Serendipity or Destiny?
|The Unexpected discovery of a Historic Garden
Photographed by joseph St.Pierre
Produced by Marsha Jusczak
Grim is not a word often used to describe a garden, let alone a garden designed by Ellen Shipman, one of the first female landscape architects in the United States. But that is how Joyce Hamilton described her first encounter with the Shipman garden that she and her husband Robert (Bob) were about to purchase.
The Hamiltons were combing the coast of New Hampshire in the spring of 2000 looking to purchase a farm. A wrong turn and a for sale sign drew them to a home that was obscured by overgrown lilacs in the Village District of Little Boar’s Head, North Hampton. “It was grim,” said Joyce. “It looked like an abandoned property, but there was land and a barn so we thought we’d pursue it.” They met with a realtor who informed them that the garden was designed by “a famous landscape architect.” Barely discernable paths overrun with weeds and bits of jagged bluestone protruding from the ground offered only an inkling of a garden. But that was enough to entice Bob. “The bluestone walks were so beautifully laid out even though they were heaved that it struck me it had a lot of potential.”
The couple discovered that Ellen Shipman designed the gardens. “Neither of us had ever heard of Ellen Biddle Shipman,” said Joyce, “but we immediately set about researching her.” They conducted an Internet search, talked with a previous owner of the home who had great respect for its history and purchased The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman by Judith B. Tankard (Sagapress Inc., 1996). In an appendix to Tankard’s book was a reference to a garden in Little Boar’s Head and the acronym CU, referring to Cornell University. The Hamiltons contacted the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell and found the “Ellen McGowan Biddle Shipman papers” that included photos and original landscape plans. They subsequently learned that the house was one of the original early nineteenth-century homes in Little Boar’s Head; that it was owned from 1937-1965 by Theodore and Helen Griffith, a department store magnate and heiress; and that in 1941, Helen Griffith commissioned Ellen Shipman to design a garden within which to entertain friends and neighbors who summered in the area (including such notables as poet Ogden Nash).
The Hamiltons then contacted Daniel Krall, associate professor of landscape architecture at Cornell, who informed them that Shipman designed nearly six hundred gardens, and that as few as twelve existed. “There were only twelve or so left because most were on estates, and over a period of time estates change and gardens don’t last,” explained Bob. “When we realized that we had a well-known, well-respected landscape architect and a garden whose bones were undisturbed, we thought ‘my God’ we have the responsibility and the opportunity to restore the garden. We knew we had to do it.” The Hamiltons have devoted nearly ten years to restoring one of Shipman’s last private commissions. Ellen Shipman designed the Griffiths’ garden at age seventy-one; she passed away in 1950 at age eighty.
Shipman’s New Hampshire Roots
The discovery in North Hampton of one of Shipman’s last commissions is especially meaningful given that Shipman’s career began in New Hampshire. In the summer of 1894, Shipman and her husband, playwright Louis Shipman, moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Cornish, New Hampshire to join the Cornish Colony. Founded in 1885 by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Cornish Colony included members of the art elite who sought to escape the summer heat of the cities. As a young woman and mother of a newborn girl, Shipman’s world expanded at the Cornish Colony. And the seeds of her future as a garden-maker were planted.
“The valley was still filled with rolling clouds . . . [and] in the distance was Ascutney Mountain,” wrote Shipman in a letter about her first night in Cornish. “Just a few feet below, where we stood upon a terrace, was a Sunken Garden with rows bathed in moonlight of white lilies standing as an alter for Ascutney. As I look back I realize it was at that moment that a garden became for me the most essential part of a home. But years of work had to intervene before I could put this belief, born that glorious night, into actual practice.”
The years of work to which Shipman referred consisted of home-schooling a family, sharing in the garden-making of Cornish Colony friends and studying garden trends through books and magazines. Unlike her more wealthy friends, Shipman could not afford formal landscape training or to visit European gardens for inspiration. Perhaps most pivotally, however, Shipman devoted many years to renovating Poins House and the gardens at Brook Place, the family’s two-hundred-acre farmhouse property in Plainfield, New Hampshire. She did so as Louis’s career as a playwright grew, and amid rumors of his infidelity.
In 1910, Louis Shipman abandoned his family without any means of support. Fortunately, growth in the nation’s economy and a corresponding Colonial Revival movement opened doors for women in the fields of art and design. According to Tankard, around 1910, landscape architect Charles Platt, a friend at the Cornish Colony, told Shipman “he liked the outcome of [her] efforts at Brook Place” and asked that she “do the planting for the places he was building.” Shipman apprenticed with Platt, preparing construction drawings for walls, pools and small buildings, in addition to designing gardens. Her work attracted other prominent architects as well. “Shipman collaborated with . . . the Olmsted Brothers and James Greenleaf,” wrote Tankard. “Warren Manning, with whom she collaborated on many projects, considered her ‘one of the best, if not the very best, Flower Garden Makers in America.’”
The attention Shipman paid to the plants within her gardens distinguished her from her counterparts at the time, including Beatrix Farrand, Marian Coffin and Martha Brookes Hutcheson. “Shipman brought a fine-tuned artistic sensitivity to garden design,” wrote Tankard. “She transformed the flower border into an art form by using carefully articulated compositions of flowers, foliage, and color, thoroughly grounded in her exceptional knowledge of plants.”
