Newport’s Cultural Landscapes Riches

Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island image: Alexandra Hay
Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island
image: Alexandra Hay

Set on an island in the middle of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island’s Newport County has a maritime climate that allows all sorts of plants to grow and thrive there, earning Newport the moniker “Eden of America” back in the eighteenth century. Newport is home to a diverse array of stunning landscapes, from those surrounding the famous Gilded Age mansions on Bellevue Avenue to centuries-old squares in the historic downtown and rugged vistas along the coast that can be taken in from the Cliff Walk and Ocean Drive.

This May, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s What’s Out There weekend in Newport highlighted many sites in the region, including parks, farms, vineyards, cemeteries, and, of course, several summer “cottages” where Vanderbilts, Astors, and their high-society peers once gathered (and partied) for a few weeks each summer.

The landscapes surrounding each mansion varies greatly, and many have changed dramatically over time with changes in ownership and stylistic preferences. Using information gleaned from early plans and drawings, old photographs, and invoices for plants, what these landscapes looked like in the nineteenth and early twentieth century can be glimpsed and few historic layers peeled back.

Rough Point image: Alexandra Hay
Rough Point
image: Alexandra Hay

Frederick Law Olmsted designed many rambling gardens all over Newport in the Picturesque style, some of which were replaced with more formal terraces and parterres in subsequent decades, as at Rough Point, where you can now find formal hedged gardens in addition to a few remnants of the original Olmsted design. The Elms, where the fountains and gardens were designed in the Italian Baroque and French Neoclassical styles, also has a much more formal air, reflective of the later time period (1902-1914) of its completion compared to the earlier Olmsted landscapes.

The Elms image: Alexandra Hay
The Elms
image: Alexandra Hay

Specimen trees, including enormous European beeches and turkey oaks, abound. Tall privet hedges were often used to create protective microclimates that allowed more exotic plants to grow, from fig and banana trees to herbs and vegetables. The grove of trees below, on the grounds of Chateau-sur-Mer, once protected the rose garden, and the bright green lawn in the foreground—a specially bred turf—is used by a local croquet club.

Chateau-sur-Mer image: Alexandra Hay
Chateau-sur-Mer
image: Alexandra Hay

Also at Chateau-sur-Mer is the sole remnant of the 1974 Monumenta outdoor sculpture exhibition, Richard Fleischner’s Sod Maze. Other artists whose work appeared in the exhibition included Christo and Jean-Claude, who wrapped Price’s Neck on Ocean Drive, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, and Claes Oldenberg. Tour guide Jim Donahue, Curator of Historic Landscapes & Horticulture for The Preservation Society of Newport County, touched on the challenges of maintaining Chateau-sur-Mer’s maze, as sections of the earthwork tended to collapse as time goes on.

The sod maze at Chateau-sur-Mer image: Alexandra Hay
The sod maze at Chateau-sur-Mer
image: Alexandra Hay

Just north of Newport in Portsmouth, the Green Animals Topiary Garden offers a completely different experience, with much more manicured specimens of sculptured California privet that range in size, shape, and age, and include birds, elephants, camels, giraffes, teddy bears, and more abstract geometric shapes. This topiary garden is one of the oldest and furthest north in the country.

A What’s Out There Weekend tour group at the Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth image: Alexandra Hay

No trip to Newport would be complete without some time spent on the water, enjoying the Cliff Walk as it meanders past the mansions, or one of the area’s waterfront parks, including Beavertail State Park, Fort Adams, and Brenton Point.

The start of the Cliff Walk, just off of Memorial Boulevard image: Alexandra Hay
The start of the Cliff Walk, just off of Memorial Boulevard
image: Alexandra Hay
Rock scrambling at Beavertail State Park image: Alexandra Hay
Rock scrambling at Beavertail State Park
image: Alexandra Hay

As John R. Tschirch, an architectural historian and one of the What’s Out There Weekend tour guides, put it in a recent article for TCLF, Newport today is

a richly layered cultural landscape offering scholars and casual visitors alike living examples of the artistic, horticultural, and social forces that shaped this unique American landscape in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The natural and the manufactured coexist in Newport, sometimes comfortably, sometimes not. This dichotomy has always inspired creativity and compromise, often resulting in a lively dialogue among both critics and champions of this so-called “Eden.”

If you haven’t been there yet, add a weekend in Newport to your summer wishlist—and spend some time seeing what’s out there!

For more information, check out TCLF’s write-up of the weekend and the handout from the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting field session Newport’s Cultural and Historic Landscapes–Past to Present, which covered some of the same locations.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s What’s Out There weekend in Newport was sponsored in part by the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Boston Society of Landscape Architects, among other allied organizations.

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