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A Symphony in Blue

Resurrecting Newport’s Fabulous Blue Garden

Marion Laffey Fox

It’s not surprising that the tender rescue of the renowned Blue Garden in Newport by noted philanthropist and horticulturist Dorrance Hamilton has been heralded as a noble preservation feat. Two years after its discreet opening, hundreds of blue, purple and white flowering plants have happily settled in, preening on the garden’s original site as a monumental horticultural accomplishment. Effervescent Mrs. Hamilton, or Dodo, as she is known to family and friends, brushes aside the avalanche of congratulatory messages she has received, explaining, “Once we became aware of the garden’s rich history, we were compelled to get involved.”

That “rich history” dates to early 1900, when copper and railroad magnate Arthur Curtiss James and his wife, Harriet, added glamorous Newport to their string of fabulous properties, but purposely rejected living along tony Bellevue Avenue, near the “cottages” owned by the country’s wealthiest families. Instead, they chose the dramatic moors atop the tallest hill on Aquidneck Island. Here, both tranquil and tempestuous ocean views along the lofty windswept coast littered with huge stone outcroppings, felt just right for young James, an avid yachtsman who relished his role as Commodore of the New York Yacht Club.

 

After all, the quiet, self-effacing titan was not only one of the wealthiest men in the country, but he was so shy of publicity that he was one of America’s least known millionaires. When he married a vivacious Smith College student, Harriet Eddy Parsons, in 1890, a year after he graduated from Amherst College, she quickly became the exuberant counterpoint to his retiring persona. Soon, the young couple were buying up real estate in Manhattan, where they lived in an enormous house at 69th and Park Avenue; Coconut Grove, Florida; and eventually Newport, where they soon set the bar with seasonal migrating swells such as the Whitneys, Wideners, Belmonts, Berwinds, Astors, Vanderbilts and Dukes.

 

First the couple rented, then acquired, an 1890s Stanford White-designed H-shaped house with sea views. Good intentions to renovate the house proved fruitless when they discovered structural deficiencies, so they razed the structure and hired Howell & Stokes from New York City to design the massive Beacon Hill House in 1909. Shortly after its completion in 1910, James added a farming component he named Surprise Valley Farm to the estate, redolent of the rural hamlets the couple admired during their lavish honeymoon 20 years earlier. The idyllic enclave of rough stone walls and barrel tile roofs, that included a dairy, piggery, maternity building, smokehouse, carpenter house and staff cottages, was similar in feeling to the Petit Hameau (Little Hamlet) commissioned by Marie Antoinette at Versailles. Today, the charming farm has been saved by Dorrance Hamilton, and is the headquarters of the SVF Foundation, which she dedicated to the conservation of rare and endangered species of livestock.

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At the same time her husband was occupied with Surprise Valley Farm, Harriet James was honing her reputation as a preeminent hostess. Her penchant for fine clothes and extravagant jewelry was no secret, but her passion for flowers and gardening became a driving force in the ultimate vernacular of the estate. Initial work on the site, such as service roads, walls and gates, garages, tennis court and infrastructure, was overseen by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. of the Olmsted Brothers firm, but it was the chatelaine who decided that the crowning glory of Beacon Hill House would be a romantic, monochromatic garden planted in shades of blue.

Olmsted scholar Arleyn Levee explains that the Beacon Hill House estate ultimately became the largest among the 30 projects designed by the firm in Newport. “Contrary to the belief that this garden consisted of only blue flowers, it actually included herbaceous plant material of purple, lavender and grey hues that became the shimmering evocation of sky and water,” she notes. “Incorporating Italianate and Persian themes in its axial design, it was planted along a central water feature of blue-tiled pools connected by a water runnel, surrounded by formal planting beds. Terminated at each end by artistic pergolas and enclosed by vine-covered walls, with an outer layer of richly textured shrub and tree plantings, this garden was intended to be a hortus conclusus, or secret garden. The device of multi-layered enclosures protected its special character as a floriferous sanctuary, from incongruous conflict with the rest of the rugged terrain.”

 

The remarkable horticultural triumph created through the collaboration of Mrs. James and Mr. Olmstead offered the perfect stimulus for a festive inaugural party, and invitations to The Masque of the Blue Garden became the most anticipated of the 1913 season. On the clear and balmy evening of August 15th, 350 members of Newport society headed across the island to Beacon Hill Road in their grand roadsters and touring cars, for a first look at the project they had heard about for years.

 

The lavishly bedecked guests entered under an illuminated blue canopy, where they were received by Commodore James and directed to seats in a blue canvas-covered theater. From this vantage point they could observe the glorious design scheme of Corinthian columns, fountains, pools and blue-tiled lily pond, flanked by trees and plants illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored lights.

