JAMES O’DAY, ASLA
The Meadows: A Summer Retreat for an American Dynasty M
y first encounter with The Meadows was a dozen years ago on my late afternoon bike ride, a routine capped off by a chocolate frappe at Salvadore’s ice cream stand. It was a guilty pleasure and a reward for the exercise. This particular trip provided another treat—an unexpected glimpse at what I later learned was a largely undocumented historic landscape: the summer compound of the storied Houghton dynasty, whose grounds and gardens were designed by eminent early 20th century landscape architects Warren H. Manning and Ellen Biddle Shipman. Seemingly, no one, save for the Houghtons, was aware of its historic importance or even its existence. The Meadows lies at the end of a country lane, its entrance hidden by St. Aiden’s Chapel, a picturesque edifice built for the summer colony’s faithful in 1917. Beyond the apple orchards and ancient stonewalls stands an immaculately groomed yew hedge, which has great allure. Peering through it, a verdurous oasis from the great age of garden-making is revealed—a remnant from America’s Country Place Era. In the rich shade cast by a grove hemlocks, birch and cedars is a formal reflecting pool graced by a small, bronze statue of a putto. The soft tinkle of water play from the fountain completes the idyllic vignette. At the far end of the sunny greensward, a rambling Shingle style manse with a columned pergola dominates.
The Discovery After my discovery, I moved to Washington, DC, but the image of the garden stayed with me. Last summer, while attending morning mass at St Aiden’s, my curiosity was rekindled. After services, I summoned the courage to ask the parishioners about the quiet estate behind the hedge. They could tell me very little but referred me to Johanna Hood, a Houghton family friend. She knew all the lore, having spent her youth sailing and swimming at The Meadows with the grandchildren of A. A. and A. B. Houghton. Recently, I met with Susan Cole Morse, the great-granddaughter of A. B. Houghton. We both happened to be in Dartmouth, she having just flown in from the West Coast to prepare the house for the summer. Susan is an estimable woman, a fusion of California chic and New England probity, with sapphire blue eyes and sweeps of blonde hair. She invited me into the vast kitchen—imagine Downton Abbey below stairs—and produced rolls of ancient blueprints from the pantry’s oak cupboards. These included Ellen Biddle Shipman’s “White Garden” design and an enormous ink-on-linen drawing entitled, “Record Plan and Planting Plan,” by Warren Manning, dated December 31, 1910. A rare find!
The Designers The Houghtons chose their designers with care. They selected Horace Frazer of the prestigious architectural firm of Chapman and Frazer to design their houses. For the grounds and gardens, they hired landscape architects Warren Manning and Ellen Biddle Shipman. Frazer was a prominent Boston architect, designing homes for the millionaires of the period. He frequently collaborated with Mr. Manning, who shared his aesthetic sensibilities. Manning was also a leading practitioner, having been a protégé of the Olmsted firm and a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899. As for Ellen Biddle Shipman, Manning frequently collaborated with her and considered her to be one of “the very best Flower Garden makers in America.” Conde Nast’s House & Garden Magazine anointed her as the “Dean of Women Landscape Architects.”
Ambassabor A. B. Houghton on the cover of Time Magazine, 1926
The Houghtons The Meadows is 35-acre compound built for Arthur Amory Houghton and Alanson Bigelow Houghton in 1910 near Salter’s Point in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The estate overlooks Apponagansett Bay, which includes a panorama of Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands. The Houghton brothers, known better by their initials than their given names, were scions of an emerging American dynasty. Their grandfather, Amory Houghton, founded a glass works in 1851 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eventually they decamped to Corning, New York, for its plentiful supply of natural gas to fuel their glass furnaces. The Corning Glass Works was born—making products ranging from the everyday Pyrex to the artisanal Steuben Glass. Today, Corning manufactures the tissue-thin gorilla glass used in smartphones and laptops. In time, they become stalwarts of business, government, and the arts. By 1957, Fortune Magazine listed them among the wealthiest Americans, placing them in a league with the Astors, du Ponts, and the Fords. A. B. Houghton served as ambassador to Germany and England’s Court of St. James during the 1920s, and his son Amory served as ambassador to France in the 1960s. Other family members have made contributions to the arts. Arthur Amory Houghton, Jr., served as a chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Philharmonic, and established the Houghton Library for rare books and manuscripts at Harvard. Alice Tully, a cousin, was a significant benefactress to New York’s Lincoln Center, hence Alice Tully Hall. Actress Katherine Hepburn’s mother was a Houghton as well. While their business interests took them to New York, the Houghtons—never forgetting their New England roots—returned in the early 20th century to build a seasonal retreat for their families. They established themselves amidst the rural charms of the coast and in proximity to the 19th century summer colonies of Nonquitt and Mishaum Point, idylls of Boston Brahmins and other New England elite. Today, the estate and its twin houses remain extant. A. B. Houghton’s descendants still summer in his home. A. A. Houghton’s descendants sold their share in the 1980s, but the house remains an integral part of the compound.
