Formal Garden

Black and white photograph of garden beds covered in snow framed by arch of pergola structure Garden in spring framed by arch of pergola
Garden looking west from pergola by N. L. Stebbins, c. 1904-10. Buildings and Grounds Photograph Collection (3008-3-3)
Garden looking west from pergola, 2017. NPS Photo

The formal garden you see today is a restoration of a Colonial Revival garden commissioned by Alice Longfellow, daughter of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The beds are planted with early twentieth century heirloom plants and have benches that provide places of quiet retreat. The garden is open for the enjoyment of all, every day from dawn to dusk.




 
Detail of map showing five large estates along road parallel to river
Henry Pelham's 1775 map shows the five large estates along the road to Watertown

Library of Congress

From Country Estate to Formal Garden

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House was at the heart of an estate of 90 to 120 acres. The majority of this land was used as farmland. A 1775 map indicates a garden complex behind Colonel Vassall's house and barns, though by the end of the war little was left. Andrew Craigie had an interest in horticulture, adding greenhouses, orchards, a picturesque pond, and hundreds of trees to his estate in the early nineteenth century.

 
Watercolor of back of a house with trees in mid-ground and low garden beds in foreground
Vautin's 1845 watercolor shows the Longfellow's early garden beds and the platform built in the apple tree on the east lawn

NPS Photo / LONG 4439

Flower Garden

The Longfellow gardens consisted mainly of decorative flower gardens and, at the north of the property, a "woodland walk." Henry Longfellow described their initial landscaping as "a small garden in the form of a lyre." Fanny Longfellow cultivated the garden, with help from a gardener and her brother-in-law Samuel Longfellow; her letters describe the early garden as a mix of asters, petunias, pansies, dahlias, and roses. They planted flowers from seed and distributed sunken pots, which could be taken inside for the winter.

In 1847, the Longfellows hired English landscaper Richard Dolben to design a formal garden. The result was an Italian Renaissance garden with a Gothic "rose window" or "St Catherine's wheel" in the center and an overall Persian carpet pattern; remnants of this design can still be seen today.

 

Colonial Revival Design

After her father's death, Alice Longfellow worked with two landscape architects, Martha Brookes Hutcheson (1903-05) and Ellen Biddle Shipman (1923-1925) to restore the family garden. She also added a pergola and a sundial to the garden and had a small garden with an arbor planted just to the south of the formal garden's entrance.

 
Sundial made of arrow intersecting two circles set at right angles standing on pedestal
A modern reproduction of Alice Longfellow's armillary sphere sundial

NPS Photo

Martha Brookes Hutcheson (1903-1905)

Alice Longfellow hired a young female landscape architect, Martha Brookes Hutcheson, to restore her father's garden in 1903. Though Alice wanted to retain elements of her father's garden, there was no existing plan. Hutcheseon observed,

I added all arbors, gates, etc., but based the flower beds on the ghost of those which existed as Miss Longfellow told me that her father, a poet, had laid out the original plan, taking the flower bed shapes from a Persian pattern. Though I thought it an ugly idea, it was nevertheless so in keeping with the way things were done at the period that I felt it was interesting to reset the box borders in the original flower bed pattern so long as Longfellow, himself, had done it originally. I felt that it was a way in which one of my generation could pay him homage. That pleased Miss Longfellow very much.

In this "restoration," Alice added a sundial to the center of the garden in 1903, bearing a line from Dante’s Purgatory, xii, 84: “Pensa che questo di mai non raggiorna.” Her father had translated this as: “Think that this day will never dawn again.”

 
Blueprint showing planting beds with text identifying planting locations
Perennial Planting Plan for the Garden of Miss Alice Longfellow by Ellen Shipman

Architectural Drawings Collection (LONG 16172)

Ellen Biddle Shipman (1923-1925)

In 1924, Alice hired Ellen Biddle Shipman to rejuvenate the space. She was known for her painterly design, enclosed spaces, and for emphasizing the relationship between garden and house. Shipman planted the rectangular borders with heirloom roses and added evergreens and ornamental fruit trees to give the garden height. Just as importantly, Shipman made detailed planting diagrams and cultivar lists for future maintenance.

 

Last updated: July 20, 2018

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