April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
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
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.
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.
In 1892 three Connecticut Episcopal clergymen purchased Glebe House, which had been privately owned, for five hundred dollars as a gift to their bishop, and in 1923 a secular, nonprofit society was organized to assure its preservation. In 1926 a member named Annie Burr Jennings asked Jekyll, then eighty-three, to design a garden for the house. The garden was not installed at the time and seems to have been forgotten until the 1980s, when a researcher discovered the plan at the University of California at Berkeley, among papers that the American landscape architect Beatrix Farrand had purchased after Jekyll’s death in 1932. The blueprint’s appearance kindled a debate at Glebe House almost as fiery as the religious discussions held there two centuries earlier must have been.
Should an American colonial landmark restored in late-eighteenth-century style have an early-twentieth-century English cottage garden? The fundamentalists at Glebe House voted no. Could supporters afford a plan that would require repainting a house only recently done over in ocher? (Jekyll, whose mastery of the horticultural palette is legend in gardening circles, designed to the blue-gray color that the structure had worn.) And what about the cost of installing the masses of plants her site plan called for? No, again, said fiscal conservatives. When more open minds eventually prevailed and preparations for the garden commenced, new species of problems sprouted.
On a hot June day, clad in shorts and a bit dirt-streaked, Glebe House’s hands-on garden curator, Laurie Clement-Lawrason, recalled some of the obstacles she and her colleagues had encountered. In 1989, when she joined the effort, most of the beds were just being prepared, and drainage problems were becoming evident. Poor drainage forced them to move the bed on the house’s west side closer to the house by twelve feet, and water problems and shade patterns that had changed over sixty years led the garden committee to flip Jekyll’s planting scheme and install a mirror image with the east border on the west, and vice versa.
Jekyll had been unfamiliar with local weather conditions (in a 1927 letter to Jennings, she confessed to having “so little knowledge of actual planting on your side that I do not know if the evergreens I have shown will be the right ones”), and this meant finding background shrubs that would reflect the designer’s intention but were hardy in what horticulturists know as Zone 5. After numerous plantings were in the ground, the Glebe House gardeners viewed them from specific vantage points and found their siting incorrect; some had to be moved as far as ten feet. “It was terrible,” says Clement-Lawrason with a laugh. “We’re still pulling rudbeckia from the euonymus.”
From the outset, committee members debated just how strictly to follow the letter of Jekyll’s plan. Clement-Lawrason belonged to the faction that thought the garden designer’s spirit should prevail and that when digression from the blueprint seemed necessary, her copious writings could provide guidance. An understanding of Jekyll’s technique with color, for example, led to planting a goldtinged variety of thuja where nonhardy scotch gold holly had been specified. The glow of the thuja’s foliage makes it an appropriate backdrop for a border section showcasing day lilies, coneflowers, and helenium in yellow and rust. Elsewhere in the same border ferns and sweet cicely, a combination Jekyll was fond of, cover the ground where a willow had stood when she sketched her Glebe House plan. In spite of substitutions and the introduction of both annuals and biennials for a show of color that persists longer than perennials permit, “the tapestry of Gertrude Jekyll’s basic plan is very evident here,” as Clement-Lawrason puts it.
More important, the garden is a visual triumph. Colors flow in progressions that typify the designer’s style, from pastels to more intense hues, and sections devoted to cool tones contrast elegantly with warm-tinged areas. The shifting tints, textures, and scents unfold in sequence as the seasons embrace Connecticut, continuously reflecting Gertrude JekylPs ideal of the garden as “a dream of beauty, a place of perfect rest and refreshment of mind and body—a series of soul-satisfying pictures.”
In June 1996, as the Gertrude Jekyll Garden began its seasonal renewal, Glebe House itself became the site of another return: Harmanus Marshall, the son born to John and Sarah in 1776, came home. A fine portrait of Harmanus at age twenty-one, attributed to William Jennys, of nearby New Milford, had turned up at Christie’s Auction Gallery, and the museum was able to purchase it. Now Harmanus, in a sea green coat, one gold-buttoned cuff visible beneath its sleeve, gazes intently from a parlor wall. In April, planting season, the room’s tilt-top table is dotted with seeds—corn, peas, and beans—grouped to teach a child agriculture and arithmetic. John Marshall’s own wing chair, from which he may actually have instructed his son, faces it. The museum was prepared to bid substantially more for the painting, which was knocked down for well under Christie’s estimate. Perhaps Reverend Marshall and his clergyman colleagues of the time still exert influence.