 

Within this splendid scene, Harriet James initially emerged in a sparkling sapphire-blue gown, complemented by a virtual waterfall of gleaming sapphires, diamonds and amethysts, that inspired guests to refer to her as “Lady Sapphira.” Then, before a lively 45-minute Italianate pageant enacted by 54 professional dancers, singers and musicians imported from New York, she welcomed guests in a stunning blue-and-mauve 16th-century vintage Italian costume, with a headdress of sapphires and amethysts. At the rousing conclusion, a trumpeter led guests in procession into Beacon Hill House for dinner and dancing, during which Mrs. James wore a gossamer blue-and-silver-green gown.

 

From that night on, the garden evolved into a maturing spectacle of beauty and constant source of joy to the childless couple. Since cost was never a factor, the garden was replanted with fresh stock several times each summer by a team of 40 gardeners charged with maintaining its sparkle and color. Social events ranged from Garden Club of America meetings to lavish events such as the beautiful reception for 300 honoring visiting royalty, Swedish Crown Prince Gustavus Adolphus and his wife, Louise, in June of 1926. The New York Times reported that the “garden was a mass of blue, with wisteria vines covering the pergolas with clusters of the light and dark blossoms, forget-me-nots tucked around the boulders; iris, delphinium and other blue flowers arranged in beds and huge blue vases...here and there about the garden.”

Over time, the Jameses added various other “rooms” to the vast 125-acre estate without assistance from the Olmsted firm. The Amphitheater Garden featured lush tiers of rose arbors while bountiful vegetable and produce gardens from Spring Valley supplied the estate with fresh food. The opulent new Rose Garden of 5,000 bushes became another high-maintenance project they opened to the public every Fourth of July until 1940.

 

After the deaths of Arthur and Harriet James, within weeks of each other in 1941, attention to their beloved but labor-intensive gardens basically halted. The property, which they generously gifted to the Catholic Archdiocese of Providence, was too expensive to maintain, and consequently the repurposed buildings were repeatedly vandalized. After the mansion was devastated by fire and demolished in 1967, the property was subdivided into house lots and sold in the 1970s. Similar to “Sleeping Beauty” in Charles Perrault’s fairytale, the once-glorious Blue Garden vanished from view, subsumed by thickly overgrown brambles, invasive vines and trees.

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Today, after its miraculous rescue by Mrs. Hamilton, the Blue Garden radiates the attention and care its new protectress has given it. “Rather than a restoration it is actually a renewed garden,” says Levee. “While restoring its historically intended character, its new mission is to be maintainable according to environmentally sustainable 21st-century standards. Without the original bevy of gardeners to keep the garden continually at its peak condition, using bedding out methods, the new plantings are influenced by the original plant palette, but with an eye to decreased maintenance, water needs, longevity of bloom and texture.”

 

Harnessing the talent and vision of landscape architect Doug Reed, from Reed Hildebrand of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the team explored alternatives to the original scheme, while remaining true to Olmsted’s intent. “We were determined to recapture the dreamy monochromatic palette,” says Sarah Vance, now director of the Blue Garden, “but needed to simplify it with fewer plant species grouped into the original beds. With realistic maintenance an on-going issue, that meant using sustainable techniques and more resilient plants. The present garden epitomizes its original horticultural exuberance.”

 

Today, visitors climb the gentle hill, past the row of bee hives and massive rock ledges that define this magical place, to admire the beds of seasonal blooms, surrounded by pergolas and lattice walls alive with vines that range from sturdy morning glories to delicate clematis. In addition, the protective enclosure of trees that make it feel like a truly “secret garden,” is now planted with low-maintenance red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), American Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), and glossy-leafed English Holly (Ilex aquifolium).

“The rock ledges were meticulously drawn on Olmsted’s plans, and are an important element to the original scheme,” Vance says. “The preamble includes pergolas and trellises harvested for their wood from the original Japanese Cedar trees on the property, all of which were repurposed and returned to live here in posterity.”

Today, the revived scene is nothing short of enchanting. The dedicated team is proud of its role in this historic place, but Nature does her part too, by ushering in aromatic sea breezes, or rolling in gently cloaking fog that evokes mysterious, Gilded Age sentimentality. On brilliant days, though, when blue delphinium and irises, Artemisia, lavender and nepeta dance and sway, one can only imagine the joy Mrs. James would have felt at the sight. Instead, it is Dorrance Hamilton’s turn to rejoice at the idea of literally rescuing and preserving this special place. “It’s a stewardship of our collective cultures,” she says. “But really, words cannot convey the fun we had doing this project more than 100 years after it was initially unveiled.”

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The Blue Garden is managed as a private garden under the direction of Sarah Vance, and is open by appointment on Thursdays from mid-June through early October. Consult website for complete information: thebluegarden.org.

 

A detailed story about the garden and its history is in the 208-page volume The Blue Garden: Recapturing an Iconic Newport Landscape, by Arleyn Levee, available at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport or at their online store.