James L. Greenleaf, a founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects, was hired by the Vanderbilts in 1902 to design an Italian garden. At that time, he had been practicing landscape architecture for eight years in New York City, though his formal training was as a civil engineer. Like Platt and many other designers, Greenleaf was a proponent of the Italian style. Characteristically Italian garden effects included the use of symmetry, central walks, terraces, walls, formally clipped hedges, water, statues, and evergreen plants. Flowers were used, but the structure of the garden could stand without them. Of critical importance, however, was the sense of scale and proportion. Greenleaf relied on the simplicity, light and shadow, and geometrical spaces using classical proportions. In a letter from Italy, Greenleaf writes, “nature is not art; nature is blind when it comes to handling things so as to mould them into lines of utility and beauty….There is no conflict between nature and art. There is no conflict between nature and design.“
Greenleaf’s garden philosophy had a strong influence on the development of the formal gardens, though he worked within the frame of walls established by the Langdons. While a garden in true Italian style would have been closely related to the house, the Vanderbilts, perhaps at the recommendation of Greenleaf, chose to redesign the lower level of the existing garden in the Italian style, though the garden was some 750 feet from the house.
The Italian Garden
Greenleaf produced more than sixty plans for the eastern half of the formal gardens between 1902 and 1904. The new garden, referred to as the Italian garden, occupied the two easternmost terraces and included new grading and extensive new structures. The linear space was oriented along a north-south axis. Greenleaf united the two terraces with an axial path that was cut into the grade so that it descended gradually from the upper end at the north to the lower level at the south. But while unifying the two terraces visually with this strong axial element, he also maintained the two distinct spaces by retaining the original bank that marked the grade change from one terrace to the next. Greenleaf further emphasized the separation with a tall cedar hedge at the top edge of the bank that served as an enclosing wall for the two spaces. The hedge was perforated with the central opening through which the path passed and with an opening at the east end of the hedge, which led through an arched trellis and down a flight of steps to the lower terrace. The axis was punctuated with a large brick and wooden timber pergola at the north end and a pavilion, pergola, and reflecting pool at the south end. The space was enclosed on all sides with brick walls and iron trellis fences.
A study of the dimensions of the two levels of the Greenleaf’s garden indicate that he employed a classical proportioning system—manifested in the two rectangular spaces representing the upper and lower terraces of his Italian garden. With the construction of the pool house and pergola, Greenleaf extended the lower terrace to the south so that both the upper and lower terraces featured approximately the golden ratio of 1 to 1.6, a rectangle classically believed to have ideal proportions.
Along the top edge of the sloped banks that marked the western edge of the Italian garden, Greenleaf enclosed the garden with trellis fences and pergolas. The fences ran along the east side of the walkway on the east edge of the annual terraces, separating the annual terraces from the Italian garden below. Features included an arched stair arbor of wire mesh at the north end of the walk, a series of wooden pergolas along the lower annual terrace, and two wooden pergolas over the central stairs and south stairs. The walk above the Italian garden through these arbors and pergolas served as an alternate route to the reflecting pool and pool house, which was the focal point of Greenleaf’s Italian garden. Moving along this walk south toward the pool house, a garden visitor would have had an unobstructed view of the parterres of the upper and lower annual gardens on the right. Along the left side of the walk through the upper annual garden, however, Greenleaf installed brick piers which were spanned by an iron fence. The fence was planted with vines to obscure the view from the walk into the Italian garden.
Along the left side of the same walk as it passed through the lower annual garden, the fence treatment was changed. Here, Greenleaf proposed a lattice with window openings so that one could periodically peek out to overlook the Italian garden below. These elements introduced by Greenleaf provided vertical separation between the different garden areas, and also provided a sequence of views so that the whole garden was not visible from the upper terraces. Along the eastern edge of the lower terrace of the Italian garden, Greenleaf altered the low brick wall from Langdon’s garden by raising the brick piers and spanning them with graceful iron arches to frame views of Crum Elbow Creek to the east.
North Pergola and Retaining Walls
Greenleaf altered the area at the north end of the upper perennial garden adjacent to the Gardener’s Cottage from a sloping embankment to a retaining wall providing a level walk adjacent to the building and enclosing the north end of the garden. The redesigned walk led to a new set of steps flanked by two beds, an 18 inch wide trench planted with ferns and a 4 foot wide trench for shrubs. The walk and steps led through Greenleaf’s elaborate north pergola, which he designed with large, brick and stone piers topped with chestnut timbers in a peaked roof pattern.
Pool House and Lower Pergola
Greenleaf expanded the Italian garden to the south beyond the existing garden wall, creating a curved wall to encompass his Italian-style pool house and large lower pergola. The pool served as the focal point for the Italian garden, and would later capture the reflection of an Italian white marble statue of an odalisque, or concubine, standing at the edge of the water in the shade of the pool house.
Cedar Hedges and Ornamental Plantings in the Italian Garden
Greenleaf extended the effect of the garden wall with what he referred to as the “midway hedge,” a formally clipped cedar hedge reminiscent of the Italian cypress. The hedge was placed across the Italian garden at the top of the sloped bank that separated the upper and the lower terraces, dividing the garden into two distinct spaces. The central walkway that connected the two terraces passed through a twenty-five-foot gap in the center of the hedge. The cedars were specified for installation at a large size: the two sixteen-foot-long sections of the hedge were to be more than ten feet tall, while the two end cedars that flanked the walkway were specified as eighteen feet high. The estate purchase ledgers indicate that the Vanderbilts bought over 70 cedar trees in July of 1903, which ranged from 8 to 24 feet in height.
Greenleaf specified the planting of vines and climbers on the entire perimeter of the garden. Other plants include, “Crimson Rambler, Multiflora, Evergreen Gem, Jersey Beauty, Gardenia, and Prairie Queen, Clematis paniculata, Clematis jackmanni, Euonymus radicans, Ivy canariensis, English ivy, Virginia creeper, Akebia quinata, Bignonia grandi, Ampelopsis veitch, Wild grape, and Wisteria.” The estate ledgers indicate that all of these plants were purchased with the exception of the Prairie Queen roses.
Two watercolor renderings of the upper and lower perennial garden illustrate Greenleaf’s design. They are a striking impression of the character of Greenleaf’s garden—open and restrained, with vegetation employed sparingly for maximum effect. The Italian influences are evident, both in the layout of the gardens and in the use of classical structures and evergreen shrubs and hedges.
Last updated: August 28, 2020