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montgomery place ny italianate garden blithewood bard college hudson river andrew jackson downing

Exploring Hudson River Gardens


This fall 55 garden lovers explored two estates with historic gardens, Blithewood at Bard College and Montgomery Place, on a Hudson River Ramble in Dutchess County, New York.

The gardens of the estates were designed and built in the mid-1800s, during the heyday of landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing and architect Alexander Jackson Davis, pioneers of a “new” American style of landscape design and architecture. It was also a time when literature and art of the Hudson River School flourished in this era of American romanticism.

All along the Hudson, Downing and Davis collaborated and created Gothic style “cottages” and mansions with sweeping picturesque grounds designed for pleasure and sport. They called this aesthetic a new American architecture, a new American landscape.

“They tried to create their own milieu in which they could be successful by taking European forms and tweaking them in the culture here,” says anthropologist, landscape and garden historian and author Wendy Joy Darby, PhD. In 1989 Darby researched and wrote Blithewood Garden at Bard College Historic Landscape Report in preparation of restoration of some of the garden’s architectural elements.

Visiting the estates with park-like landscapes sparked questions such as “What exactly is an Italianate garden?” “Why would someone choose to have a dazzling, formal, architectural garden in the midst of serene views and soft-hued landscapes?” “What would Downing have to say about that?” (Downing died in his 30s in a commuter boat race between two lusty captains on their way to Manhattan.)

But not to worry. Darby had all the answers.

First Stop: Blithewood, where a Classical Italianate garden decorates Levy Economics Institute at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. But just how did Italianate classicism end up here along the Hudson River and its bucolic surroundings?

Italian Classicism arrived in American gardens by way of England, Darby explains, where, in the 18th-century, it was the domain of noblemen, the politically elite and the wealthy landowning elite who became fascinated with classical 14th-century statuary, early Roman architecture and Greek ruins they saw on European tours.

“These great images in their minds, images on paper, came back with them to England with sculptural collections. You see how these ideas get expressed in great English country houses and gardens that got rebuilt or remodeled,” she says.

“In the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, newly wealthy American travelers saw stuff in England that look back to Rome and Greece and they, too, came back and wanted their social position and wealth to be expressed in the American equivalent of what they had seen in Europe.”

Bard College is the former private estate of several owners, the last being Captain Andrew Zabriskie. Downing and Davis played large in the mansion and landscape design of an earlier owner, but the mansion burned and a new manor house and garden were designed for Zabriskie in 1901 by Francis Hoppin, architect with the Boston firm McKim Mead & White.

Hoppin, a devotee of the Beaux Arts philosophy and also having attended Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, designed mansions and country homes throughout the Northeast. His penchant for Beaux Arts is displayed at Blithewood. Beaux Arts elements in a garden emulate Classical and Renaissance Greek and Roman architectural and planted structures with lavish decoration often taken from several historic times and styles.

An Italianate garden has bi-lateral symmetry, statuary, a grand staircase, and water but is not necessarily walled. “Some come spilling down hillsides,” Darby says. “The two main characteristics are clear organization along a main sight line terminating in a focal point such as a sculpture, fountain or pleasant view, and the use of strong vertical planes such as evergreen hedges, walls made of stone, and shrub borders. In America, elements of Greek Revival entered the vocabulary of what kind of statuary, roof, etc.”

Walking toward Blithewood’s garden and the Hudson River in the distance, the view is stunning: a sparkling white sunken garden in a vesture of blue river, blue mountains, blue sky.

On the way, on the lawn beside the mansion (now the Levy Economic Institute), a 250-year old black maple, Acer nigrum, spreads an umbrella-like crown. Black maple is native to eastern North America from Canada to Georgia, though today’s visitors confess to never having seen one before, including this writer. Sometimes considered a subspecies of sugar maple, A. saccharum, it is a species of “Special Concern” in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and “Threatened” in New Hampshire.

The group gathered on a terrace with symmetrical square beds of clipped grass to hear tales of Blithewood’s illustrious owners and artistic contractors. Then down a marble stairway embellished with terra cotta balustrade, they entered the garden.

“At Blithewood, bi-lateral symmetry is all about order and sequence. The garden has three long axes that transect axes and a wall. That forms its bones. It is not a garden that blends into the landscape. It is a garden that sets itself apart,” Darby says.

