Design, In the Garden, The Newport Diary


Inspiring Garden Design: America’s Eden

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Happy 2022! In January of each year I so look forward to starting my annual “Inspiring Garden Design” series. It is such a welcome antidote to the post-Christmas duldrums.

This year’s series starts with a bit of celebration as my longtime friend John Tschirch’s new book, America’s Eden: Newport Landscapes Through the Ages, is making an early debut. An architectural historian, author, lecturer, and authority on garden history…he has produced a seminal piece of work that covers four centuries of this special paradise we know as Newport, on Aquidneck Island. The 304 pages are rich in pictorials and are an illuminating read given John’s masterful descriptions that support the premise of the book–“how the act of forming the land and interpreting it through various art forms produced a physical and cultural record of a place proclaimed an earthly paradise.” Notably, the book’s title is inspired by the first geography of our young nation, written by Jedediah Morse, who in 1789 deemed Newport “the Eden of America.”

John and I both agreed that a focus on the first female photographer using this newly emerging art form to memorialize gardens would be most appropriate for Private Newport. Between 1910 and 1930 (the latter two decades of the Golden Age of American Gardens), Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), captured Newport gardens at the height of their horticultural glory. One of her first patrons, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Curtiss James of Beacon Hill, retained her to document their famed estate, from the vast vegetable growing acreage…

to the celebrated Blue Garden (designed by the Olmsted Brothers and recently restored)…

as well as their whimsical recreation of a Swiss farm, Swiss Village (present day images of both properties are on my previous blogs). Other properties to which she brought her talents with the camera were The Breakers, a monumental structure very different from the original wooden structure destroyed by fire.

And The Elms, where a series of photographs cast special attention on design details like clipped greenery and the classically-inspired landscape of Newport’s 18th century-style chateau.

At Hammersmith Farm (source for the book’s cover), we’re treated to formal flower laden parterres as well as the soft contours of the many flower-lined paths…

while at Armsea the island’s roses are displayed on elaborate structures, befitting of their horticultural stature.

The images here are treasures from the Library of Congress. Kodacolor was not yet available, necessitating Johnston and others to work with glass lantern slides which were then meticulously hand-colored by a short list of artists skilled in this profession. Take note particularly of the quality of gentle light and soft foliage in these images, so pleasing for the representation of an “Eden.” Cheers to Frances Benjamin Johnston for pursuing her maverick career and leaving Newport a priceless legacy.

And I close with a salute to John Tschirch, and to The Newport Tree Conservancy who supported and published this invaluable book revealing Newport as a cultural landscape of national significance.

It’s time now to settle back in your armchair and immerse yourself in “the earthly history of Newport.”

John Tschirch, an author and award winning architectural historian, is the former director of Museum Affairs for the Preservation Society of Newport County. He was made an Honorary Member of the Garden Club of America for his services to the research and restoration of historic landscapes, work that has been cited in features in the NY TimesConde Nast Traveler, and Martha Stewart Living. He has also appeared on the A&E documentary series “America’s Castles.” In 2020, his book Newport: The Artful City, won a Victorian Society America Book Award. Visit him on his blog, John Stories: Confession of a Globetrekking Architectural Historian. For more on John’s work, visit JohnStories.com.

America’s Eden is available at Barnes & Noble and in Newport at Charter Books and the Preservation Society Museum stores.


All images credit: Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Library of Congress

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

5 thoughts on “Inspiring Garden Design: America’s Eden

  1. What a wonderful book! And outstanding photographs of these great spaces!
    My piddly efforts look pathetic in comparison to these amazingly planned, laid out and blooming garden displays 🙁

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