Wethersfield Inspires Wanderlust and More in Beautiful Upstate New York
Located at the highest elevation in the Dutchess County region, the long, winding drive up to Wethersfield garden in Amenia, New York, offers spectacular views of the bucolic Taconic hills, the Catskill Mountains to the West, and the Berkshires to the Northeast. Considered one of the best examples of a classic Italian Renaissance garden in America, Wethersfield was originally just 1,200 acres of sloping hills, woods, and pastureland. The late Chauncey Devereux Stillman visited the area on a fox hunt in 1937 and promptly purchased it, paving the way for the glorious garden that exists on the property today.
Classically educated, Stillman (1907-1989) was heir to a family fortune in banking, and soon became a sort of Renaissance man prior to the land’s acquisition. Trained as an architect, he developed broad interests as a philanthropist and investor. He was a connoisseur of art, antiques, yachting, wildlife, horticulture, religion, horses, and 19th century hackney carriages, among other points of fascination. After he bought the property, he had a stable and carriage house built where visitors today can see his dazzling carriage collection and prize ribbons.
A Wilderness Garden
Although it’s just two hours north of New York City, Wethersfield feels totally immersed in a different era. On site, there are two main gardens to explore. The seven-acre, wooded “Wilderness Garden” contains a network of carriage drives and trails featuring amazing deciduous trees, evergreen flowering shrubs, including mountain laurels and rhododendrons. A wonderful array of ferns wait to be discovered along the trails: Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Evergreen Wood Fern (Aspidium marginal), Toothed Wood Fern (Aspidium spinulosum), Hay Scented Fern (Dicksonia punctilobula), Maiden Hair (Adiatum pedatum), and Lady Fern (Asplenium felix-foemina).
Limestone and marble statuary punctuates many of the pathways with motifs taken from Greek and Roman mythology. The statues were created during the late 1960’s and 70’s by English sculptor Peter Watts (1916-2002) and Pittsburgh sculptor Jozef Stachura, born in Poland (1923-2001).
An Italian Renaissance Garden
A large Palladian arch flanked by marble pillars marks the perimeter of Wethersfield’s second main garden: three acres of gorgeous greenery, with views from every angle. The arch is a focal point when viewed at a distance from the red-brick house, which was built by Stillman in 1938 in Georgian Revival style. The house was carefully situated on the east-west axis of the garden and from its windows there also are “framed views” of a lovely inner garden, terraces, and lawns, all planned and intimately integrated.
“Although it’s just two hours north of New York City, Wethersfield feels totally immersed in a different era.”
The inner garden near the house was landscaped in 1940-41 by Bryan J. Lynch and includes terraces, hedges, and flower borders that can be viewed from the house. A giant white pine stands in the center of a lower terrace, at its base are pots filled with Fuchsia ‘Black Prince.’ A small goldfish pool beckons –it is filled with lily pads and dozens of tiny green frogs.
Starting in 1947, Stillman hired Evelyn N. Poehler, a Connecticut-based landscape architect, to design a swimming pool, and she wound up planning, designing, and maintaining both the formal garden and wilderness garden, developing their features over a twenty-five year period.
In an article about her work, Poehler was asked how she planned the classical Italian garden and replied that it was like building an extension of the house. Her design moves the visitor along many different green corridors with walls made of massive clipped hedges, corners with tall trees, and lawn steps that reveal smaller enclosed “rooms” with arches, sculpture, and fountains.
She also created two signature, dramatic, elevated features: a sweeping allée of arborvitae (newly replanted) and a stunning stone walk leading to a circular temple of six columns called the Belvedere, providing a panoramic view of the hills.
According to Poehler, there were four different kinds of stone in her design– granite, bluestone, shale, and “red dog,” which is a pink-colored slag that is a by-product of coal mining. Stone balustrades, urns, obelisks, and various animal sculptures introduce passages to different rooms throughout the garden and help to unify it. The eastern-most entrance is guarded by two crouching, grey lions and is paved by Belgian blocks recovered from the streets of New York City.
Along one path is a fabulous cutting garden filled with annual and perennial beds, including zinnias, phlox, and dahlias. Tumbling over a fence, is Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora), a favorite of Wethersfield’s Estate Manager, Kevin Malloy.
A small knot garden on an upper terrace contains four geometric flower beds filled with wax begonias in a colorful design. At one end is a small, brick “Grasshopper House” so named for a whimsical grasshopper weathervane. Inside are murals of Wethersfield scenes painted by American artist Hight Moore.
A definitive study of 17th century Italian gardens written by one of America’s greatest writers, Edith Wharton, notes that these gardens blended elaborate use of of evergreen hedges and green walls with water and stone features, as well as flowers, so that the whole garden composition transcends the seasons.
And so it is with Wethersfield. Though it was created in the 20th century in America, it borrows from the best classical traditions and so achieves a timeless beauty that endures to the present day.