Edith Wharton's House & Gardens
Michael Weishan joined Stephanie Copeland, president of the Edith Wharton Restoration, for a tour of the stunning formal gardens at the estate of the pioneering American novelist.
"Decidedly, I'm a better landscape gardener than a novelist," Edith Wharton (1862 - 1937) wrote in 1911, "and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth." Fortunately, The House of Mirth, one of Wharton's most famous and popular novels, never went out of print but over the years, the gardens that Wharton designed at her Berkshires home, The Mount, were all but swallowed up by neglect. Since 1999, Edith Wharton Restoration (EWR) has spent more than $2 million to bring these gardens back to glorious life, as a source of pleasure for the public and as a tribute to the artist who ranked them among her greatest creations.
A Work of Her Own Devising
The principal gardens at The Mount were Edith Wharton's own labor of love, expressing in living form the ideas she articulated in her 1904 book Italian Villas and Their Gardens. A classically conceived house with English, French and Italian influences, The Mount reflects the design principles articulated in The Decoration of Houses (1897), the influential book Wharton co-authored with architect Ogden Codman, Jr. At The Mount, Wharton made good on her principle that gardens should be architectural compositions, divided into rooms, and should be planned in concert with both the house and the surrounding natural landscape.
She designed The Mount and its grounds as an architectural promenade, the dramatic climax of which was the first vista of the gardens. The visitor entered the house from a courtyard, then ascended a flight of steps to the main floor. There, all of the principal spaces library, drawing room, dining room and den opened onto an Italianate terrace, which offered an expansive view across the gardens to Laurel Lake and the distant Berkshire hills. Conceived as an "outdoor room," the terrace was the place where guests gathered before and after dinner to admire the view, and where Wharton and her husband Teddy occasionally held intimate parties.
From the terrace, a Palladian staircase led down to a "lime walk" of linden trees, which connected the two formal gardens that Wharton designed at The Mount. A walled Italian garden with walkways and a lion's head fountain was given minimal plantings, so that it had "a charm independent of the seasons," as Wharton wrote. Contrasting with it was a flower garden filled with petunias, phlox, snapdragons, stocks, penstemons and hollyhocks, which featured a dolphin fountain and a latticework niche. (The latter element was designed by Codman. Originally made for Wharton's 1890s home, Land's End in Newport, Rhode Island, the niche was subsequently moved to The Mount.) Completing the ensemble was a rock garden, for which Wharton searched out native varieties of sweet ferns.
Clipped hedges and trees provided a gradual transition from the formal plantings to the landscape beyond, following Wharton's principle that "each step away from architecture was a nearer approach to nature."
In restoring the gardens at The Mount, EWR has had the opportunity "to re-create the original design of a 'calm, well-ordered lifestyle' that Edith Wharton had for the mansion and grounds," states landscape architect Susan Child. President and senior design principal of the Boston-based firm of Child Associates, Inc., Child has been selected by EWR as landscape architect for the restoration project. She brings to The Mount a wealth of experience gained in executing site designs and master landscape plans for clients including The Rockefeller University, MIT, the New York Botanical Garden and Cornell University.
Plant lists for The Mount's gardens were developed through extensive research and collaboration among a variety of experts. Combing through articles, letters and other documentation to glean details of Wharton's designs, the group assembled Wharton-era photographs of the gardens that became invaluable references not least for Del Tredici, who is skilled at identifying plants in historical photographs.
Based on their extensive knowledge of local growing conditions, the landscape contractors reviewed the original plant list and, where appropriate, recommended substitutions. In areas of the garden now shaded by large trees, sun-dependent flowers have been replaced by shade-loving varieties. Original plantings of hemlock, which is susceptible to the wooly adaelgid, have been replaced with boxwood, which Edith Wharton had used elsewhere but which didn't then exist as the hardy variety available today. By October 2001, EWR had planted 100 Tardiva hydrangea, 59 Little Leaf lindens, 60 Meyer lilacs, 50 Black Knight Butterfly bushes, 24 Hardy kiwi and 1,988 Green Velvet boxwoods.
The lime walk, the walled garden, much of the rock garden, the green terraces, the two fountains and the paths and beds for the flower garden are all restored, and a new irrigation system is in place. Once EWR completes the fundraising to endow the garden's maintenance, it will undertake the last major step in the restoration: replanting the flower garden. With that, one of Edith Wharton's greatest creations will bloom again.
For more information about The Mount, visit the estate online at www.edithwharton.org.
This segment appears in show #2722.
Images courtesy of The Mount
Additional thanks to the Edith Wharton Restoration, the Stockbridge Historical Room, Stockridge Library, and the Lenox Library Association, for the use of additional photographs on air.