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Secret Eden

A LITTLE-KNOWN DANVERS ESTATE EMBODIES THE GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN GARDENS

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Spring-blooming Chinese wisteria (W. sinensis), planted in 1899, covers a pergola made of 10 weathered marble pillars with cedar crossbeams. All Photography by Michael Hubley

 A late spring stroll through the historic gardens at Glen Magna Farms in Danvers, Massachusetts, makes your head spin. Colors shine—magenta peonies, deep pink rhododendrons, and lusty purple wisteria, growing like a thick shag rug on a columned pergola. Oaks and chestnuts ring the edges, and flowerbeds spill color on smooth, green lawns. A fountain here, special trees there, lure you from one garden room to the next.

Yet few people in this industrial town are aware that they exist. The gardens are home to a designated National Historic Landmark—the diminutive Derby Summer House, designed and built by Samuel McIntire, Salem’s finest woodcarver and Federal-style architect.
In other words, Glen Magna Farms is a revelation. “I’ve heard a lot of people say on their first visit that it’s like finding a hidden jewel,” says Devin Walsh, buildings and grounds restoration manager for the Danvers Historical Society, which owns the property. “Visitors walk around enjoying the flowers and the landscape, or sit on a bench under the wisteria pergola and admire the view. We may be located off Route 1 and Interstate 95, but when you’re on the property, you wouldn’t know it. The leafy trees insulate the noise.”

Glen Magna Farms is the former summer estate of the wealthy Peabody and Endicott families. Fearing a British bombardment during the War of 1812, Joseph Peabody, a rich Salem merchant, moved his family and assets to the original farm. In 1814, he bought the property for his country house, adding neighboring farmland as it became available. At the same time, he hired an Alsatian landscaper to create a garden, now known as the Old-Fashioned Garden.  

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Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is an old-fashioned spring-blooming perennial that self sows in moist, well-drained soil rich in organic matter.

 The first garden did not survive, but it kicked off the evolution of a landscape that reached its peak in 1926. That year, Ellen Peabody Endicott, Joseph’s granddaughter, received the Hunnewell Gold Medal from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. The award went to a knowledgeable estate owner with three or more acres tastefully landscaped with rare or notable plants, says Cathy Gareri, the Danvers Historical Society’s operations manager.

After inheriting the farm in 1892, Ellen and her husband, William Crowninshield Endicott, intended to make Glen Magna Farms a fashionable estate. She hired Herbert Browne, a Boston architect, to enlarge and redesign the house. He created the Colonial Revival mansion that stands today.

Ellen bought the 20-by-20-foot Derby Summer House, also known as the McIntire Tea House, in 1901. She moved it four miles by cart to Glen Magna Farms from the former countryseat of Elias Hasket Derby, a prosperous eighteenth-century Salem merchant. The tea house, which became a National Historic Landmark in 1968, embodies the refined neoclassicism of the Federal style. McIntire himself carved the delicate arches, columns, and festoons in 1794. To tie the summer house into the landscape, Browne designed a formal Italianate rose garden, entered through the building’s central arch. Hundreds of heirloom roses once filled the flowerbeds, which are laid out in a geometrical-spoke pattern. He enclosed the garden with a marble-topped high brick wall and covered it with grapevine espaliers.

An estate in Oniontown
The family’s decision to stay in Danvers fascinates Gareri. “The Endicotts could have lived anywhere on the North Shore’s Gold Coast between Lynn and Gloucester, in the stylish places where rich Bostonians summered,” she says. “But they chose to be in Danvers. They liked having a working farm.”

In fact, the origins of Danvers were agricultural, though the town turned to manufacturing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Local farmers developed two vegetables, the Danvers half-long carrot, introduced in 1871, and the Danvers onion, which gave the town its nickname, “Oniontown.” Ellen’s daughter-in-law purportedly said of Glen Magna Farms, “This is just a farm—we only have plated silver here,” according to Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller, authors of The Golden Age of American Gardens (Harry N. Abrams, 1991).

Embellishing the grounds became a focus for William, Secretary of War under Grover Cleveland. He and Ellen created a series of garden rooms with the help of friends, family, and design professionals.

William’s close friend, Charles Sprague Sargent, was a noted botanist and first director of the Arnold Arboretum. Sargent presented both William and his son with some rare and unusual shrubs and trees for the Shrubbery Garden. At least two gifts from Sargent survive: a royal azalea (Rhododendron schlippenbachii)—“the handsomest of all Azaleas,” Sargent wrote—and “the handsomest of our native wild roses, Rosa virginiana.”

