Beatrix Farrand in the 1940’s, from The Reef Point Bulletins
I made my annual pilgrimage to the Asticou Azalea Garden on Mt. Desert Island a few days ago. I was a little late this year—an early summer and almost endless sunshine ensured that the usual Memorial Day peak of this garden had actually come a week before. Do not misunderstand. It was still ravishing, as the photographs will show. The story of how this lovely spot came into being, as a rescue effort, is an interesting one.
The great garden designer Beatrix Farrand had a lifelong love affair with Maine, having summered in Bar Harbor since early childhood. Her feeling for the rugged landscape inspired much of her best work in a series of subtle gardens that blended into their rugged settings. Her own Reef Point estate, inherited from her mother, was for many years her laboratory, where she experimented with design ideas and plantings both native and exotic.
It was her hope to turn Reef Point, its extensive library, and collection of gardens into a foundation for the study of plants and landscape architecture, and to that end a board was formed, renovations were made to house and grounds for their future use, staff was hired, and plans were made for a distinguished future. In addition to the plants and gardens and extraordinary library, the collections included the papers and plans of the English designer Gertrude Jekyll, which Mrs. Farrand had purchased at great personal expense when they were threatened with certain dispersal.
Over one decade in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the world, and Bar Harbor, as Mrs. Farrand had known it, changed irrevocably. A World War followed the Great Depression. Two years after the end of the war, a forest fire devastated much of the town, destroying many of the estates of her friends and clients, and when the town re-built, it was not as a fashionable resort, but as a tourist destination. Motels sprang up on the ruins of the estates, and masses replaced classes on the Main Street. Not liking what she saw, worried about the future endowment ( the only niece of Edith Wharton, Mrs. Farrand was not wealthy by the standards of the world she inhabited), and feeling that the new, less rarefied Bar Harbor, geographically remote, was not the appropriate location for the endeavor, she shut down the foundation in 1956.
She donated the library, the vast collection of landscape prints of three centuries, and the Jekyll archives to the documents collection at the University of California at Berkeley, where her husband, historian Max Farrand had taught. She had the main house at Reef Point demolished. She herself arranged to retire to the family farm of her horticulturalist, Amy Garland, building an apartment between the Garland’s house and barn, where she would live with her personal maid, Clementine Walter. To create this new home, Farrand used salvaged architectural elements from Reef Point, and created an intimate garden, with many of her beloved roses, perennials and heaths and heathers, also brought from Reef Point. Here Farrand died in 1959.
Meanwhile, Reef Point was to be sold, and remaining there was the bulk of Mrs. Farrand’s plant collection–(as late as the 1970’s, I remember being struck by the perfect effect of a Laburnum, Golden Chain tree, over the fence, framing a view on shore path in front of the former Reef Point), including her remarkable collection of Azaleas and Rhododendrons. Enter, to the rescue, the remarkable Charles Kenneth Savage.
Charles Savage’s family had long lived in nearby Northeast Harbor, where they owned the Asticou Inn, a big old shingled summer hotel. Young Savage, noted for artistic talent at an early age, was at boarding school in Boston when his father died, and at the age of 17 he returned home to help his mother run the inn. Savage, who loved the island, and its unique landscape, became friends with many of the leading talents of the day on Mt. Desert, notably Farrand, and landscape architect Joseph Curtis, who summered on the hillside just beyond Asticou Inn. From both, Savage absorbed important lessons in the principles of landscape design, and the importance of using native plants and materials. When Curtis died, leaving his property, with its carefully designed trails (a future post) as a public trust, Savage was its first trustee, and for many years the presiding genius of the place. He also had a seat on the board of The Reef Point Foundation, and when Farrand decided to dismantle her life’s work, Savage was given a year to rescue what plants he could.
Casting about for a site, Savage seized upon the alder swamp across the street from his family’s hotel, and armed with his ambitious plan, approached neighbor John D. Rockefeller Jr. whose own garden had been designed 25 years previously by Farrand, and Rockefeller agreed to finance the project.
Savage, using the lessons he had learned so well from Farrand & Curtis, dredged the swamp to form a pool by the road, with the garden in the distance. He conceived it as a Japanese stroll garden, harmonious with the rocky spruce clad landscape surrounding it. A stream, with a gentle waterfall was formed, crossed by two bridges. Savage, a talented sculptor in wood, had a particular feeling for stone, and selected many pieces of worn granite for integration into his design. In this framework were planted azaleas, rhodendendrons and other shrubs from Reef Point. A Japanese sand garden, inspired by one in Kyoto, was a surprise as one traveled the carefully raked gravel paths.
After Savage’s death, stewardship of the garden passed to the Mt. Desert Land & Garden Preserve, funded by the Rockefeller family to maintain this garden, another Savage garden at Asticou (future post), and the spectacular Farrand garden designed for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller on their estate in neighboring Seal Harbor. Several additions have been made to the garden in recent years, notably a new entrance by Patrick Chasse from a parking lot at the rear of the property.