Though she continued to work with Platt, Shipman increasingly accepted independent commissions, and in 1920, she opened a landscape design firm at Beekman Place in New York City, employing women exclusively. “The rapidity with which Shipman’s fame spread during the early 1920s is staggering,” wrote Tankard. By the mid-1940s, she had commissions in twenty-six states and in Quebec and Bermuda (where she had a second home) for clients that included the Fords, Asters, DuPonts and Duke University.
World War II and periodic bouts with pneumonia slowed Shipman down. “Shipman had almost no work during the war . . . and her business was running in the red,” wrote Tankard. “Labor and materials were in short supply; lifestyles had changed dramatically. She borrowed money to keep the office open [and] no longer paid herself a salary.” Shipman’s records reveal only twenty-three active clients in 1945, and in 1947, at the age of seventy-eight, Shipman closed her practice.
The Shipman Aesthetic/The Hamiltons’ Restoration
According to Tankard, there are two primary challenges to restoring a Shipman garden: the presence of overgrown trees and shrubs, and the density of her planting plans. “Shipman always used generous quantities of small flowering trees, shrubs, vines and standards (such as roses, lilacs or wisteria) to create structural notes and cast shadows over the borders.” Within the structures, the beds were brimming with hardy perennials that included irises, peonies, roses, daylilies and phlox. The plans the Hamiltons unearthed from Cornell reveal an extensive plant-based design that features eight beds filled with perennials, shrubs and topiaries in the center axes, a rose garden, a perennial and shrub bed along the house, walkways and a dais, all enclosed by shrubs, apple trees and lilacs.
Committed to restoring the garden properly, in 2002 the Hamiltons contacted Gary Wetzel, landscape manager for Historic New England, who referred them to arborist Philip Goff and garden historian Anne Duncan, former director of the Historic Landscapes Department at Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth. Duncan specialized in neighborhood gardens and the Victory Garden movement of the 1940s, and has managed the restoration of the Hamiltons’ garden since 2002.
“The Hamiltons’ enthusiasm is certainly contagious; the process is as important to them as the product,” said Duncan. “The initial project was to bring the street border under some control. Once we started working on the lilacs, we realized the bones of the garden were still very present.” Goff removed the lilacs that had overtaken the garden and pruned the original trees. With the help of Duncan and Ben King of North Hampton, he reset the bluestone borders and paths while Bob and Joyce began locating the plants.
In the early years of the restoration, the couple was strict about finding the precise plants on Shipman’s plan. Bob created a spreadsheet listing every plant as a way to manage the search. Their research—conducted via Internet, e-mail and telephone—led them to the Royal Horticultural Society Database and to the Andersen Horticultural Library at the University of Minnesota, and they traveled to multiple nurseries in New England that specialize in heirloom plants. “Look at the thing,” said Bob, referring to the plan. “There have to be 2,000 plants in the triangle beds alone.” In one “triangle,” for example, Bob noted the plan called for three species or cultivars of Hemerocallis (Daylily), including ‘Mrs. W.H. Wyman’, a cultivar introduced in 1928 the Hamiltons located at the University of North Dakota at Fargo after a months-long search. “One inch equals four feet,” said Bob. “And there are three types of Hemerocallis in that one spot. This restoration requires that we get out there with a tape measure, which we do, to determine where each plant should be. Does it work? Yes. Who are we to say it doesn’t?”
For Joyce, the joy of the restoration relates to Shipman’s design acumen. “I’m so impressed with the genius of how you bring together this volume of plantings, for not only seasonal effect, but bloom time. For every major grouping, there’s an early, middle and late bloom; there are height differentials that complement; there are so many variables that it is just mind-boggling.”
Today, the center gardens include seventy-to-eighty-percent of the plants enumerated on Shipman’s plan, an impressive accomplishment by any standard of garden restoration and a tribute to the Hamiltons’ passion and tenacity. According to Joyce, the passage of time, the practice of hybridizing plants and stricter rules after 9/11 on the importation of plants, have conspired to make it difficult to locate the rest. After much deliberation, the Hamiltons have decided to fill the remaining areas with cultivars that closely resemble those on the plan. “We tried for years to be true to the plan,” said Joyce, “and have decided now that where we can find a plant that looks like one Shipman specified, we will.” Bob echoed Joyce’s sentiment. “We want this garden to look like it did in 1941 so we can say this is what existed; this is what Shipman intended; and this is what it looked like. Where we know what a plant looks like, we’re willing to put in a substitute cultivar of the same genus or species.”
Finding the varieties appropriate to a specific period is one of the most challenging parts of any restoration, Duncan noted. “Because of the ephemeral quality of plants in a garden, I think every restoration includes a bit of re-creation,” she added. “That’s much easier now than it was twenty years ago, thanks to a growing interest in heirloom varieties.”
The Hamiltons and Duncan have unearthed treasures and solved mysteries throughout the years of restoration. From finding ‘Mrs. W.H. Wyman’ to the discovery on various parts of the property of every one of eleven peony cultivars Shipman specified, restoring one of Shipman’s final garden commissions has been supremely rewarding. “It’s an incredibly lovely garden,” said Bob. “We learn from it all the time. It teaches us things.”
“We are grateful that no one ever disturbed what was there,” added Joyce.