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Before & After: Restoring a Forgotten Garden from the Gilded Age in Newport, RI

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Before & After: Restoring a Forgotten Garden from the Gilded Age in Newport, RI

September 10, 2018

Arthur Curtiss James was a railroad titan, as the newspaper obituaries would later put it. In 1911 he and his wife, Harriet, built a grand estate with sprawling gardens designed by the Olmsted Brothers on a 125-acre property in Newport, Rhode Island.

It was here, students of the Gilded Age may remember, where Mrs. James threw a fabled party on August 15, 1913, to introduce high society to her “secret” Blue Garden. Nearly 350 guests were greeted by dancing mermaids, and sea nymphs, and Mrs. James costumed in “blue and mauve brocade, embroidered in sapphires and amethysts,” a New York Times correspondent reported. Her headdress (also covered with blue and purple gemstones to match the flowers) was “held in place by strands of diamonds.”

The party cemented Mrs. James’s reputation as a lavish hostess and—it was said by some—overshadowed the other major event of that summer, Mrs. Mamie Fish’s Mother Goose Ball (at which guests arrived costumed like nursery-rhyme characters).

Gardens usually don’t outlive their owners, and sadly for the Blue Garden, the Jameses both died in 1941. But more than seven decades later, the landscape has been resurrected—thanks to Campbell’s Soup heiress Dorrance Hill Hamilton, who bought the land and tore down an ugly 1980s-era house that had been built on top of one of the reflecting pools.

New Haven, Connecticut–based landscape architects Reed-Hilderbrand, who completed the project in 2014 for Mrs. Hamilton (who died last year), have just won a 2018 Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. The new layout honors the historic Olmsted Brothers’ design, updated with an environmentally friendly plant palette.

Let’s stroll around the grounds (where mermaids still would look right at home).

Photography by Marianne Lee, except where noted, courtesy of ASLA.

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Above: “The garden’s main axis, defined by a series of pools and fountains along a channel, was rehabilitated,” the landscape architects say.

Located near the tip of Aquidneck Island, the Blue Garden was “shaped within a hollow of exposed bedrock characteristic of the area, which, over time and with great devotion, became known as a mythic place of alluring beauty,” the landscape architect says. Enclosed by evergreens, walls, and pergolas “visitors found an effulgent, classically disposed garden of blue flowers. Along the length of the axis of the formal beds, a channel of water connects a square pool of water lilies with a long pool of blue tiles inspired by Persian rugs, punctuated by fountain jets.”

After the Jameses died—three weeks apart in 1941—their Newport property endured a few sad decades: The main house burned in 1967, the property was subdivided, and the ephemeral beauty of the Blue Garden, some feared, was lost forever.

Before

Sixty years after the death of the Jameses, most of the garden was gone. In the 80s, a new house was sited on what had been the western portion of the original garden (shown above in ). Photograph by Reed Hilderbrand.
Above: Sixty years after the death of the Jameses, most of the garden was gone. In the 1980s, a new house was sited on what had been the western portion of the original garden (shown above in 2010). Photograph by Reed Hilderbrand.

Mrs. Hamilton had the new house torn down. “With the house demolished and volunteer trees removed, the garden’s main axis, defined by a series of pools and fountains along a channel, was rehabilitated,” the architects say.

Noted the American Society of Landscape Awards jury: “The quality of the restoration, the consistency with the Olmsteds’ original vision, the fact that anyone would do this—buy a parcel of land, tear down a house to restore a garden—seemed that it ought to be acknowledged in some way.”

After

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Above: “The enclosed Blue Garden is intensified as a hortus conclusus by preserving and reestablishing the agrarian context that surrounds it,” the landscape architects say. A runnel connects the reflecting pools.

“The scheme adapts the original Olmsted Brothers’ design intentions to a changing climate and to the constraints of contemporary maintenance levels, with a smaller palette of more reliable, longer-flowering, drought-tolerant plants, and greater use of perennials in place of labor-intensive annual,” the landscape architects say.

When the landscape architects took on the project there were &#8
Above: When the landscape architects took on the project there were “only fragments remaining of the original garden,” they say.

The landscape architects worked with historians, masonry conservators, and horticulturists to unearth the original plans for the garden, learning along the way that the 1913 planting scheme “relied heavily upon bedding-out practices, supported by a bevy of gardeners, to maintain the garden in prime condition.”

In contrast, the garden today is planted with drought-tolerant, low-maintenance annuals and perennials that bloom in shades of blue, purple, white and gray-green.

Perennials include monkshood (Aconitum), asters (A. laevis ‘Bluebird’), delphiniums, and Baptisia decadence ‘Sparkling Sapphires’.

Annuals to add a long season of color include Agapanthus ‘Baby Pete’, bachelor buttons, dwarf morning glory, and lantanas.

An aerial view of the restored Blue Garden. Photograph by Reed-Hilderbrand.
Above: An aerial view of the restored Blue Garden. Photograph by Reed-Hilderbrand.

Framing the garden are evergreen trees, including English holly (Ilex aquifolium) and Eastern red cedars. Boxwoods, lace cap hydrangeas, and other shrubs provide structure within the garden.

Looking south past the pool, a pergola is framed by &#8
Above: Looking south past the pool, a pergola is framed by “mixed evergreen plantings of appropriate heights for the garden’s light requirements.” Photograph by Millicent Harvey.

The original design of Mrs. James’s pergola included granite columns; beyond the pergola was a waterfall and rock garden. Guests at the 1913 Masque of the Blue Garden party gazed upon “Corinthian columns and an Italian well of the Renaissance period, while the trees and plants were illuminated with electric lights of many colors to represent colors.”

By 2012 the pergola was gone. The landscape architects found physical clues—fragments of steps, tiles, and walls—and unearthed original plans and extensive construction drawings to help guide their design of the new pergola.

The landscape architects add &#8
Above: The landscape architects add “a network of mown paths [that] meander through mixed evergreen trees and grassland, with hints of the blue-flowering perennials and occasional glimpses of the surrounding agrarian landscape.”
The restored section of the Blue Garden is adjacent to a parcel of conservation land, where the design celebrates and amplifies the landscape’s agrarian roots.

Photographic illustration by Reed-Hilderbrand.
Above: Photographic illustration by Reed-Hilderbrand.

“Rural conservation land, originally part of the James estate, extends beyond the Blue Garden, thereby preserving the garden’s original northerly and westerly context,” the landscape architects say.

Beyond the evergreens that shelter the Blue Garden are native grasslands with mown paths. Photograph by Millicent Harvey.
Above: Beyond the evergreens that shelter the Blue Garden are native grasslands with mown paths. Photograph by Millicent Harvey.
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Above: “Fields of exposed bedrock and scrublands” lie beyond the mown paths. Photograph by Millicent Harvey.

Are you designing a garden from scratch, or rehabbing an old one? Whether it’s a grand survivor of the Gilded Age or a modest suburban plot, you’ll find inspiration in our Before & After archives and our curated guides to Garden Design 101. Read more:

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