“Rescuing Eden: Preserving America’s Historic Gardens,” with text by Caroline Seebohm and photographs by Curtice Taylor

Excerpt from the Introduction:

America’s private gardens have been threatened for more than a century. Many eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century gardens disappeared when the owners moved or died. At the end of the nineteenth century, the newly rich industrial barons created lavish estates on a scale that rivaled the great gardens of Europe. But by the mid-twentieth century, when wars, economic depressions, and social upheavals swept the continent, these luxurious private palaces became less and less sustainable, and much of America’s rich garden heritage was destroyed. In Britain, the National Trust was founded in 1895 to protect and preserve the country’s architectural and horticultural legacy, but no such institution emerged in the United States. Creeping development, urban sprawl, and increasingly mobile populations crushed the life out of hundreds of once-loved and carefully tended gardens. Thus the brilliant work of landscape designers, architects, and horticulturalists that flourished during their early stewardship of American open space was lost forever.

But not all have disappeared. “Rescuing Eden” celebrates those that have been rescued from the brink of extinction and those that have been heroically preserved by their owners and then opened to the public.

The gardens were selected for the dramatic value of their original creation and rescue and their historical and horticultural importance. They range from the wonderful to the woebegone, from grand estates to small suburban plots. The locations range from Kentucky to Oregon, from Texas to New Hampshire, from Detroit to Los Angeles. Some are old, some new. Some designers are famous, others unsung. Each garden has its own individual character, and each place has been brought back from the brink through a combination of imagination and dedication.

Complex city gardens are almost always at risk. Real estate development, that bane of open-space lovers, is not the only enemy. Neglect, politics, and lack of money all combine to make the urban garden an endangered species. New York City’s Conservatory Garden is a triumphant example of survival against extreme odds. In 1982, choked with garbage, blanketed in weeds, darkened by huge overgrown hedges, it was considered one of the most dangerous spots in Central Park. Gradually, after an enormous effort spearheaded by the New York arm of the Garden Club of America, funds began to roll in from Rockefeller Center, The Central Park Conservancy, and other generous local donors.

On a much smaller scale, another city garden claims an equally miraculous rescue. On the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a garden that visitors might not even notice, but it is an important historical site. It is the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Garden, created in 1999 to salute the women of Minnesota who fought to gain the right to vote in the late nineteenth century. The garden in its original form failed. The soil was not nutritious enough to support the plants; the windy site made it difficult for anything to thrive; its sunny location made excessive demands on watering; maintenance was prohibitive. Very soon the original thirty-two beds disappeared under a tangle of weeds. After five years of intensive fundraising, thanks to the Ross Group and the Saint Paul Garden Club, the garden was reinvented with drifts of sturdy plants replacing the high-maintenance beds. Now this powerful little garden presents a proud memorial both to the women warriors of Minnesota and to their descendants, the local supporters who saved it from extinction.

 

 

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