Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Gardening Retreat

When Alice Delafield Clarkson Livingston left her family estate of Clermont to New York State in 1962, she had not lived in the mansion for 20 years. Instead, in 1942 she had moved herself to a tiny cottage once used to house the gardener. By then she was a widow, her children grown and pursuing lives of their own (though they still remained close to home), and trying to keep up a mansion of 44 rooms with only a handful of servants. Compounded with shortages of coal brought on by the war, the move out of Clermont in and into what she christened "Clermont Cottage" must have been a bittersweet relief.

This small, cozy house offered many of the things she had loved at Clermont, a connection to 18th century history, original architectural features, and, importantly, easy access to her favorite gardens. Almost right outside her were the wide beds of the Cutting Garden and the remains of the slowly decaying greenhouse.
Alice had felt a deep connection to gardening since childhood. As an adult she once wrote:

"...when my father purchased Holcroft I had a chance to lay out a garden there & move earth about to conform to my idea of line, for the first time in my life & I felt completely happy."

She had worked on perfecting the gardens at Clermont since her arrival there in 1908, after her two-year honeymoon. The Spring Garden alone took her ten years to complete. "My thoughts in those days were all on garden & out of door panning," she said. Immediately adjacent to the mansion, the Spring Garden could be viewed from the library, where Alice often sat, eyes glued to the outside, contemplating her next changes to the garden.

Alice even introduced her daughters to gardening early. Remembering her own childhood pleasure in gardens, she gave Janet and Honoria a plot next to the cutting garden. For the girls, this simple bed of flowers seems to have pailed in comparison to the gift of the garden shed, which became their playhouse. For years after, it was the little gray building, filled with all of their "most precious posessions," which dominated their memories more than the garden.

When she moved to Clermont cottage, Alice's attention was refocused onto the same broad grassy paths of the Cutting Garden which her children had once treated as their playground. Its proximity to her back door made it into a constant companion, and she redoubled her efforts to keep it in brilliant bloom with fresh plantings and devoted attention. The collection of heirloom peonies and roses in particular became "old friends," with whom she visited seasonally and ocassionally referred to by name.

Alice left us with extensive records of planning this garden: receipts for purchasing new plants, somewhat cryptic plans for how they would be laid out, and a large body of photographs of the results. In fact, the frequency with which she photographed her dogs and gardens in all seasons gives us a picture of how important they became in her daily life as she aged. Their steady, quiet presence provided a backdrop for visits from Janet, who was by this time an investment banker on Wall Street and who returned weekly to see her mother and help with the upkeep of the mansion (Janet's comfort on a lawn mower became somewhat of a family spectical).

Honoria and her husband Rex were also not far. They had moved to Clermont's other cottage, at the top of the manor road and could not help but make regular visits to Alice when they were not wintering in Florida.

With the importance that they held for Alice, Clermont is dedicated to her upkeep of her gardens. At present, four of her gardens are maintained, and they are a draw for family picnics (children are especially drawn to Alice's goldfish pond), bird watchers, and even weddings. The greenhouse, while still in the state of ruin that Alice was familiar with, continues to protect a collection of roses and other "tastey" plants from the intrusions of deer with its brick foundation walls and some added fencing. This is one of the most colorful spots in the cutting garden today.
With the donation of her family estate to the public, Alice made her private garden retreat something that can be enjoyed by anyone with a spare hour or two and curious nature. It is one of the things that make us a local favorite and brings locals back regularly and draws our staff out of the attic and basement (where our offices are located), blinking in the sunlight to sneak a quick walk when we can.


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