“The axes create mathematical shapes – either squares on raised platforms or rectangles that culminate in a half-circle that receives forward momentum by the axes. The central axis terminates in a pavilion. The garden should have an equal element at the opposite end (where the house is) but it doesn’t. You step from the house and are received into the garden. The house is not really integrated into the garden so it doesn’t meet the Beaux Arts ideal.”

So, would Andrew Jackson Downing be annoyed if he saw this gleaming, tethered garden sunk squarely amid his sweeping pleasure grounds? Not if he had gotten the job, Darby muses of landscape designers, whose trade is aesthetics. “This is what gardens are all about – the human intervention into the natural world.”

And why might Mrs. Zabriskie have chosen a Classical Italianate garden? “It’s power – an expression of wealth,” says Darby. “In America, there was a lot of wealth being made by a new set of rich who wanted their place in the sun.”

Second stop: Montgomery Place, 300 acres in time, space, horticulture, art and architecture that fed the passions of four women of Livingston lineage.

Janet Livingston Montgomery bought the land in 1802. Her love of growing plants manifested itself in orchards and pasture that covered the property and came right up to the mansion. She operated a fruit tree and shrub nursery and, strictly for pleasure, a greenhouse full of tropicals from Louisiana, Antigua and Italy.

Twenty years later, Edward and Louise Livingston inherited the estate during the Romantic era that swept Europe and America. Louise and her daughter Clara and son-in-law Thomas Barton (son of Philadelphia’s prominent botanist) transformed Montgomery Place from farm into pleasure grounds. Caught up in the new aesthetic, they created woodland paths with follies and benches and built a Gothic conservatory fronted by an enormous colorful parterre, all designed by Downing. Thomas created an arboretum. Louise, an early conservationist, partnered in an agreement to cease industrial use of the river in order to preserve its scenic value. Davis designed a remodeling of the mansion to include pavilions, a mingling space of nature and civilization.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, new owners Violetta and husband John Delafield (a Livingston), altered Montgomery Place to fit the emerging American ideal of outdoor recreation and fitness. They added a sleeping porch to the mansion, bath houses, more trails, sports courts and a reflecting pond in the view between the mansion and the river.

Violetta, a published botanist/mycologist and active member of the Garden Club of America, created a collection of intimate gardens in hidden spaces. To get there, one walked a path through the “rough garden” that mimicked nature with an artificial stream, waterfall and woodland plants. In a clearing, an elliptical water garden surrounded by hemlocks transitioned to the formal gardens: rose, herb and cutting gardens and perennial/shrub borders.

Today, only some gardens remain and have been restored in addition to part of Janet Livingston Montgomery's working orchard and Violetta’s “Wayside Stand,” now Montgomery Place Orchard, where the group delighted in its bounty on this day.

Says one happy garden explorer, Rosemarie Blume: “Today's trip was wonderful! Thank you so much for organizing it and giving us such a nice day. The gardens reminded me so much of my stay in England. John was assigned there south of Southhampton for nine months. I joined him over the summer and we had a four bedroom house WITH gardener! Because John was on call at the refinery 24/7, I arrived in England with a BritRail Pass to keep me occupied while John was at work. I used that rail pass to visit the estates in England. All had parks similar to those today with a confined walled formal garden. The parks today reminded me of those designed by Capability Brown in England. It is truly a small world! Thank you again.”

The Hudson River Ramble bus trip was sponsored by The Friends of The Frelinghuysen Arboretum and DIG IT! Magazine.

Contact Wendy Joy Darby for presentations about landscape and garden history and their identity. She also researches landscapes and gardens for individuals, organizations and institutions. wjd11 at

** All photos by Mary Jasch

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published November 24, 2012

Photos to enlarge

View of Blithewood Garden, Bard College, in a blue veil of Hudson River, Catskill Mountains and sky.

Garden visitors hear the story of Blithewood on the terrace.

Contemplation, solitude, rest on a garden bench, purposeful components of Renaissance Italianate gardens.

Exploring Blithewood

From the half-circle at the bottom of the marble stairs, lies perfect symmetry.

A Downingesque view remains at Blithewood.

Garden visitors enjoy river the view at Montgomery Place with site manager Ray Armater (r).

Enjoying serenity in Downing's American pleasure garden at Montgomery Place.

An ancient allee of black locust.

Up the steps into Violetta Delafield's wild Rough Garden.

Inspecting Violetta Delafield's herb garden

Enjoying the outdoors while indoors in the north pavilion that Davis designed

Montgomery Place Orchard

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