Landscapes for Historic Houses: Our Specialty
Clients often ask how I became involved with specializing in landscapes for historic houses.
If you too are curious, grab your beverage of choice and read on. I hope you enjoy this rather long story.
I’ve always loved the classic lines of period architecture. I grew up in one of the oldest, if not the oldest, house in Trumbull, CT. The sign on our house read ‘circa 1740’. The Historical Society knew the house was older than that based on the location of the beehive oven (at the back of the fireplace) and the lack of a ridge beam in the peak of the roof. No one could remember the exact date the house was built after town records were destroyed by fire so the date they gave the house was the date the town started fresh. I renovated that house’s landscape while going to college for Horticulture.
I was a newbie back then in regards to designing landscapes. I attended design classes every semester as a horticulture student but was by no means an expert. During that time, a degree in Horticulture did not include classes relating to the history of landscaping nor did we learn how people lived at that time or how people designed and used their landscapes in colonial times. The professors where teaching the basics of design, the principles of landscape design and how it related to each project we were designing at the time. Unfortunately, our typical design projects were cookie cutter houses in suburbia.
When it came time to renovate my parent’s historic house, I designed the landscape to my knowledge base. I produced a landscape design that was aesthetically pleasing but i didn’t necessarily relate to the period architecture. It was a couple of years later while earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Landscape Architecture that the classes went beyond the basics of landscape design theory. The history classes began. Art History, the history of architecture and landscape architecture, the history of garden design and the required readings of Genius Loci and the like. While I enjoyed the classes, I never really made any connection to my future career in landscape design.
Years later, my wife and I bought our own property in Litchfield County, a 9.7 acre property in New Milford with two older buildings: a carriage house built in the early 1900’s and a post and beam barn built in the mid 1800’s. We renovated the carriage house for over a year, the whole time commuting back and forth from Trumbull. During those weekly commutes, I was enjoying a very tasteful renovation of a period house in Brookfield. The renovation involved redoing the existing structure as well as adding on multiple colonial ‘boxes’. It was turning out to be a beautiful representation of New England architecture. The new architecture reminded me of the book “Big House, Little House, Barn in Back, a Study of New England Architecture”. When the house was nearing completion, a new landscape was installed. At that point, my admiration for the whole project fell apart. For a construction project that was well into the six figures, I was left scratching my head. The landscape was pathetic! At first, I told myself that the owners must have run out of money which is sometimes a reality in large renovation projects. That wasn’t the case with this project though. I could understand if there wasn’t any money left for an appropriate landscape that the house deserved but there was a landscape installed. It just wasn’t appropriate! I remember these 2 Dwarf Alberta Spruces that were installed on either side of the front door, in the shade! Not only should these plants not be planted in the shade but they were trimmed into corkscrews like a plant you’d see at Disneyland! I was dumbfounded how this beautiful period house received such a pathetic landscape. The landscape could have tied the whole project together yet it became an afterthought.
It was at that moment where I light went on. My education, with all those design and history classes made all the sense in the world.. I was trained to do the right thing and in my own way, I decided to become an ambassador for New England’s historic houses. There aren’t a lot of people who have the formal training in landscape history that I had. There were even less people, with that formal training, who were actually installing landscapes. By then, I had a decent knowledge of how people lived at that time, how they used their landscapes and what the design styles were during each point in history.
In my spare time, I began to further my education by reading more about how the landscape movement developed in this country as well as researching and creating specific plant lists of what was being used and planted in New England for each period in time.
I am still enthralled with the historic properties that exist throughout Connecticut and New England. These historic houses are part of our heritage and a nod to our past. We should protect them and enhance these great structures with landscapes that people can be proud. It is my hope that Designing Eden llc can be a part of that movement.
Below are some historic homes with my modern day interpretations of a period landscape.
In this landscape, in front of a historic Cape, we incorporated a small picket fence to create a courtyard. In the 1700’s-1800’s, it was typical to create fenced in courtyards to separate colonists utilitarian landscapes from roaming farm animals. These ‘kitchen gardens’ were planted with plants that were used for cooking and other usable crops for daily use. This modern day courtyard was filled with evergreens and perennials including herbs. Notice the natural paving materials? We see a lot of historic building with concrete pavers. If the goal of the designer is to unify a house with the property, nothing alienates a historic house more than using a colored concrete paver.
Here is a modern day interpretation of a Victorian landscape in front of a beautifully restored house in Ridgefield. In the Victorian era, people began to establish successful businesses. They often took those profits and started to travel. These trips opened people’s eyes towards different cultures. It also opened up travelers eyes to different garden styles and a whole new plant palette. People slowly got away from the utilitarian landscapes of colonial times and started landscaping strictly for aesthetics. Bedding plants, or what we call annuals today, became the rage in the Victorian era.A typical Victorian garden at Waddesdon Manor
We did not plant this whole property with annuals although it was in the discussions until I reined the clients in. An all annual planting would have been common at the time but what we did do was to incorporate a lot of annuals throughout the plantings. Year after year, the look and feel of this garden changes with every rotation of annuals.
Our lives and the way we use our houses has changed throughout time. The goal in our landscapes is to create aesthetically pleasing landscapes while incorporating as many features and plants into a modern day landscape that will pay homage to our architectural past.