How to Add Gilded Age Glamour To Any Backyard
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How to Add Gilded Age Glamour To Any Backyard

The restoration of a grand New England garden offers lessons for growers who are eager to add ‘instant age’ to modern-day plots.

By KATY ELLIOTT
Thu, Aug 18, 2022 9:47amGrey Clock 3 min

WHEN WE BEGAN, it was basically an archaeological ruin,” landscape architect Douglas Jones recalled of the elegant Marblehead, Mass., garden that his client, Brian McCarthy, has dedicated two decades to reviving. In the late 1990s, when the McCarthys purchased the waterfront parcel, which included portions of a turn-of-the-century summer estate once owned by heiress and historical preservationist Louise du Pont Crowninshield, their focus was building a home for their growing family—not planting hedges and training roses. But after neighbours shared 1930s photos of the Italianate garden at its peak, the challenge of making a new version look as if it had been there for more than a century proved irresistible. “I wanted to embrace the history,” said Mr. McCarthy.

Guided by that mission, Mr. Jones, of the Boston firm LeBlanc Jones Landscape Architects, launched a “conjectural restoration,” informed by remnants of railings, walls and garden beds. Mr. McCarthy, an avid auction-goer, stalked period statuary. “At a certain point, we had to invent,” said Mr. Jones. “But we were always faithful to the spirit of the place.”

The result is a welcoming garden that looks as if it has always been there—and always will. Here, five strategies that can help homeowners add historical character to their own backyards, no blue-blood pedigree required.

1. Embrace Reclaimed Materials

Though brickwork walls were one of the original features of the garden when Mr. McCarthy hired Mr. Jones to take on the property, the structures were in various states of disrepair, ranging from bad to worse. The solution for an age-appropriate fix: hiring masons to rebuild and repair stairways, walls, niches and arches using a mix of original materials and reclaimed Chicago common bricks sourced to complement the old ones. “Afterward everything was sandblasted to give it a unified, weathered look,” Mr. Jones explained. A creeping blanket of English ivy also helps tie old and new together. “A masonry consultant would definitely tell you to pull off these vines,” he said. “But we love how they add a sense of age, so we’ve allowed them to envelop.”

2. Traffic in Traditional Motifs

For a garden that looks timeless, stick to designs that never go out of style. Topiaries and manicured hedges with well-defined edges are a classic motif in formal gardens and an ideal way to imbue otherwise bland spaces with structure and a sense of history. Here, Mr. Jones used an allée of pyramidal Japanese yews to create a linear transition between the rose garden and the looser, perennial plantings that abut the pool and greenhouse. “It’s a complete invention but in keeping with the old garden,” he explained. Feathery pink astilbe, added by gardener Rick Elder, brings a soft, organic note to the corridor, and in the distance, a 150-year-old bronze beech forms a majestic backdrop behind a sweet marble statue of a child.

3. Seek Out Antique Varietals

The rose garden was one of the most well-documented elements of the original plan, with copious photographs and remnants of the beds visible on the ground. But its restoration was also aided by serendipity: “Amazingly, we found a label for some old roses buried in the soil,” said Mr. Jones—info that was confirmed by an elderly gardener who had worked on the estate more than half a century before. True to the past, Mr. Jones used that varietal—Iceberg, a floribunda prized for cloudlike blossoms—for the perimeter of the garden, then filled in using fragrant newer cultivars from renowned British breeder David Austin Roses, such as Glamis Castle and Abraham Darby, in a pale palette of pink and white.

4. Splurge On Mature Plants

Don’t discount the power of a head start. To lend the grounds instant age, in among younger specimens Mr. Jones planted dozens of established shrubs and trees. Some of Mr. McCarthy’s favourites: the sprawling wisteria that cascades over the waterfront porch of the family’s newly built (but historically-accurate) Georgian home. They were decades old when purchased—”and they might be a hundred now,” said Mr. McCarthy. Trained and nurtured since, the vines drape to create a keyhole vista of Marblehead harbour. “These have really been a labour of love,” said Mr. Jones.

5. Drop in Pieces With Patina

Arranged everywhere throughout the garden, in niches and clearings, is the sculptural evidence of Mr. McCarthy’s keen collector’s eye. In a less grand garden the objects might look out of place, said Mr. Jones. “But they really work here.” Among the most striking pieces: figures in bronze and cast-iron that react with the elements to form a warm, coppery patina. “I love the way the colouring looks against the brick,” Mr. McCarthy said. “These aren’t the kind of things you’re going to go to Home Depot and see—you’ll never find another one,” he added. “Antiques give the garden the mystique it needs.”

Reprinted by permission of Mansion Global, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: August 17, 2022.

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