Strict formality: two gardens of yesteryear
From the Berkshire Botanical garden it is an easy drive to visit the homes and formal gardens designed and created by Edith Wharton and Daniel Chester French.
And, while neither garden is extensive, each is a wonderful example of the strict formality of the times that seemed to permeate every aspect of people’s lives.
Furthermore today both gardens are beautifully maintained and include their owners’ original plant choices for us to enjoy.
The prolific sculptor Daniel Chester French is especially remembered for his massive statue of Lincoln that graces the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
Although based in New York City, French delighted in spending his summers in the Berkshires. So, in 1896, he and his wife purchased 122 acres of land just outside Stockbridge.
Two years later he designed his summer studio together with the adjacent garden. Today both his garden and his studio are open to visitors, as well as a museum in the residence house which he built later.
His garden, featuring a long formal axis created by a wide gravel path flanked by beds filled with his favorite flowers, is structurally quite simple. And, since it runs right past his studio, it was also extremely functional, providing easy access for him to move his sculptures outside and view them in different settings.
Then, leading directly from his main studio door, he added a second perpendicular axis—this one a wide grassy path edged with peonies and tree hydrangeas, terminating in a woodland trail that leads to rocky ledges with views of the surrounding countryside.
Finally, to mark the intersection of the two main axes, he designed and created this beautiful and imposing fountain.
From Chesterwood it is just five miles to Edith Wharton’s home and gardens in the village of Lenox. In addition to being a renowned writer, Wharton was also a consummate traveler and student of European architecture and gardens. And in 1902, she applied this knowledge to design The Mount, her classically inspired mansion and associated gardens.
A formal entrance courtyard greeted her visitors as they arrived:
At the rear of the mansion there was a long rear terrace with splendid views across the Berkshire hills where she loved to entertain her many literary friends
From here she and her guests would descend the broad staircase to the ‘Lime Walk’, a 290’ crushed marble allée edged with pleached Linden trees (Tilia cordata).
The Italian garden
Turning right took them past a formal planting of clipped evergreens and down to the square sunken Italian Garden, which she enclosed on three sides with high stonewalls.
The French garden
Turning left took them to the more elaborate French Garden that was open to the woods beyond. This featured an ornate fountain in the center of a large rectangular pool—also edged with white petunias—and additional outer beds filled with colorful flowers.
Since both French and Wharton enjoyed walking in their woods, they had the underbrush removed and the trees pruned up to encourage understory flowers and ferns. They also added strolling paths that to this day beckon the visitor to explore this natural environment
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