The Blue Garden: Recapturing an Iconic Newport Landscape

Once upon a time, there was a garden. It was a fine garden and wonderful, magical things happened there. It was born of desire, passion, compromise and great care. It was known far and wide. The garden was blue.

No one knew why the garden was blue. It was not a sad, morose, or melancholy place. Was it a love’s eyes? The tiles? The ocean, sky, or part of the allegorical story the landscape was designed to tell? It’s a mystery even today.

Sprites, faeries, nymphs and satyrs made the garden home. Mermaids plied the waters of its pools and people from all over the world visited to enjoy its beauty and enchantment. For years they drank in its pleasures.

Then, somehow, the magic was lost. After decades of loving attention to its every need, the blue garden fell on hard times–the whole country fell on hard times. Some people died; others lost the will and/or means to continue caring for a place that would not survive without it.

Nature began her march on the blue garden. Beds filled in and grew over; trees freed of their regular pruning, grew luxuriantly. A slow accretion of dead plant material and new soil crept over the hardscape. Soon it was nearly unrecognizable. Grandeurs and splendors sunk under nature’s encroaching mantle.

Yet someone saw.

Someone saw hints and then the bones of the blue garden and had an inkling of its history and glorious past. Someone who wanted to see the garden as it once was, to recreate the magic. Someone who knew the kind of people, skills, and resources it would take to bring the garden back from its humusy grave.

And that someone did something about it.

“Blue color,” wrote art critic John Ruskin in the 1800s, “is everlastingly appointed by the Deity to be a source of delight.” Whether in his camp or not, it is to everyone’s everlasting delight that the blue garden has been reborn.

fullsizerenderNow the whole story is being told. The Blue Garden: Recapturing an Iconic Newport Landscape (by,
Arleyn A. Levee, Redwood Library & Athenaeum, Newport, RI 2016, (208 pages plus DVD, $65.00USD)) is destined to become a treasured volume of garden history. Meticulously and exhaustively researched, it is an eye-opening overview of the history of the iconic garden of Harriet Parsons James and her husband Arthur Curtiss James, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and Olmsted Brothers. The book’s true importance and lasting contribution, however, may come from the template it provides others. It is a blueprint for how to document such a history–and a clarion call, of sorts, for gardeners, landscape architects and others, to save plans, correspondence and other written and digital materials; to photograph the details and the overall effect, the process, the before and the after.

Every garden is remarkable. Every garden tells a story–some are quotidian–a tale of sustained, persistent effort; organic, undesigned. Others are as remarkable as the gardens they document. The story of the Blue Garden is one of the latter. Conceived, planned, executed, loved and lost; then resurrected and restored, and finally, documented by a remarkable group of motivated, resourceful individuals spanning a century from the original Olmsted plans on paper to  21st century digital video footage captured by an overhead drone.

The Blue Garden: Recapturing an Iconic Newport Landscape is the story of a garden taken back from nature who, as is her wont, prevails over any man-built project, given enough time and a modicum of neglect or changed circumstances. It is an instructive and inspiring tale.

The garden dates to the early 20th century and is notable, among other things, for being hewn, nay, blasted out of the rock that surrounds it. Its Italianate formality created a striking juxtaposition to the natural landscape ringing it. Its site and form is an allegory for the struggle between man and nature–even more so when the story of its original construction and its recent restoration is told.

The bulk of the book is history. Extensive background information on the James family and its history helps to set the scene. Copious evidence of the planning and design of the entire property and its garden are shared. Reams of correspondence and documentation were preserved, much of it by the Olmsted firm, but by other parties as well. Ironically, despite the wealth of information, there is no written evidence of why it was to be a blue garden. Speculation included the color of Harriet’s eyes, the union of sky, earth and water, and other flights of fancy—but by 1911, she knew what she wanted.: blue and blue/purple–no magenta purple–with some yellow and white. No pink, no red. AND it needed to be in bloom by mid-summer.

Early Olmsted concerns that creating a formal garden on the estate would be incongruous with its rugged land-forms and injurious to an overall plan to protect and enhance the natural environment. Sensitivity to the thoroughly modern-day issues of the protection of native plants and removal of exotics (despite the fact that plenty of exotics were used in plantings) were expressed. In the end, however, the owner’s wishes won out, accommodations were made and a garden was built.

This is not just a story about a garden.There are many layers to this book. One of the most fascinating is an in-depth look at the relationship between owner and designer/builder as it, and the thoughts and ideas it spawned, evolved over time.The Jameses were active, engaged owners and the book reveals the not-always-delicate interplay between them and the designers. Disagreements, discussions and compromises are frankly exposed, along with failures in the garden that needed to be addressed–and were.

The decline of the garden is covered quickly and more detail of this part if it’s history would have been a constructive lesson in garden building, management and long-term sustainability. But in the end, this is a book about rebirth.

There is a brief, but interesting look at garden preservation which, again, might have been enlarged. The recent clamor over the threatened destruction of the Russell Page garden at The Frick Collection, a museum in New York City (the garden was saved) and other examples too numerous to mention, point out the importance of the work of saving significant gardens and, given the success of the Blue Garden restoration, a second lesson might have been taught.

Lost for decades, the Blue Garden was rediscovered in the mid 1960s-70s with some work done in the 80s. It wasn’t until it was brought to the attention of, and purchased by, philanthropist Dorrance Hamilton,that restoration began in earnest. Far more Lazarus than a Phoenix–rising as it did with at the hand of another rather than independently from the ashes–the Blue Garden rescue and restoration began in 2012 and concluded with a grand re-opening in 2014. As can be seen by the book’s remarkable photos, the restoration accomplished its purpose dramatically, bringing back the look and feel of James’ garden and milieu, without becoming a slavish re-creation.

The final chapter is about the ”new era,” covering restoration and the future. At 20 pages, (barely more than the end notes) it is the third and final part of the book where more would have been appreciated. In particular, a more in-depth discussion of the plans for the future of the garden and its significance as a source of education and inspiration for garden lovers would have been a great way to conclude the story.

There is a wonderfully done companion DVD documenting the process visually. It helps fill the gap, but given the amount of thought and effort that went into the restoration and the preparation of the book about it, it’s surprising that more is not provided on these important questions. Perhaps it’s all too fresh.

As if to fend off the further efforts of nature, the book is beautifully produced of heavy, matte paper designed to withstand the ravages of time. The bundled DVD documentary, Building the Blue Garden, is a wonderful look at the restoration process including interviews with the principals and a detailed look at the incredible effort and passion dedicated to the project. It is sure to delight readers of the book.

Vision, enduring commitment and significant resources are required to pull something like this off.  The Blue Garden was lucky to find its angel investor. The well known, variously attributed quote,“This is what God would do if he had the money,” immediately springs to mind when the story of the original construction of the garden is read—and makes a curtain call after documentation of the restoration, in written and visual form, is assessed. We are fortunate to have this project and its story spelled out in such detail.

Writing of the Masque of the Blue Garden, the grand fête arranged by Harriet Parsons James to dedicate her garden on August 15, 1913, an unidentified reporter says, “(A) fairy demesnes of gleaming white arcades, fountains and luxuriant bloom which the taste and inventive genius of artists supply to millionaires nowadays over night…We are entirely too progressive to wait centuries for anything, so our gardens like our pedigrees are made up out of books and the Jameses have a perfectly good garden that entrances the casual eye and will last them their lifetime. After that, who cares?”

Someone cared, the garden was spared, and now, it is shared.
The Blue Garden is available at:

Redwood Library and Athenaeum
50 Bellevue Avenue
Newport, RI 02840

and online at the Redwood Bookshop,

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