Thursday, July 26, 2012

Topiary Nirvana

My friend Loi Thai, who, in addition to being a connoisseur of Swedish antiques, is a master of topiary cultivation, told me about renowned topiary resource Haskell Nursery when I visited him in Washington in June. I took advantage of a recent rainy day to take a drive to New Bedford and see the famous greenhouses for myself. 

At Haskell's are myrtle topiaries in every stage of development, from just getting started...

To 36-inch, three ball standards. It is easy to see why Martha Stewart has been a long-time fan of the nursery and owner David Haskell has been a guest on her show.

In addition to myrtle, Haskell's has topiary standards in rosemary, scented geranium and lavender...

...and other plant varieties in every size imaginable.

These are about six feet tall.

I am going to try to be patient and came home with these small variegated serissa and myrtles. Here is a little advice from Martha on growing and maintaining your own topiary standards.

Haskell Nursery is located at 787 Shawmut Avenue in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a little over one hour south of Boston. Telephone: 508-993-9407. In addition to topiary, Haskell has a beautiful selection of ornamental trees and shrubs.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A French Chateau on the New England Coast

Wrapping up my series on Newport's Gilded Age architecture, I'll finish with my favorite, The Elms. Designed by Horace Trumbauer, another prominent late-19th century architect, The Elms was modeled after the mid-18th century French Chateau d'Asnieres outside of Paris.

Built for coal baron Edward Julius Berwind, the building was completed in 1901 and replaced an earlier house on the property that was considerably more modest.

Mr. Berwind was interested in modern technology, and The Elms was one of the first homes in America to be wired for electricity with no form of backup system. It was a very sophisticated house for the time.

What makes it stand out among the rest is the André Le Nôtre inspired garden. The Elms is unique among Newport's historic houses in that the landscaping is as grand as the house. Trumbauer worked closely with Charles Miller and Ernest Bowditch who created the gardens.

From the back of the house a series of terraces leads to a large expanse of lawn dotted with a variety of Newport's famous beech and elm trees.

Below another terrace at the far end of the lawn are two pavilions overlooking a formal sunken garden.

Like all the great houses of the era, the property included a stables and carriage house. Those at The Elms are particularly beautiful and in the same style as the house whereas at other properties the stables might be more simply constructed.

For a photographic overview of some of Trumbauer's other work pick up a copy of American Splendor: the Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer.

For information about other historic houses in Newport visit The Preservation Society of Newport County.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Architects of the Gilded Age

A firm that left a significant mark on the late-19th century American architectural landscape - and on Newport's Bellevue Avenue - was McKim, Mead & White. The company was considered the frontrunner among those practicing the Beaux-Arts style at the turn of the century.

Stanford White, one of the three principals in the firm, was the designer of Rosecliff, home of Nevada silver heiress and Gilded Age hostess Theresa Fair Oelrichs. Among White's other notable projects is the arch in New York City's Washington Square.

Built in 1899, White modeled Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles. His design principles embodied the American Renaissance, a movement which espoused a return to classical architecture.

Mrs. Oelrichs was a very successful hostess in a competitive social climate, her Bal Blanc remained a legendary party long after the Gilded Age came to a close, and Rosecliff, like other houses of the period, was designed primarily for entertaining.

Scenes from several films have been shot on location here including The Great Gatsby, True Lies, Amistad and 27 Dresses.

As I said in my last post, Newport's Gilded Age gardens are comparatively modest in relation to the scale of the houses they accompany, but Rosecliff does have a pretty rose garden.

The view from the back of the house.

Two book recommendations if you are interesteded in this period of history and its architecture: McKim, Mead & White: The Masterworks and Stanford White, Architect.

Rosecliff is maintained by The Preservation Society of Newport County and opened to the public for tours. The annual Newport Flower Show, which is always a fun event, is held here in June.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Summer Reading

I never stood out among my classmates in school, but I have always loved to read and so it is probably inevitable that history became my favorite subject. I particularly seek out biographies as I like nothing better than learning about a time and place through the life of the individuals there.

From the time I was born into a big family with roots in Rhode Island, I have spent the summer in a converted, circa 1890 carriage house surrounded by the enormous relics of a fascinating period in American history. I have enjoyed a few days as a tourist in my own town to share some stories with you.

The Gilded Age name that looms largest in Newport is Vanderbilt. The family left their mark on the physical landscape with several extraordinary houses that they filled with the finest of European art, artifacts and furniture. (Unfortunately, interior photography is not permitted in any of the houses.)

The Breakers, built in 1893 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt who is considered one of America's leading architects of the late 19th century. The house is arguably the crowning example of the opulence and excess that defines the Gilded Age. It contains 70 rooms in approximately 65,000 square feet.

The very best craftsmen and artisans were brought from Europe to the the States to construct these American palaces.

As an earlier building on the property burned, Cornelius insisted that the house be made as fireproof as possible. The structure of the building used steel trusses and no wood. He even required that the furnace be located away from the house; in winter there is an area in front of the main gate over the furnace where snow and ice always melt.

 The Italian Renaissance-style palazzo was inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin.

Prior to the building spree of his offspring, the patriarch of the family, 'The Commodore' Cornelius Vanderbilt, had a hand in shaping the political and financial history of America. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is as much the story of a brilliant man and his world as it is the story of the creation of modern capitalism.

The Breakers is one of the few surviving works of Richard Morris Hunt that was not demolished during the last century and is therefore valuable for its rarity as well as its architectural excellence. The house was Hunt’s final work.

The gardens at these Gilded Age houses are not extensive; Newport is much more famous for its rare trees. At The Breakers the formally landscaped terrace is surrounded by specimen trees hand-selected by James Bowditch, a forester based in the Boston area. Bowditch’s original pattern for the south parterre garden was determined from old photographs.

The playhouse built for the seven Vanderbilt children.

Incredible as it is, The Breakers was built for the family to enjoy for a brief six weeks of the summer. The house survives nearly intact and open to the public through the work of The Preservation Society of Newport County.

If you are interested, another good read about the period, its architecture and one of the most notable firms of the day is Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America's Gilded Age.