United States

Blue Garden

Designed between 1911 and 1913 by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and the Olmsted Brothers firm for the expansive estate of Arthur Curtiss James and his wife, Harriet Parsons James, this garden was inspired by the medieval hortus conclusus, a secret garden. Set in a hollow, the Italianate style garden is bordered by low walls topped with vine-covered trellises. Blue-tiled pools and monochromatic purple and blue plantings gave this garden its name. Set on a hill and closely edged by rock outcroppings, the garden is laid out in a cruciform pattern. The central axis is defined by a linear arrangement of water features lined by potted topiary and rows of planting beds. Suggesting a Persian influence, a tiled runnel connects a rectangular pool and a square lily pond. An antique well-head and potted plants were artfully arranged to embellish the garden’s classical affect.

The garden remained relatively intact, except for an Italianate structure which replaced the rustic northeastern pergola in the mid-1920s. After both Jameses died in 1941, the garden slowly succumbed to neglect, and the mansion was destroyed by fire in 1967. Parts of the original estate, including Surprise Village Farm, now SVF Foundation, were eventually purchased by philanthropist Dorrance Hamilton, who, working with landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, brought about the garden’s rehabilitation in accordance with Olmsted Brother’s design. Prior site development required subtle changes, including moving the southern pergola twelve feet forward of its original location. Questions of maintenance and water conservation prevented the firm from replicating the initial plan, which included a cascade that flowed through a rock garden on the steep terrain below the southern pergola. A simplified, drought resistant plant palette was arranged according to Olmsted Brothers’ design, while native trees and shrubs were put in place of the original planting screen. Completed in 2014, the private garden is open for limited public visitation by appointment.

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