Tag Archives: Newport R.I.

keep out

Problem: You have a seaside estate, but between your back yard and the ocean is a busy public path traveled by all sorts of unpleasant undesirables. You want to keep out the riffraff, but you don’t want to spoil the view to the ocean with an unsightly fence. What do you do?

Solution: Here’s something I saw along the Cliff Walk in Newport last week. Basically it’s a lawn that drops off dramatically at the edge. And hidden inside the dropoff area is this unfriendly fence. It probably looks gorgeous from the house, with the lawn seeming to stretch to the edge of the rocky shore. But it looks hostile as hell from the public trail.

Haha in Newport

It’s not exactly a classical ha-ha, but close. The original ha-has were basically retaining walls that were sunk in a trench, giving the impression that your estate extended to the horizon. Credited to the seventeenth-century British garden designer Charles Brdgeman, it was used extensively and most famously by Capability Brown in his expansive English countryside garden designs.
Photo taken at Castle Ashby, Northants by R Neil Marshman under GNU license. The ha-ha is just on the other side of the near tree.

It also is a Western take on borrowed scenery, the Japanese notion of shakkei, “landscape which is captured alive,” a technique of garden planning where you incorporate the view into your garden design. So…the British gentry, the Japanese nobles, the gilded Americans, they’re pretty similar in at least this regard: They all want you to think they have even more than they have.

last Newport post: cameras/semi-mysterious tower

Walking around town when I get breaks between meetings I’ve dragged along one of two cameras. One is a trusty roll film camera that I’ve been using for years, and the other is this embarrassment of a digital camera, the first digital camera I bought John when digital cameras were just coming out. I haven’t gone shopping to Toys R’ Us lately but I’d guess that it has the same megapixel capacity as a My Little Pony digital camera today, if they make such a thing. At least it’s not pink. Maybe I should say that it has 1,300 kilopixels–certianly lots more impressive than 1.3 megapixels. And on top of the low resolution it eats batteries like crazy. Seriously I thought it had died and gone to digital camera purgatory until I dropped into the gift shop downstairs and fed the camera five bucks in batteries. Might have been a good excuse to finally get myself a real digital camera.

Since most of the pictures I took were with the film camera I’ll have to forgo the immediate gratification and wait to see the pictures until I get them developed. But here’s one of the random digital shots of a structure located just above the downtown tourist district. Though it’s called many things, it appears on the map I have as the Old Stone Mill, though it’s doubtful that it was ever attached to any operation like a mill. In fact, it’s apparently a bit of a mystery what it is exactly, and a bit of a mystery who built it. Apparently carbon dating of the mortar dates it to various dates, some as late as the late seventeenth century, some to the early 1400s.

Old Mill Tower

Call me a skeptic, but just like people who claim their hotel is haunted, what mystery there might be well could be overblown and might have nothing to do with reality, though it’d certianly be good for business. There are a lots of web pages where it’s discussed: wikipedia of course; Curt F. Waidmann’s nicely researched The Newport Tower: a Medieval Ruin in America; the Redwood Library and Athenaeum’s page on it; and the more scandal-/mystery-driven page on UnexplainedEarth. If any of those pages have any authority, Wikipedia points to the Redwood Library’s pages, and I might go with that evaluation: The library is located just across the street.

how many seasons?

I’m still visiting Newport R.I. where it seems like things are on hold. The lawns are mostly brown, the trees largely bare. Some evergreens seem like they’re waiting, like they’ve been waiting. A few rhododendrons or azaleas probably could be spectacular, but they’re not going to fulfill that promise anytime soon. It’s winter.

Newport Manse in Winter

On the plane here I was reading the introduction to a scholarly edition of the Sukateiki, the Japanese eleventh-century gardening treatise that’s possibly the oldest book on gardening in existence in any language. In a chapter on geomancy, the authors discuss how the five geomantic elements–wood, fire, earth, metal, water–correspond to the seasons. Metal is autumn, water is winter, wood is spring, fire is summer, and earth the season that follows, doyo (pretend that there’s a macron–a long line–over the concluding “o”). So…five elements, five seasons? That got me thinking.