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A deep pink peony stands out against a backdrop of old-fashioned white daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), the wild form of the garden carrot. Today, many gardeners consider both Daucus and Leucanthemum self-sowing weeds. Above: Flowers of Hosta and Phlox adorn the Chamberlain Garden in summer. Joseph Chamberlain, father of the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, placed structural components such as the sundial, fountain, and pergola along the garden’s central axis.


Family members, however, collected more than trees and shrubs. “The garden reflects their history and taste,” Gareri says. “The Endicotts were extremely wealthy. They were privy to the latest and greatest gardening innovations. Commercial seed houses were exploding in the area, and they lived in a place where they could take advantage of them. Little nurseries were popping up in nearby towns like Boxford.” When new plants came on the market, William had to try them in the gardens.

The Endicotts were not alone in their gardening interests. The late nineteenth century was a golden age of gardening all across America. Many Bostonians with old money and elegant taste took up the gardening mantle with passion. But the Endicotts differed from many prominent families, who hired landscape architects and left the design and installation to them. “From reading the diaries, it seems like Glen Magna Farms was a cooperative effort between the design firms, which provided their technical expertise, and the family, who had the ideas for the gardens and the staff to install and maintain them,” Walsh says.

In 1894, William asked Charles Eliot, a landscape architect and partner in the firm of Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot, to redesign the Old-Fashioned Garden. Specifically, William wanted to revamp the borders, which follow the north-south axis connecting the mansion to the gazebo at the far end of the garden. Eliot added new annual and perennial plants, including crested iris (I. cristata), astilbe (A. japonica), bachelor’s button (Centaurea montana), pincushion flowers (Scabiosa caucasica), pinks (Dianthus plumarius), candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), and dwarf speedwell (Veronica prostrata, syn. rupestris)—more than 1,000 plants billed to Endicott for the whopping sum of $93.95.

The firm also devised new roads and a circular drive in front of the house. Barns and other farm building that had been close to the house were moved to a distant meadow and screened by plantings. The Endicott staff probably did the installation, since Walsh found no record stating that the Olmsted firm provided labor.

Just beyond the Old-Fashioned Garden lies the Chamberlain Garden, created for William by his son-in-law, Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a successful businessman and British politician, who married Mary Endicott in 1888, when she was 24 and he 51. A keen gardener, Chamberlain visited Glen Magna Farms twice in the 1890s. During those visits, he designed and built the formal Italianate flower gardens, laid out in quadrants and bearing his name. The garden’s Italianate components include its formal axial lines, a broad vista encompassing the Derby Summer House, and architectural features such as the central fountain, paths, statues, and the lush wisteria-covered pergola.
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The wisteria-covered pergola marks one end of the Chamberlain Garden’s main axis.


History versus sustainability
The Danvers Historical Society rents Glen Magna Farms for weddings and other large events, making it vital that the grounds and buildings always look their best. Because landscapes change with time, grounds manager, Devin Walsh, finds the upkeep both challenging and rewarding.

“The cultivated gardens cover about five of the eleven acres,” he says. “We’re enthusiastic about getting them back to their prime. To do this, we have to find a balance between using the exact historical plants and the sustainability of the gardens. The Endicotts had many gardeners, and we have only two. Sometimes we may decide to use a new cultivar of an old, high-maintenance plant such as garden phlox if the new one is disease resistant, needs no staking, saves time, and looks better longer than the original species.”
To restore the gardens, Walsh and assistant grounds manager, Matthew Martin, research the archives for plants that were in the gardens from the 1890s to the 1920s. “We have the receipts and correspondence to identify the original plant materials and where they grew,” Walsh says. “A lot of the flower seeds and some flowering plants were sent from England by Joseph Chamberlain, William’s son-in-law.”

Some plants, however, are no longer welcome in contemporary gardens. For example, hedging material in the Chamberlain garden includes glossy buckthorn (Frangula alnus), now on the Massachusetts invasive plants list. In the same garden, Walsh and Martin fight the spread of Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis), spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), and goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria), all planted as ornamentals in the 1890s.

For pest control, Walsh and Martin practice integrated pest management to reduce the use of chemicals on the property. In addition, they apply compost tea to keep plants healthy and prevent disease. “We compost prunings, lawn clippings, and leaves. Once they’ve decomposed, we make our own compost tea with well water, compost, and unsulfured molasses,” Martin says. “We customize the recipe, depending upon whether we’re treating flowers or trees.”

Nature tests old gardens. After a dogwood (Cornus florida) that was planted in 1897 split during a recent storm, Walsh realized the need to preserve original trees. “We’re starting to take cuttings from old trees to propagate them,” he says. “It’s an insurance policy for the future.

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