- Historic Sites
The Flowers And The Glory
How a highly historic eighteenth- c entury Connecticut house learned to live in harmony with a twentieth-century garden that is the only surviving American design of a great British landscape architect
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
The Glebe house in Woodbury, Connecticut, is appropriately named. A glebe, from the Latin word gleba , which means “clod of earth,” is a minister’s land endowment; the more fertile it is, the better it will support the pastor and his family. In fact, the earth of this western Connecticut glebe has proved especially fecund.
The Glebe house in Woodbury, Connecticut, is appropriately named. A glebe, from the Latin word gleba , which means “clod of earth,” is a minister’s land endowment; the more fertile it is, the better it will support the pastor and his family. In fact, the earth of this western Connecticut glebe has proved especially fecund. Preserved as a memorial since 1892, opened to the public in 1925, and later listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, Woodbury’s Glebe House played a critical role in the growth of the Episcopal Church, as the site of the election of its first bishop. Seven years ago, after a plan commissioned in 1926 was uncovered in a university archive, Glebe House also became a centerpiece for the only existing American garden by the famous English landscape architect Gertrude Jekyll.
Gertrude Jekyll’s 1926 plan for the garden surfaced at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1980s.
On spring and summer days, some visitors to what is now called Glebe House Museum and Gertrude Jekyll Garden may be tempted to spend all their time outdoors, admiring perennials clustered in drifts (a signature of Jekyll, whose I name is pronounced JEE-kul) and gazing up at the state’s tallest sycamore, which is at least two centuries old. But even the most ardent gardeners should devote half an hour to a guided tour of the mid-eighteenth-century dwelling.
The visit begins in a spacious keeping room, or family sitting room, with its unusually large hearth, high ceiling, and boxed-in beams—all signs of affluence, suggesting that the minister who lived here from 1771 to 1785, John Rutgers Marshall, led a relatively comfortable life. The priest’s Book of Common Prayer, in the adjoining study, tells a different tale. Marshall, in response to Revolutionary sentiment, scratched out in ink all references to the English royal family that appeared there. The fact that “O Lord save the King” became “O Lord save the Church” suggests the peril that American Episcopalians suddenly faced because of their connection with an English institution. Episcopalianism weathered the war, of course, but the clergy were split on the issue of church government by bishops, with New Englanders tending to favor episcopacy, as this structure is called. On March 25, 1783, ten Connecticut ministers held a secret meeting at Glebe House to elect a candidate for the office of bishop, the church’s first in America. The Reverend Samuel Seabury sailed for England to be consecrated, but because he would not swear allegiance to the Crown, he finally had to travel to Aberdeen, where three Scottish bishops were willing to perform the ceremony.
Glebe house sits in a hollow that still contains seven of Woodbury’s oldest structures. If you visit during one of the summer weeks when its history day camp is in session, it’s easy to imagine some of the children in period dress being the offspring of John and Sarah Marshall (who had nine), of the wealthy merchant Jabez Bacon, their neighbor across the road, or of the patriot Anglican selectman Nathan Preston, whose daughter Caroline’s name is scratched in the centuries-old glass of a Glebe House window. At the camp, volunteer counselors teach eight- to twelve-year-olds—girls in long dresses and caps, boys in tricorns—such eighteenth-century skills as cooking on an open hearth, making butter and medicines, and dyeing and spinning wool.
Roaming the house’s upstairs, you wonder how many young toes were warmed by the spectacular indigo trapunto coverlet that decorates a double bed. Gertrude Jekyll would have admired this bedcover, so elaborately quilted by Sarah Marshall, since she, too, was an expert needleworker. For the most part, however, Jekyll, a painter, a photographer, an editor, and the author of more than a dozen books and approximately two thousand articles, is remembered as the designer of some four hundred gardens.