For the Houghton estate, Frazer modeled the houses after the local, vernacular New England architecture. Designed in the Shingle style, they’re practically identical in appearance. It was undoubtedly Frazer’s affirmation of the brothers’ equipoise. His deft massing of the buildings belies the fact that they are behemoths with 22,434 and 16,694 square feet of interior space, respectively. Banks of windows, porches, and pergolas integrated the houses to the landscape—allowing sunlight and fresh air to penetrate the interior.
View of the principal facade of the Alanson Bigelow Houghton residence, hand-colored photograph (postcard), circa 1918
carved out of the native flora circumnavigating the property. All lanes led to a singular destination: the beach. Despite his preference for wild gardens, Manning did design small formal parterres and terraces adjacent to the houses, modest in scale considering the size of the compound.
The Frog Pond, with its vernal pool and fern glade, offers a glimpse of what Manning envisaged. Shipman’s work has also been significantly altered. The perennial beds of Mrs. Houghton’s White Garden have been erased, replaced by a broad expanse of lawn.
Photographs of the A. A. Houghton formal garden taken shortly after the house’s completion and those taken for a magazine spread in 1918, illustrate its dramatic evolution. The earlier images depict a simple parterre with planting beds flanking a broad tapis vert, terminating in an exedra. The garden’s perimeter enveloped by a belt of Eastern Red Cedar and European white birch. Perhaps Mabel Houghton thought it
The only remnants of Shipman’s design are the reflecting pool and the perimeter plantings of Rosebay Rhododendren and Viburnum, now magnificent in their scale after several generations. According to noted landscape historian Robin Karson, such losses are common and most of Shipman’s gardens have succumbed to time and neglect. Of the 650 commissions she completed during her thirty-five year career, only two survive: the Windsor White garden in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and Mrs. Gertrude Seiberling’s walled English garden at Stan Hywet in Akron, Ohio. Karyn and Ben Campbell, the current owners of the A. A. Houghton house, have been sensitive stewards of this historic property—appreciative of Shipman’s significance and the legacy that they possess. Perhaps Mrs. A. A. Houghton’s White Garden, like Mrs. Seiberling’s English garden, will someday be similarly restored.
View of fromal garden from A. A. Houghton residence, circa 1913
needed further refinement and called in Shipman for advice. The presence of the pool—a ubiquitous Shipman feature—suggests her involvement. However, Shipman’s only known garden plan, entitled “White Garden for Mrs. A. A. Houghton,” is dated much later, circa 1937. The images from the Country Homes article indicate that the garden was redesigned, revealing a classically inspired reflecting pool with urns and statuary punctuating the herbaceous borders. The article reported, “East of the sun-room is the covered porch, with a beautiful vista on one side through the garden, ending in a pool behind which is an old Italian marble basin with a bronze statue and a background of dark green cedars.”
The Legacy Albeit altered, the design legacy of Manning and Shipman can still be felt. Manning’s naturalistic treatment of the landscape eventually gave way to vast mown greenswards, and the once prominently placed tennis courts removed to more discrete locations—only traces of his network of his carriage drives remain. A. A. Houghton garden, published in Country Homes Magazine, c.1918
Houghton family nurse and children “sailing” at the compound’s beach
About James O’Day, ASLA, is a landscape architect specializing in historic landscape preservation (www.jamesoday.com). His recent monograph, Edward Godfrey Lawson: Continuum of Classicism, Notes from the American Academy in Rome 1915-1920, was funded by the James Marston Fitch Foundation. He is also a contributing editor on the Manning Project, a two-volume publication to be produced by Robin Karson of the Library of American Landscape History (LALH) on Manning’s career as a landscape architect. Learn more about the LALH at www.lalh.org Credits: Plans and photographs, courtesy of Adelaide Griswold, Susan Cole Morse, Karyn Campbell, and Johanna Hood. Digitization of images, courtesy of Tom Wedell of Skolos-Wedell, Inc. © All rights reserved, Office of James O’Day, LLC
Frazer and Manning, presumably working in concert, situated the houses on the leeward side of the hill, which provided stunning sweeps of the coastline as well as shelter from stormy gales. Their proximity to one another—a mere 300 feet—indicates the brothers’ ambitions to integrate their extended families, creating a family compound not in name only.
The Landscape Manning’s landscape treatment echoed Frazer’s relaxed architectural style, creating a naturalistic landscape retaining rocky outcroppings, native meadows, stonewalls, thickets, marshes, and woodlands. He emphasized summertime recreation over gardening—tennis courts occupied a prime location in his scheme. His original plan did not call for extensive formal gardens or velvety greenswards. Instead, he proposed sunny glades, a ramble, and a circuit of bridal paths
Landscape architect Ellen Shipman’s “Flower Planting Plan for the White Garden for Mrs. Arthur A. Houghton,” dated 1937
The Meadows is an historic estate in Dartmouth, MA, designed by eminent landscape architects Warren Manning and Ellen Biddle Shipman in 191...