Edith Wharton, Beatrix Ferrand and Mildred Bliss.
Within the last two months I have had the pleasure of visiting both Edith Wharton’s estate “The Mount” in Lennox, Massachusetts and “Dumbarton Oaks” in Georgetown, D.C.
As I recall both visits and the design of the sites I thought it would be interesting to research some background material regarding the two sites, the property owners and the relationships with and about Beatrix Ferrand. Beatrix Ferrand was arguably the first female landscape architect of note (although she preferred the term “landscape gardener”) and the lone woman among the founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
The Mount reflects the taste of Wharton and to some degree her indirect influence on the future masterpiece that Ferrand created with the owners Robert and Mildred Bliss - Dumbarton Oaks. Through Edith Wharton’s social connections, Beatrix was introduced to many of her future clients, among them the owner of Dumbarton Oaks, Mildred Bliss.
Edith Wharton was many things -- writer, socialite, gardener a supreme arbiter of taste. (She claimed to be a better garden designer than writer!) Among the forty books she authored – best selling novels and collections of short stories, were authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design and travel. Wharton is credited with designing the gardens at The Mount, with additional landscape design/architecture by Beatrix Ferrand. While Edith Wharton was laying out the gardens she was also working on the book “Italian Villas and their Gardens” – a strong Italian influence can seen in the Mount’s landscape design. According to the Edith Wharton Restoration organization, Ferrand completely designed the maple-lined drive leading to the house and an elaborate kitchen garden (no longer functioning) that occupied the field in front of the stable.
The Mount is essentially a house with a grand terrace built overlooking the Italian inspired gardens. A broad Palladian staircase leads down from the terrace to gravel walks that descend to a lime walk (linden trees). This serves as a connecting hallway between the two major garden rooms.
Views of the giardino segreto from the house and return view looking back at the house.
The “giardino segreto” was paid for with the proceeds from Wharton's first bestseller, “the House of Mirth.”
To the right, facing away from the house is the walled garden (or “giardino segreto”). On the left there is a French-style flower garden with arborvitaes arranged around a pool with Wharton’s dolphin fountain. Other items of interest include two flights of grass covered earthen steps, which lead up to the terrace, a rock garden, and various other niches. What I found of pure delight was the pet cemetery.
Grass steps leading up to the house
As a supreme arbiter of taste within her social circles, Wharton carefully planned the grounds of The Mount. Similarly, Mildred Bliss had a very controlling “hand” in the creation of Dumbarton Oaks. Bliss’s ideas for the gardens began well before she brought a professional onto the scene. Her ideas were primary to the design of the Oaks. British Landscape Architect Lanning Roper, a friend to both Bliss and Ferrand, has stated that ‘Mrs. Bliss knew from the start what she wanted to create. She had definite conceptions, some of which she treasured from childhood.” *
Grass steps at Dumbarton Oaks
Both properties/gardens have strong Italianate influence – in the topography built upon, design of the garden rooms and aesthetic within these “rooms.” Historian Walter Whitehead suggests that the pre-existing, rudimentary terracing of the steep slope that Dumbarton Oaks was built upon suggested to Mildred Bliss the siting of many of the great Italian country house of the 16th through 18th centuries. She was familiar with such renaissance villas both from her extensive travels to Italy and from Edith Wharton’s influential Italian Villas and their Gardensof 1919. *
Several years earlier Bliss had arranged to meet Edith Wharton in Paris after reading her novels and influential articles on interior decoration. Later in her life, Bliss eventually wrote of her admiration for Wharton who had been “her stimulus for nearly forty years.”
From that meeting in Paris, they consistently traveled in the same social circles – during WWI both sharing France’s highest civilian award for their wartime charitable activities in Europe.
“Years later when Milded Bliss returned to the United States, she used memories of civilized life in Europe before the war as the model for the home she planned to create. The Oaks would be based upon the Mediterranean model, first developed by the Romans, in which outdoor spaces, and especially those nearest the house would be treated as rooms – extensions of the interior living areas.” The steep slope at the Oaks suggested an organization along the lines of the Italian Renaissance gardens, with these individual rooms dropping down the hillside in terraces, their character gradually devolving from formal and architectural near the house to informal and naturalistic at the perimeter.” *
Ferrand had the good fortune to grow up in the gilded age with her aunt, Edith nurturing her career that began with her design of the Kitchen garden at the Mount. Wharton was only ten years her senior and in much of my readings, is seemingly just as much a close friend and confidant than niece. She was introduced to many of her future socialite clients not only by her aunt, but her lifelong dear friend, Henry James.
Interestingly, while Edith eventually introduced and spoke of her niece to Mildred Bliss, the first commission of Ferrand’s career was working with a swampy area on a family’s property in Bar Harbor, Maine. The property owner was Anna Bliss, Mildred’s mother! (Mildred was several years younger than Beatrix and in her writings had no recollection of this coincidence.) Twenty-five years later they worked together on Dumbarton Oaks.
Dumbarton Oaks, Garden into Art; Susan Tamulevich, Monacelli Press, N.Y., N.Y.
** All photographs ©ToddHaimanLandscapeDesign 2014 New York City