Winter is almost over, even in Maine–knock on wood–and thoughts are turning again to outdoor pleasures
The tradition of a folly or gazebo as a garden retreat, goes back at least to the gardens of ancient Rome. Here in New England, with our short summers, the idea of a shady retreat, a place to enjoy a cool refreshment on a warm afternoon holds great appeal.. A summerhouse or gazebo is a pleasant spot from which to contemplate the garden or view, and simultaneously, can be beautiful feature or eye catcher in the landscape.
A rare few survive from the 18th century here in New England. They are usually enclosed, and though made of wood, and on a smaller scale, recall their cousins on grand estates in England. It was not unusual for these structures to be placed on a small artificial ‘mount’ in the English after European fashion. Unlike England, with its large preserved country estates, America has always been a country on the move, and most of the earliest that survive do so because they have been moved from their original settings.
The most exquisite to survive from the 18th century is the Derby summerhouse, designed by the great Salem, Massachusetts carver/architect Samuel McIntire for Capt. Derby’s summer farm in Danvers Massachusetts in 1795. Elias Hasket Derby was a merchant of great wealth, the Donald Trump of his day, but obviously with far better taste. Topping the roof were carved figures representing the Reaper (as in Harvest, not Grim) , and the Milkmaid. A young lady who visited the estate in 1802 wrote of going upstairs to the room above, “The air from the windows is always pure and cool and the eye wanders with delight over the beautiful landscape below…The room is ornamented with some Chinese figures and seems calculated for serenity and peace.”
In the late 19th century, the summerhouse was near ruin, and development pressures were closing in on the Derby farm. Derby’s great-granddaughter, Mrs. William Crowninshield Endicott, rescued the it, seen on its original foundation in the upper photo, and had it moved to her nearby country estate, where it still graces the rose garden designed for it, now open to the public.
Okay, now bear with me for a second, for you know how I like all the dots connected, and this part requires your full attention. Already in the garden of the Endicott estate was a gazebo built in 1840 by Mrs. Endicott’s grandfather, Joseph Peabody, from whom she inherited the estate. Upon the death of her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Endicott, Jr., a nephew inherited the Peabody gazebo and moved it to his property on Martha’s Vineyard, where it sits to this day. In 1989, the Danvers Historical Society erected a replica of this structure, above, in the original location. Email me if you need a re-cap. As I’ve mentioned before, we really like moving buildings around here in New England, and sometimes a playbook is required to keep it all straight.
This late 18th century landscape painting by the Reverend Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine shows a typical New England town, probably Bucksport, in the background, while in the foreground, a family enjoys tea by a domed gazebo. It is likely that this gazebo never existed there, but is an artistic conceit inspired by an English print.
A leitmotif of the Victorian age was that more was never enough, and here we have a gazebo as observatory tower seen in the 1880’s on the J.S. Potter estate in Framingham, Massachusetts. Potter was a self made businessman, and his garden was a veritable amusement park of garden structures.
Another trend was European style grandeur and formality, ever the means to display wealth. The apogee was reached with this pair of French classical limestone tea houses in the formal garden of The Elms in Newport, Rhode Island, designed by Horace Trumbauer for coal magnate Edwin Berwind. This photograph from a 1931 National Geographic shows the high level of maintenance that once characterized these estate gardens. A quarter century separates these structures from the Olmstead teahouse at Moraine Farm.
And finally, we travel more than full circle, back to Newport, Rhode Island. A mere two blocks from the Redwood garden house where we started, this tea house was designed by architectural historian Fiske Kimball, later director of the Philadelphia Museum, for Miss Martha Codman on the grounds of her summer home, Berkeley villa. In case you’re rubbing your eyes in disbelief, and about to say, ‘That stupid Dilettante, he’s inserted the wrong picture”, guess again. It is a copy of the Derby summerhouse by McIntire. Miss Codman was also a descendant of Derby, and a family feud was precipitated when she copied the summerhouse for her own garden without the permission of its owner, her cousin Mrs. Endicott.