society at Steepletop.
Above: Walking through these gardens, you begin to notice the soundtrack. Yes, there is bird song but there is also sporadic low-pitched grunting. It comes from the old concrete swimming pool, where it is said Millay dictated that only nude swimming would be allowed. Photograph courtesy of the Millay Society at Steepletop.
A closer look reveals a colony of small frogs who have taken up residence in the brackish water.
Above: A closer look reveals a colony of small frogs who have taken up residence in the brackish water.

Mark O’Berski, vice president of the Board of Trustees of the Millay Society, says that when the pool was built in 1931 it was provided with an ingenious gravity-driven plumbing system which brought water from a faraway stream on the other side of the road.  The unique system was designed by Eugen’s nephew, Frederick Boissevain, to allow the water to flow through the pool, into two nearby fountains and eventually into the bar.  O’Berski laments that it would be prohibitively expensive to rebuild that system today.

Perhaps the most poignant reminder of Millay at Steepletop is a flat open area she called &#8\2\20;The Dingle.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Perhaps the most poignant reminder of Millay at Steepletop is a flat open area she called “The Dingle.”

During the time Millay lived there, it was a performance and gathering space surrounded by a massive arborvitae hedge that helped to screen the celebrity writer and her friends from gawkers. When the Millay Society acquired the estate, the arborvitaes were in terrible condition, grotesquely overgrown, diseased, and in some cases dead.  In order to show visitors Millay’s original concept for the area it was decided to prune the trees to the height they would have been in Millay’s time and allow the dead trunks to remain… silent witnesses to the rural high jinks of a long ago era.

Steepletop is open to visitors through November 1, 2017. A variety of guided tours of the house and gardens are available.

N.B.: Garden as muse; visit more of our favorite landscapes that inspired writers:

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