When John Milton Hay —writer, personal secretary to Abraham Lincoln, and Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt —traveled to New Hampshire in 1888 to escape the chaos of Washington, little did he know the seed he planted then would continue to flourish today.
Hay, a savvy and well-heeled member of the Washington political elite, took advantage of the improved transportation systems of industrialism and traveled north to join the Summer Home Movement of wealthy urbanites seeking solace from the cities and sultry D.C. summers.
Hay purchased 1000 acres of unproductive farmland and pristine forest overlooking Lake Sunapee, where he and his wife, Clara, built a cottage-style summer home in 1891 —which he later named The Fells—and a conjoined addition for friends in 1897. The Fells is as sublime a refuge for visitors today as it was over a century ago.
The Fells historic estate is operated by a non-profit organization of the same name.
The estate currently comprises 84 acres abutting the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fells is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and protection of the gardens was one of the first projects of the newly formed Garden Conservancy in 1992.
Although historic photographs indicate John and Clara Hay had maple trees and hydrangeas outside of their home, significant landscaping of The Fells estate inured to their son, Clarence, upon his father’s death in 1905.
Clarence’s penchant for plants and deep affection for the environment led to a comprehensive transformation of the grounds from 1909 through the 1930s. What started as an unadorned woodland grew into a spectacular array of outstanding gardens, including a breathtaking Rose Terrace, diverse Rock Garden, American Victorian Perennial Border, and formal walled Old Garden.
Top: A spectacular overview of the Rose Terrace and 15-foot-high stone wall smothered in Climbing hydrangea with a vista of Lake Sunapee in the background. Bottom, from left: One of the many stone walkways built by Italian stonemasons that meander through Clarence Hay’s beloved Rock Garden. Accented by a set of curved granite steps, the Perennial Border boasts persistent blooms from May to September. Facing page, top: Beautiful stone walls of the Old Garden were built around an existing sugar maple in 1909. Facing page, bottom: Stone table and benches, added to The Old Garden in 1931, offer a respite for visitors amid the mature garden, tucked inside the woodland edge.
“Clarence, a Harvard-trained archaeologist, also took forestry and landscape architecture classes with Frederick Law Olmstead,” says Jeff Good, landscape director at The Fells. “It was Olmstead’s influence, we think, that led Clarence to design the Old Garden in 1909, the first garden at The Fells.” Indeed, the Old Garden celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Like many Colonial Revival gardens of the time, the Old Garden at The Fells comingles natural and formal landscape design styles with north/south and east/west axes, and multiple garden rooms. According to Mary T. Kronenwetter, education director for The Fells, the Old Garden is “an integrated juxtaposition of a cultivated garden and the indigenous New Hampshire landscape.” Three garden rooms are enclosed by a formal stone wall and trellised entrance, and comprise original plantings of andromeda, rhododendron, azalea, and fern intermingled with a stunning Kousa dogwood, statue of (a now headless) Pan, and a moss-laden granite tea bench flanked by Victorian-style urns. The Old Garden is the most remote garden on the estate, situated approximately 300 feet from the main house at the woodland edge near the “twin summer house” John Hay built for family and friends. The garden creates a sanctuary, which, Good surmises, was Clarence’s intention. In the Old Garden, Clarence was able to implement the lessons he learned from Olmstead, and experiment with landscape design in the seclusion of the forest he so loved. An adjacent log cabin (no longer standing) allowed him to stay and garden in Newbury during the early spring and fall, when the main house was closed. Naturally, the Old Garden has matured during its 100 years. Prior to his death in 1969, Clarence carefully managed and maintained the area, discovering and planting new trees, shrubs and perennials, replacing others, and pruning more to maintain a maximum human/plant scale of approximately 6 feet. After his death, the Old Garden began to revert to its wilder side. A rhododendron alee once an ample 10 feet wide and straight, for example, now encroaches upon visitors traversing its meandering path, and areas of the garden that once boasted an ethereal, sunny, cathedral feel are either overgrown and dying, or shady and confining.
This year, The Fells will commemorate the Old Garden’s anniversary with an expanded renovation effort.
“The 100-year anniversary of the Old Garden coincides nicely with a master plan for renovation created three years ago by Lucinda Brockway, garden historian and designer,”
“We’ve started to implement some of her ideas already, including pruning trees, removing plants to use elsewhere on the property, and recreating the feel of the garden during the 1930s.”
Good is careful to call the project a renovation, and not a restoration.
“I hesitate to use the term restoration,” he says, “because it implies exact replication.”
While the Old Garden still includes 100-year old trees, Good will plant new ones, including Cephalotaxus harringtonii (Plum yew) to replace a hedge of Taxus (Yew) destroyed by deer. Good believes that Hay would approve of the approach.
“Clarence was always on the lookout for new plants and ways to use them,”
“He continually changed the gardens, adding plants he discovered on trips to Williamsburg and the White Mountains, and recreating designs he saw abroad in Europe.”
One thing about the Old Garden will change, however. Moving forward, The Fells is committed to maintaining the walled woodland area in a manner not realized since Clarence’s passing. Brockway’s master plan provides for new gardens beyond the walls of the Old Garden—including a Wildflower Walk and a viewing access to a vernal pool— and for the care of a larger portion of the property which encompasses the Old Garden.
The project is indicative of The Fells dedication to the holistic improvement of the Hay retreat. And in the spirit of its original owners, The Fells will celebrate the first garden this year in style, with a lively presentation and tour of the Old Garden.
Good will recount the fascinating story of this 100-year-old treasure that is surrounded by a glorious landscape, pristine forest, and vistas of a shimmering lake. This year, and in the future, The Fells invites guests from near and far to hark back to simpler times, and to surrender the stresses of the day.
John and Clara Hay, and their son Clarence, would be proud to know their beloved Fells continues to offer a peaceful respite for visitors, and that Clarence’s Old Garden is once again being tended to and enjoyed.