Place

Innisfree

Park setting with colorful trees, stone wall, and water spout in the background
Innisfree, Millbrook, New York

Photograph by Oliver Collins, courtesy of New York State Historic Preservation Office

Quick Facts
Innisfree is a public garden of approximately 200 acres, blending Japanese, Chinese, Modern, and ecological design principles in Millbrook, a rural area roughly in the center of Dutchess County, New York. Innisfree’s distinctive sloping, rocky landscape, which forms the literal and visual foundation for the garden, is set within a natural bowl wrapping around the 40-acre Tyrrel Lake. This bowl, with no other signs of human intervention visible beyond the garden, creates a profound sense of intimacy and privacy at Innisfree that is one of its defining characteristics. A product of postwar ideas in American landscape architecture, Innisfree merges the essence of Modernist and Romantic ideas with traditional Chinese and Japanese garden design principles in a form that evolved through subtle, sculptural handling of the site and slow, science-based manipulation of its ecology. The result is a distinctly American stroll garden organized around placemaking techniques used in ancient Chinese villa gardens and described as “cup gardens.”

Innisfree, one of the largest intact modern designed landscapes in America, is the masterwork of Lester Collins (1914-1993), a seminal figure in American twentieth century landscape architecture. Lester Collins, fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, was one of the most sought-after designers and influential educators of his generation. Innisfree’s design reflects the philosophies and practices that guided Collins’s approach throughout his career, integrates innovative, sometimes truly groundbreaking horticultural and environmental engineering practices, and embodies the distinctive characteristics of postwar Modernist landscape architecture.

Innisfree began as the private estate of Walter and Marion Beck, who started initial work on the garden during the early 1930s. Starting in 1938, they continued its development in collaboration with and under the direction of Lester Collins. In 1960, following the deaths of the Becks and pursuant to their wishes, Collins transformed Innisfree from a private estate garden into a substantially larger, more nuanced public garden. He ran the public
garden while continuing to gradually develop and transform the landscape until his death in 1993.

Innisfree demonstrates Collins’s focus on the experience of people in the landscape; his ability to respond adroitly to the particularities of site and program; his approach and aesthetics as a Modernist; his scholarly understanding of landscape history, particularly of Romantic, Chinese, and Japanese gardens; and his innovative use of scientific and engineering principles to develop an environmentally and economically sustainable landscape. Innisfree has long been a mecca for designers from all over the world and it is now attracting similar attention from the global horticultural
community.

The primary features of Innisfree’s design are its principal cup gardens (loosely understood as garden rooms), Tyrrel Lake, and the Lake Path. Collins used the unifying features of the lake and lake path to integrate the many cup gardens into one dynamic experience in the natural landscape. The cup gardens vary in form, scale, and materials. One is an organically shaped meadow bisected by a wildly meandering stream and dotted with sculptural rocks and specimen trees. Another is a bog garden that has been carefully but lightly managed so that a new plant community emerged to play a particular aesthetic role. One more still is an elaborate complex of rock terraces stepping down a slope, each with its own vocabulary of design, materials, and mood.

Throughout the garden, there are themes and motifs that recur in varied forms. There is a dynamic tension between what appears to be natural and what appears to be cultivated. At a macro scale, this is evidenced by the entirety of the garden itself emerging from apparent wooded wilderness. Undulating, almost surreal natural topography is echoed in the rounded forms of clipped trees and constructed berms. Tall, straight pine trunks are mirrored in a 60’ high fountain jet. Naturalistic bogs are discreetly cultivated while areas that look like traditional planted beds are allowed to evolve and change like native plant communities.

While there are some exceptional horticultural specimens at Innisfree, the vast majority of the plants are native or naturalized. Instead of labor-intensive maintenance to strictly adhere to a fixed planting plan, plants are encouraged to find locations where they thrive just as they do in the wild and then gently edited for aesthetics. Sometimes this is achieved simply by allowing plants to self-sow; sometimes by sowing seed or moving plants in from elsewhere on site to increase a successful population; sometimes by limited hybridization to develop strains that are more ideally suited to specific local conditions. As a result, the overall plantings at Innisfree have an unstudied visual character punctuated by a handful of carefully placed, carefully sculpted trees.

There is also a deliberate choreographing of human perceptual experiences throughout Innisfree. Collins paid particular attention to these ideas. Scale ranges from massive to intimate. Spaces are open and bright, or tight and shadowy. Surfaces vary in material, texture, slope, and sound. Water changes form, scale, and sound. Design and planting details are dense or spare.

Another important motif at Innisfree is sculptural landforms. Collins began to clear trees to reveal the undulating glacial landforms. Collins felt that “land shapes, both natural and man-made…separate but also knit together sequences of cup gardens. Just like the sculptural rocks, these land forms are permanent design features in the garden, for they do not grow and their health is not subject to vagaries.” In the 1970s and early 1980s, Collins created dramatic berms in the garden to echo and emphasize the natural landforms.

In the nearly 70 years since Innisfree opened to the public, the garden has delighted and captured the imagination of experts and non-experts alike. Garden lovers, landscape writers and critics have sought to capture the unique aesthetic qualities and unusual design sophistication of Innisfree in various descriptive terms.
 

Last updated: April 13, 2022