Early History of the Gardens

Drs. John and Samuel Bard

The gardens at Hyde Park were first developed by Samuel Bard, son of John Bard, a respected physician in New York City. Intending to retire from medicine and pursue an agrarian life, John Bard established a farm at Hyde Park that included a house, barn, and a large apple orchard. Although financial struggles prevented him from retiring to Hyde Park as planned, he kept the property as a country seat and maintained the farm. Bard finally retired permanently to Hyde Park in 1798.

Samuel Bard showed an interest in the discipline of landscape design early in his father’s ownership of Hyde Park. In letters that he wrote home to his father while studying medicine in Edinburgh in 1764, Samuel excitedly implored his father to consider aesthetic attributes when laying out his estate grounds. While it does not appear that John Bard implemented any of his son’s suggestions, Samuel got the chance to put his theories into practice when he inherited the land in 1799.

Appreciating the scenic value of the western portion of the land overlooking the Hudson River, Samuel built a large house on the highest point of the property at the edge of the terrace, where the Vanderbilt mansion stands today. He also built a garden and greenhouse, though the exact location is not known. Bard’s son-in-law and biographer, John McVickar, writes about Bard’s “enjoyment of his garden and conservatory, which were stored with the choicest native and exotic plants.”


Establishing a Country Estate: John Hosack

Within eight years following his death in 1820, Samuel Bard’s heirs sold Hyde Park to his former student and partner, Dr. David Hosack. Hosack’s ownership of the property spanned only seven years, from 1828 until his death in 1835, yet it was one of the most influential with respect to the overall layout of the estate grounds. Hosack was an accomplished physician as well as an avid horticulturist. Hosack was a professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and established the Elgin Botanical Gardens in 1801, the first botanic garden in the United States. Hosack invested in numerous landscape improvements and welcomed visitors. Soon Hyde Park became “an obligatory stopping point on the Hudson.”

Hosack’s conservatory was described in 1830 as “a spacious edifice, constructed with great architectural taste and elegance.” An extensive ornamental garden was contiguous to the greenhouse and described by Andrew Jackson Downing as beautiful, with “herbaceous flowering plants, in arabesque beds, along the walks.” The exact location of Hosack’s gardens and conservatory are also unknown, but they were likely somewhat further north than the current gardens, perhaps just south of the ginkgo tree.


Development of the Formal Gardens: Langdon Ownership, 1840-1895

Following Hosack’s death, Hyde Park passed to his wife and children, who retained the property only for five additional years. In 1840, the estate was acquired by Walter Langdon through his wife Dorothea Astor Langdon, a gift from her father John Jacob Astor. Langdon built a new house to replace Hosack’s house, which burned in 1845. The new house was built in the same location as the old one, at the edge of the terrace overlooking the Hudson River. Walter Langdon died in 1847, the same year his new house was completed, and passed the estate to his children. Over the course of several years, Walter Langdon, Jr. bought the interests of his siblings, so that by 1852 he was the sole owner. The Langdon’s were occasional residents at Hyde Park and spent extended periods away.

In 1874, Langdon began the development of a new complex of greenhouses and gardens. The location of the new gardens was further south from Hosack’s gardens, where the Vanderbilt gardens are seen today. Langdon commissioned architects John H. Sturgis and Charles Brigham of Boston to design new greenhouses and garden structures.

The Sturgis and Brigham structures anchored a new complex of gardens, constructed on a series of rectangular terraces that stepped down the hillside. The level terraces were between about one hundred and one hundred and twenty feet long and about eighty feet wide and were bounded by short steep embankments. There were six terraces, with the top terrace, which held the large greenhouse, further divided into an upper terrace and a long rectangular terrace to the east. An 1897 survey shows the arrangement of garden beds, walks, slopes, greenhouses and buildings all framed by a surrounding brick wall. The garden beds on three of the terraces were laid out in geometric forms—circles, squares, rectangles, octagons—in elaborate patterns typical of the bedding gardens of the period. The perimeter wall appears to have been the only dividing structure, and all of the terraces were open to each other.

The introduction of new enclosed gardens, with their conservatories, terraces, buildings, and perimeter walls, was probably the most significant change to the landscape made by the Langdons in their 55-year ownership of Hyde Park. At the time of the Vanderbilt purchase, the Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier reported that the estate was somewhat neglected, with the hot houses “ample but empty.” It is this foundation upon which the Vanderbilts began to build.

Last updated: August 31, 2020

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