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Tending Saint-Gaudens’ Gardens

  • A garden at  Saint-Gaudens in Plainfield. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    A garden at Saint-Gaudens in Plainfield. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Found in the gardens at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, balsam is an heirloom flower.  (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Found in the gardens at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, balsam is an heirloom flower. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • James Haaf, gardener at Saint-Gaudens, has his clippers at the ready. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    James Haaf, gardener at Saint-Gaudens, has his clippers at the ready. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gardener James Haaf talks with visitors Martha and Tom Rimmer of Little Rock, Ark., about the poppies that Haaf was looking over next to the Little Studio at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Gardener James Haaf talks with visitors Martha and Tom Rimmer of Little Rock, Ark., about the poppies that Haaf was looking over next to the Little Studio at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gardener James Haaf trims an elephant ear plant at Saint-Gaudens. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Gardener James Haaf trims an elephant ear plant at Saint-Gaudens. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A garden at  Saint-Gaudens in Plainfield. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Found in the gardens at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, balsam is an heirloom flower.  (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • James Haaf, gardener at Saint-Gaudens, has his clippers at the ready. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Gardener James Haaf talks with visitors Martha and Tom Rimmer of Little Rock, Ark., about the poppies that Haaf was looking over next to the Little Studio at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Gardener James Haaf trims an elephant ear plant at Saint-Gaudens. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Like any gardener, James Haaf can’t pass a weed without stooping to pull it or see a spent flower without plucking it. He propagates flowers from seeds he saves, arranges flowers, mows lawns, clips hedges and is on the lookout for heirloom plants. But as the gardener at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, Haaf’s responsibilities are not only to the historical record but the vitality and beauty of the gardens. “I’m given the luxury to maintain the ornamental aspects of the grounds,” he said.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, whose name was given to Saint-Gaudens’ most famous sculpture, the Shaw Memorial, which commemorates Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the first African-American regiment raised in the Union Army. The Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site marks the anniversary with a series of events through the fall.

While the grounds themselves aren’t being formally celebrated, the landscape design is as integral to the site as the works of art. A visitor may not be consciously aware of the subtle arrangements of colors, horizontals and verticals at work, or the architectural interplay between the site’s famous 18-foot-high hedges and flower beds. But the gardens were as deliberately placed and laid out by Saint-Gaudens as his sculpture, said Henry Duffy, the curator and chief of cultural resources at the site.

The National Park Service aims for a close but not exact recreation of the estate during the Saint-Gaudens years, from 1885, when Augustus and Augusta Saint-Gaudens bought the old, dilapidated tavern, to 1950, two years after the death of their son Homer, who kept the estate going after his parents’ deaths.

The Saint-Gaudenses summered and then lived year-round at Aspet (the name of Saint-Gaudens’ father’s village in France) from 1885 to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ death in 1907; Augusta continued to live there until she died in 1927. Although the couple always had gardens, the planting layouts that visitors see today were designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman, who was part of the Cornish Arts Colony.

Because there are almost no written records documenting what the gardens contained, it’s hard to know precisely what was grown there during the Saint-Gaudens’ tenure. Haaf and Duffy have been able to determine some of the plants used by looking at old photographs, although faded black and white pictures aren’t the ideal medium for pinpointing which flowers were grown. So they make educated guesses, according to gardening catalogues and prevailing tastes of the time.

Haaf has been gardener at Saint-Ga udens for 19 years, or as he puts it, seasons. He has introduced some more modern elements in flower arrangements and design, and incorporated some elements of the Japanese gardening aesthetic. He balances the need for historical authenticity with the need for keeping the grounds and floral arrangements looking appropriate to the Gilded Age, but not stodgy. His philosophy is this: “Would this make the sculptor cringe?” he said.

After weeks of rain, the gardens are in full flower. On a clear, cool, sunny day, the phlox, veronica and rudbeckia in the gardens below the main house are vibrant and full, shimmering in the morning light. Shades of lavender, purple, pink and mauve shift subtly from one plant to the next. Bees, moths and other insects crowd the blossoms.

Haaf rediscovered a popular Victorian annual called balsam that he’s brought back to the site because it’s possible that it was planted during Saint-Gaudens’ tenure there. Similarly, he’s nurtured such older varieties as feverfew and maiden pink that he suspects were already there in the garden but were neglected. Visitors like the old-fashioned look of the flower beds, he said. “People say, `It reminds me of my grandmother’s garden.’ ”

By the time Saint-Gaudens came to Cornish, he was a celebrated artist and well-traveled. He’d made the Grand Tour of Europe, seen the palaces and the formal French and Italian gardens. Conscious of his position in society, Saint-Gaudens wanted an echo of what he’d seen in Europe at his country home.

Because the surrounding hillsides are now largely forested, it’s easy to forget that the land was once almost completely cleared, leading Saint-Gaudens and other members of the Cornish Colony to call this area of the Connecticut River Valley the American Tuscany, Duffy said.

But while the couple was well-to-do, they weren’t as ostentatious in their taste as the robber barons who built estates in Newport, R.I., or along the Hudson River. “It wasn’t meant for show,” Duffy said.

In the 19th century vernacular, semi- or fully-enclosed gardens were called “garden rooms.” At the Saint-Gaudens site the hedges act as walls or picture frames. “I think (Saint-Gaudens) was fascinated by spatial qualities,” Duffy said. “He liked texture. ... He liked the idea of inside and outside.”

What is now a cutting garden, with flowers propagated by Haaf, was once a kitchen garden. The enclosed garden that is now the site of the Shaw Memorial was used as a vegetable garden, and then a bowling green. Augusta Saint-Gaudens used to have her cutting garden where the Adams memorial is now. “Saint-Gaudens constantly changed things,” Haaf said. “There wasn’t a week that went by when he wasn’t shifting something to his great satisfaction,” Duffy said.

And framing all the gardens and sculpture are the hedges. White pines and hemlocks were planted next to each other, allowed to grow and then sheared to a hedge shape. The hedges weren’t merely decorative; they also served the purpose of preventing livestock from wandering through, said Duffy.

Saint-Gaudens was “particularly attuned to “the sounds, sights and textures of his environment, and the relationship between them and his sculpture, Duffy said. “He wanted to test lighting and spacing, and see what (his sculpture) looked like in an outdoor setting. He always had examples of his sculpture out.”

The difference between the sculpture and the landscape, of course, is that “a landscape is not static,” said Haaf. Climate, weather and changes in taste all affect how the gardens look from year to year. And while many visitors come for the sculpture or the coins Saint-Gaudens designed, Duffy views the art works and the grounds as “equal in importance. People like the idea you’ve got a little bit of nature. The art and nature blend very nicely and I think that’s why Saint-Gaudens stayed here so long.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.