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PresNet Tours the Restored Grounds of a Newport Mansion in Rhode Island

sunken-garden-elms-2012-crop-webImage: Bones of the sunken garden at The Elms before colorful bedding out of annuals, May 2012. Photograph by Maureen T. O'Brien


By Rose Marques

To walk the gardens of The Elms in Newport, Rhode Island today, one would not readily guess the restoration work that has ensured the landscape’s future as a faithful representation of its past. And that being the case, a tour and discussion of this Gilded Age mansion’s grounds became the perfect kickoff for NELDHA’s new Landscape Preservation Network (PresNet). On May 19, 2012, a group of 13 walked the gardens with Jeff Curtis, Director of Gardens and Grounds for the Preservation Society of Newport County.

The Original Gardens

The Elms property—particularly the garden façade of the main house—was modeled after the mid-eighteenth century French Chateau d’ Asnieres. Completed in 1901 for about $1.4 million (equiv. $36.2 million, 2010), this summer residence on prestigious Bellevue Avenue was set in a park of majestic trees, including copper beeches, weeping birches and of course—elms.

With the acquisition of more land in 1907, the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind, began to develop the 7.5-acre landscape with assistance from their building architect Horace Trumbauer, their gardener Bruce Butterton and French landscape designer Jacques Greber. The gardens were developed between 1907 and 1914. 

herm-webUnder their care and creative direction, the grounds became a masterpiece of early twentieth century Classical Revival design. The landscape combined a Victorian picturesque parkland with Italian Renaissance and French Baroque elements. The expansive grounds hosted specimen trees strategically but informally planted to frame views of the main house, its stately gardens and garden ornaments. A grand allee of clipped lindens, ivy, arborvitae, statuary and fountains echoed the Italian Renaissance, while French-style marble pavilions completed the garden scene. Trumbauer created a sunken garden at the western edge of the property (replacing a lily pond) and carefully integrated and adapted certain European features to this American garden. Greber designed a parterre of boxwood, euonymus and flowers within the sunken garden. The necessary wealth to support this elaborate endeavor came from Berwind’s fortune as the founder of the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company, which he led from 1886 to 1930, retiring just six years before his death. His architectural effort at The Elms was noted with great interest: The property appeared in American Estates in 1904 and in The Architectural Record in 1925.

 


Image: Herm nestled in the linden hedge. May 2012. Photograph by Maureen T. O'Brien.


Restoration of the Gardens

Fast-forward about half a century and much had changed. Once a beautiful home and lush landscape built for high-society entertaining, The Elms had a date with a wrecking ball on the horizon. The Preservation Society of Newport County stepped in to purchase the property in 1961 and to save it from demolition. In 1996, The Elms was designated as a National Historic Landmark, based on its significance for its architectural and landscape design of the Classical Revival Style in the period from 1900 through the 1920s.  

But it was not until 1998, that the Society undertook a restoration of the sunken garden, the centerpiece of the landscape. The restoration’s goal was to return the garden to its c. 1914 appearance of grandeur. This was achieved by re-establishing historic plantings and infrastructure during the first three phases of the overall project. The fourth, and very last, phase restored of the garden’s architectural features—two marble pavilions, marble balustrades, retaining walls and three fountains with marble and bronze sculptures. Fortunately, a good deal of historic documentation existed to support an accurate restoration. The restoration also provided the perfect opportunity to improve the garden’s irrigation, drainage and paths The first phase brought together existing documentation into a cohesive report, the “Historic Landscapes Research Report on The Elms” that documented the evolution of the grounds from 1888 to 1915. Architectural drawings, family account books,  correspondence and photographs were identified in the report and used in the reconstruction effort.

With the site’s history documented, phase two addressed existing conditions. Landscape Architect Thomas J. Elmore of Springfield, Massachusetts was  commissioned to develop a site assessment plan to identify existing historic trees and plants and to offer suggested treatments and priorities for that vegetation based on its chances for survival. Next Elmore created a restoration plan that restored the original 1914 sunken garden. He also offered detailed instructions on the retention or removal of extant plant materials based on current health. His measured drawings guided work on the elaborate parterre of the sunken garden.

In the end, the plants and trees within the sunken garden could not be rehabilitated or conserved. As Curtis explained during the tour, some plants had grown so large that they could not be pruned to resemble the size of 1914 garden materials. Instead, new plants and trees of the same species were used in the exact scale that was appropriate to the historic layout. To determine scale, aerial photographs from 1938 and other historic photographs were used. 

The restoration provided the opportunity to return garden elements that had been omitted over the years. For example, originally, the northern and southern ends of the sunken garden were enclosed by Japanese maples and Hinoki cypress. These elements were returned to the landscape. Restoring the complicated serpentine pattern of the sunken garden parterre was not so easy. The effort first required that canvas and wood templates of the design be built and set upon the ground. Then the sod could be cut. Beds for euonymus were left on all sides. The center of the garden was edged in boxwood and filled with begonias, all based on historic images.

The third phase of the landscape elements addressed the restoration of the garden’s mechanics. The poor drainage systems that had originally caused damage to the garden’s retaining wall were repaired. The original garden paths were restored, and the slopes of the garden regraded to re-establish the original architectural framework. Lastly, a new irrigation system was installed.

Phase four addressed architectural features, setting in motion great efforts to maintain the integrity of original structures, including white marble retaining walls, garden pavilions, balustrades and three marble and bronze fountains. The walls and pavilions were repointed, while the white marble balustrades were both restored and waterproofed. Wherever replacement stone was necessary, it came from the original quarry in Vermont.marble-fountain-web

The Hercules, Tortoise and Aphrodite fountains had suffered both natural weathering and vandalism. Their marble basins were cut to specifications and recarved, using marble from the original quarries in Italy. Then, they were treated with solvents to prevent water penetration, erosion, and expansion and contraction from freezing temperatures. This unique process is only available in Italy. Meanwhile, the bronze fountain statues were recast using clay models of the originals, under the guidance of both French and American sculptors. Beneath, the hydraulic systems were also replaced to restore the fountains to working order.

The entire restoration, spanning from 1998 to 2001, was completed in time to celebrate The Elms’ centennial in August of 2001.


Image: Restored marble and bronze Tortoise Fountain. May 2012. Photograph by Maureen T. O'Brien.


Achieving Recognition

The Elms Sunken Garden Restoration Project can be considered a true study in the sensitive issues that challenge any restoration of a historic landscape, particularly in the removal and replacement of vegetation following a careful site assessment that respects the integrity of a historic site. The efforts grappled with an organic, ever-changing environment that refused to stand still as a snapshot in time. In so doing, The Elms’ achievement was recognized by the Newport Historical Society and won its 2001 Annual Preservation Award and by Preserve Rhode Island with its 2002 Preservation Merit Award in Landscape Preservation. The effort continues to fulfill the Preservation Society of Newport County’s goal of preserving critical Newport sites and promoting American landscape history.

About the Author: Rose Marques is the principal of the landscape design firm LandMarques. She is a former member of NELDHA’s Board of Directors and is Co-chair of PresNet. She holds a certificate in landscape design from the Landscape Institute.

exedra-crop-ELMS-web


 




May 2012 PresNet tour group seated on one of two opposing exedras on each end of the path parallel to the rear facade of The Elms