Design, In the Garden

Revisiting the Blue Garden

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Newport has so many treasures, as I was recently reminded when taking houseguests around our town, sharing one lovely vision after another. It was the Newport Flower Show week and what more appropriate stop on our itinerary than the Blue Garden. The day boasted a brilliant blue sky, as though echoing the statements of blue scattered before my admiring eyes. Enjoy the images of this iconic garden, from its many angles, as I relate the fascinating tale that goes along with its history…

Designed in 1913 by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (and considered one of his most notable landscape creations) for the Gilded Age baron, Arthur Curtiss James, and his wife, Harriet, the Blue Garden was carved out of vast ledge outcroppings on their 125-acre estate, gracing the highest point on this island. Bearing very classical proportions, the Garden’s signature statement was the choice of a monochromatic plant palette of shades of blues in all its incarnations – periwinkle, azure, sapphire, turquoise, violet, aqua, indigo. It’s no surprise that this garden received more than its share of international press coverage for many years.

But by the 1950s, the 125-acre James estate had been divided into large house lots. The Garden was a mere shadow of its former self; one of the Garden’s pergolas was even torn down to erect a mid-century modern structure, while devastating overgrowth erased any other vestiges of the Blue Garden (perhaps, though, it was this untamed vegetation that spared most of the blue tiles in the original pools and rill).

2012 began a new and fortuitous chapter in the life of the Blue Garden. In a scenario worthy of any garden aficionado’s dream, the former Garden property had come up for sale, just as the adjacent neighbor was completing her new home. All boded well, for this neighbor, Mrs. Dorrance (Dodo) Hamilton, was not only a figure of long-standing in the Newport community but was also admired for her support of horticultural causes and institutions.

An assembled team set to work, led by renowned landscape architectural firm, Reed Hildebrand, referencing the original plans from the Olmsted National Historic Site and assuring the tasteful and judicious rehabilitation of this historic landscape, inspired by the remaining tiles in their many shades of aqua blue.

The Blue Garden is private, open by appointment most every Thursday from June through early October, and over seen by Director Sarah Vance. The must-have coffee table book, The Blue Garden, Recapturing an Iconic Newport Landscape by Arleyn Levee, is also available by clicking here. Please visit for more information.

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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".

22 thoughts on “Revisiting the Blue Garden

  1. The Blue Garden is an absolute favorite of mine. Sarah is so lovely. Your photos are lovely, Bettie.

    1. Deborah, I know she’ll appreciate your kind words; I told her to be sure and scroll down the blog to see all the lovely comments that have come in!! xB

  2. A beautiful and artful presentation of a special place most would never have been able to see. Thank you for the tour.

    1. So true, Ellen, most will never get to see the Blue Garden, all the more incentive for me to create a blog every year or so. xB

  3. The water features with the flowers are absolutely stunning! Thank you once again for sharing!

    1. Aren’t those water features divine?! They are such a singular asset in this special garden! xB

  4. Bettie,
    Thank you for this! What a beautiful garden. I saw your rose at the Newport Flower Show. It was lovely.

    1. Thank you so much, Tracy, the Cut Specimen Division of the Newport Flower Show is my favorite, providing such a learning opportunity. Hope you entered, too! xB

  5. this garden captured my heart. how i would love to see this marvelous place in person with all of the lovely shades of blue!

  6. Nothing quite like getting the “blues” in Newport! This has always been one of my favorite gardens to visit. I love knowing the history of the restoration and, as always, your stunning photos captured the beauty and essence of fabulous planning and planting.

    1. Tall R, I’d forgotten that we’ve seen this together…what a double treat!! xxB

  7. Love it – and omg that ruffly pale blue iris (is it an iris?) is exquisite – and also so inspiring even for home gardeners because shows what can be done with creative planting and not dependent on mature trees, hedges, hundre-year-old topiaries and the like. A beautiful garden. Thank you.

    1. That’s a Japanese iris. They bloom bigger and later than the Siberians, which share the same bed.

      1. Donna, a follow-on to my earlier reply. The iris you mentioned is Japanese, Iris Ensata ‘Lake Effect.’ B

    2. Dearest, a follow-on to your question re. the iris; it is Japanese, Iris Ensata ‘Lake Effect.’ xB



    1. Gracious Gentleman, You will certainly wish to see this some day; unfortunately my friend is no longer with us, but what a legacy she has left. xB

  9. Thank you, Bettie, for visiting last week and for the inspiration to feature the Blue Garden in your blog—such an honor. It has taken nearly 10 years for the garden to mature into something that reflects the original design intent, yet is sustainable as a contemporary garden. Thank you to the readers for your wonderful comments about how much the Blue Garden and Mrs. Hamilton mean to you. Please visit again and again. The garden is more lavender-blue August–October, and the light and air are indescribable. The iris is a Japanese Iris—my favorite for their structure, and long late blooming—Iris Ensata ‘Lake Effect’ but the name changes depending on the grower. Sarah

    1. Dear Sarah, it is always a pleasure to revisit the BG and create another blog around its beauty…though it always brings tears to my eyes to remember Mrs. H. See you soon for tea! xB

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