Thomas Meehan and Sons

In 1910 the Vanderbilts expanded the formal gardens in consultation with Thomas Meehan and Sons, a Philadelphia nursery that also provided landscape architectural services. The nursery was founded in the 1850s by Thomas Meehan, an immigrant from England who had been trained in English gardens. His nursery business thrived and, upon his death in 1901, the company was run by three of his four sons and two of his four brothers.

It is likely that Greenleaf introduced the Vanderbilts to Meehan and Sons. It was a nursery well known at the time for its extensive inventory and quality of plant material.61 The estate purchase ledgers indicate that beginning in 1902 the Vanderbilts purchased over one thousand trees and ornamental shrubs from Meehan and Sons. The Vanderbilts subsequently hired the company to prepare plans for an extension of their garden. The Vanderbilts also requested a plan for the arrangement of walks around the Mansion, but these plans were never implemented.

 

Loggia Garden (Rose Garden)

In 1910, the Meehan firm designed the loggia garden, an eastward extension of the garden on a lower level that was later known as the rose garden. Initially, two plans were prepared. Plans 2011, which was recorded in the purchase ledgers as costing $75 dollars, and 2011A prepared in 1910 detail the layout, grading, masonry and plantings of this addition to the formal gardens. The garden form was a rectangular extension of the Italian garden to the southeast with two levels and a curved wall at the eastern terminus. The rectilinear space was centered on an east-west axis and mirrored the dimensions of Greenleaf’s garden, if one included the lower perennial garden as the first level of the new space.

To effectively tie the new garden to the existing garden, Meehan and Sons created two new openings in the east wall of the lower perennial garden. Located at the corners of the space, the openings did not detract from the reflecting pool and pool house as the focal point. At the new openings, two sets of ten steps, each el-shaped, descended to the upper terrace of the rose garden—a rectangular space with two symmetrical garden parterres. The walks joined on a central axis leading to another set of steps that descended to the lowest garden level. The lowest level was organized in four parterres with a round fountain in an almost square space of approximately one hundred feet in length. The eastern curving end of the garden was accented, on the plan, with a garden seat at the terminal end of the central axis at the location where the loggia was later built.

The list of plants specified by Meehan and Sons for the new rose garden includes a large number of perennials; peony, daylily, phlox, bell flower, columbine, poppy, iris, aster, balloon flower, anemone, chrysanthemum, and more. There are several varieties of each species to be planted in the garden parterres. On the lowest terrace the narrow edge beds were specified for the planting of 160 assorted roses. The beds were designed to put on their most lavish display in the spring. The garden was designed to bloom blue, white, yellow, pink, purple, magenta, and red in the spring; blue, white, yellow and red in the summer; and blue, white, and pink in autumn.

Perennials were a specialty of the Meehan nursery. In fact, in their 1915 catalog they advertise the “Meehan Old-Fashioned Hardy Garden Collection,” for which they packaged plans and plants together as a kit. For example, Hardy Garden No. 8 cost $5.00. This kit would include 50 plants and a plan to arrange them over an area from 100 to 1,250 square feet. The drawing used in the advertisement shows the perennial beds laid out in the same manner as those at the Vanderbilt garden. Photographs and one postcard view of rose garden from about 1920 show a combination of plants with some roses, but the garden does not appear to have been planted to the wide assortment of perennials specified in the Meehan planting key.

The first fountain installed in the rose garden was referred to as the frog fountain. Crafted in France in about 1890, the white marble figural fountainhead in the form of a frog was based on the gilt lead frogs of the Bassin de Latone in the gardens of Versailles, which were designed by André le Nôtre and sculpted by Gérard and Balthazar Marsy between 1668 and 1670. The frog fountain was replaced with the Orpheus fountain in 1924.

 

Shrub Plantings around the Gardens

Both of Meehan’s 1910 designs for the rose garden included a shrub planting around the perimeter of the formal garden outside of the garden wall. Adjacent to the garden fence and brick piers, the plans specified a sequence of twenty-four groups of massed flowering shrubs. These included viburnum, spirea, Indian currant, hydrangea, barberry, honeysuckle, deutzia, privet, forsythia, weigela, stephanandra, mock orange, Japanese quince, and rhododendron, arranged around the formal garden space in a dense, informal massing from the northwest corner eastward to the southwest corner. At the northeast and southeast corners of the rose garden, conical evergreens were specified, with Oriental spruce and Balsam fir occupying opposite corners, and arborvitae surrounding the garden seat at the site of the future loggia.

Views of the garden some ten years later show a dense mass of shrubs surrounding the edge of the garden confirming that the specified shrub masses were planted. The exact relationship of the shrubs pictured and those specified in the planting list and plan is undocumented.68 The estate purchase ledgers do not itemize purchases from Meehan from 1910 onward. Several large payments are made to Meehan in 1910, “Extension to Italian Garden Draft ($1147.50), ($2686.82), ($1237.68), and ($800).” Again in 1912, the Vanderbilts pay Meehan for “Furnishing & Planting as per contract ($382.25)” and “Replanting garden extension ($71.65).” Also recorded are purchases from Meehan for fifty rhododendrons in 1910, forty mugo pines in 1912, and forty-four Hall’s honeysuckle in 1914. Extensive purchases from other nurseries during this time period reflect the broad network of horticultural suppliers that provided seeds, bulbs, and plants to the Vanderbilts for their Italian garden as well as their greater estate or “park” and farm properties.

 

Meehan Influence on the Formal Gardens

Meehan and Sons appear to have had little influence on the existing garden elements in the upper terraces. The annual terraces were planted out as in previous years. The perennial terraces continued to mature and reflect the Greenleaf design. Photographs in the 1910s along the central walk show that the design was fully mature (see Figure 1.26). By this time extensive vines covered the brick columns and wooden rafters of the pergola. The pool contains some water lilies. Two bay shrubs in pots stood at the pool corners. The small pool beds were planted with flowering annuals or perennials. The beds at the walk edges show massed iris foliage.

Meehan and Sons influence was chiefly in the design of the new rose garden and the surrounding shrub plantings. Later planning by Robert Cridland would increase the quantity of roses in the beds but the grading, layout, and organization of the garden developed by Meehan and Sons would remain.

Last updated: August 28, 2020

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