I spent some of my childhood in Burma, a tropical country with weather and seasons governed by the monsoons off the Indian Ocean. (An aside: To see what you can do to stay informed on the awful political mess there, as well as what you can do to help, click here.) There we had a cold dry season, then a hot dry season, followed by the rainy season. Three seasons. When my mother would talk about life in Ohio, with its four seasons, with its seasons of cold and snow, it all seemed awfully exotic and incomprehensible.

Now, living in Southern California, it’s impossible not to run into someone nostalgic for what they call four real seasons. Except for the occasional deciduous tree things stay pretty green. Things bloom in January. So some complain that it’s really just one very long season. Of course, anyone who’s lived there a while can feel the changes: You really shouldn’t plant lettuce in July, just as you’d probably not want to leave your doors and windows open most days in January. Every place has its cycles, only some are more subtle than others. Or do some people never go out of their houses?

And here in Newport, with the bare trees, the brown lawns, and–just overnight–a covering of fresh snow, there’s no doubt. It’s winter.

Day for a Guinness

how to have an important newport garden

I’m on a little work trip to Newport, Rhode Island, and I’m just back from a long self-guided tour that included the Cliff Walk, 3 1/2 miles of a fairly good oceanside trail (and a little boulder-scrambling) that takes you on the private, ocean-view sides of a number of the town’s larger ocean-front mansions. Famous among them are The Breakers, the little summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the Astor’s Beechwood. The homes are definitely on steroids, and the gardens are as well. After looking at a number of the outdoor spaces, I’ve come up with a simple guide that anyone could follow to have their very own deluxe Newport-style mansion grounds. It’s surprisingly simple.

1. Begin with a lot. Something about the size of Rhode Island would be a good start.

2. Place the house on the side of the property farthest away from the view so that you’ll see your domain stretching out towards the view.

3. Plant lawn over everything. If seaside rocks get in the way, leave them in place, but plant lawn right up to them.

4. Plant a long hedge on the sides along the property lines with you neighbord. If this hedge closes in on your view, then your lot is likely too small. Return to step 1. A hedgerow along the edge of the property with the view must be considered carefully. Don’t plant one if it would substantially interfere with the view. Reinforce your hedges with chain link fences. Although often paired with trailers and other low architecture in the South and elsewhere, these fences will enhance privacy and be virtually invisible behind the hedges and from several hundred feet away.

The Breakers

Above: The Breakers, as illustrated in an article in New England Antiques.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. To add interest you can try out some of the advanced techniques below:

AT1. Plant trees, preferably deciduous ones, in small, naturalistic clumps towards the edges of your proerty line. Don’t let the trees encroach too much on either your view or the view that people will have of you. Smaller trees–no more than 20-25 feet tall–can make you property appear even larger, while at the same time giving it the sense that it’s emerging from some dark wood.

AT2. Inserting a formal, symmetrical garden is optional. However, it should never be the majority of your property, and it is best to place it towards the side of your property. Placing it in the center will make it the focus of the garden and detract from the view beyond, a technique that should only be used when your view is not as desirable as that of those around you. Remember that there must be more space devoted to a lawn than to a formal garden. Always.

AT3. Smaller shrubs in the 3-6 foot size may be employed symmetrically to accentuate the formal architecture of the house or to provide variety by being planted next to a straight-line planting of hedgerow. Be sure to have your gardeners form them into rounded shapes. Letting the shrubs grow naturally is not an option.
Some random mansion with shrubs employed to accentuate the formal architecture.

AT4. Permanent garden furniture generally should be avoided. However, a single piece, perhaps one small bench may be place far back into the garden, enhancing the sense of distance and space.

AT5. Smaller-scale garden art may be added, particularly to a formal garden. Stone urns, cherubs, and veiled goddess-ey characters are good choices. Human figures must be life-sized or preferably smaller. Naked figures are to be frowned upon in a Newport garden, though the exposure of a single female breast may be employed if done in impeccable taste. Save the less tasteful sculptures for the back yard of your Malibu estate.