The Gardens of August: Wyndygoul

Lantern slide of Seton’s manor house at Wyndygoul, Cos Cob, Connecticut, circa 1900 image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-01507
Lantern slide of Seton’s manor house at Wyndygoul, Cos Cob, Connecticut, circa 1900
image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-01507

Part of a Research, Reachout & Restore series on historic and cultural landscapes

A century after the start of the First World War and 53 years since The Guns of August was published, the garden where Barbara Tuchman wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning work reveals itself.

Barbara Tuchman’s daughter once mentioned the garden to me in passing, recalling a Japanese maple—or was it a weeping cherry, with layered limbs cascading over stone walls onto the smooth surface of the pond? It was her grandfather’s, Maurice Wertheim’s, garden. This frugal recollection, like a grudging haiku, conjured an elegant landscape. I couldn’t shake it.

Since our conversation many years ago, I pieced together the few threads and clues that I remembered. Earlier this spring, I finally found the elusive garden and learned about its storied past. It remains extant, albeit threadbare. Originally it was the property of Ernest Thompson Seton, a wealthy naturalist and Englishman who bought up six old farmsteads in the village of Cos Cob, Connecticut, creating his country estate in 1900 and naming it Wyndygoul, Scottish for windy glen.

Garden party at Wyndygoul, lakeside parterre, circa 1920s image: Dr. Pamela Steiner, Steiner Family Collection
Garden party at Wyndygoul, lakeside parterre, circa 1920s
image: Dr. Pamela Steiner, Steiner Family Collection

The parterre, designed in the early 20th century, was a hybrid of the Olmstedian Picturesque and the Italian Renaissance, with rustic granite walls that enveloped a formal garden with a rectangular plan. Situated amid a rugged New England topography populated with rocky outcroppings and dense forest, its orderly presence in the landscape was an anomaly. Seton further enhanced this design by damming the adjacent Brother’s Brook and created a twelve-acre pond from the marshy lowlands, which he named Pipe Stave Pond.

On the sandy flats, muscular ashlar walls were built, which were repurposed from the fieldstone walls that once divided agrarian pastures. They enclosed an area approximately 60 feet in width by 140 feet in length. Built within this perimeter wall was a C-shaped upper terrace—a mezzanine providing a vantage point from which to view the pond’s placid waters. Stone banquettes were installed along the walls for seating and flights of ashlar steps descended onto a lower terrace, occupied by a wall fountain with a demi-lune basin, and stone-paved paths that framed perennial beds, providing a horticultural focal point for this sunny glade. A watergate, the garden’s principal feature, integrated the parterre with the pond, ostensibly for the purposes of launching sailboats and canoes.

Hand-colored postcard of the manor house at Wyndygoul image: James O'Day
Hand-colored postcard of the manor house at Wyndygoul
image: James O’Day

Seton built his manor house, a rambling stone and shingle pile, on the nearby hill overlooking the gardens and the pond. The promontory also provided a panorama of the Long Island Sound and Oyster Bay in the distance. A rustic cascade of stone steps with a wrought iron handrail descended from the house, ambitiously linking it to the garden. Both the house and the parterre appear to be the work of a master, yet no architect or landscape architect has been attributed.

Map of Cos Cob, Connecticut, showing Wertheim’s property, the former Seton estate, west of the Mianus River, circa 1942 image: James O'Day
Map of Cos Cob, Connecticut, showing Wertheim’s property, the former Seton estate, west of the Mianus River, circa 1942
image: James O’Day

Wyndygoul represents a significant Country Place Era landscape, yet it also played a broader role in American cultural history. It was here that Seton recruited the local schoolboys to explore the woodlands and study nature, establishing the Seton Woodcraft Indians, a precursor to the Boy Scouts of America. Although the estate fulfilled Seton’s self-image as a modern-day overlord, he sold his well-stocked 146-acre preserve to Maurice Wertheim in 1913 for the then-astonishing sum of $250,000. Wertheim was the Secretary of the United Cigar Manufacturers’ Association and later the eponymous founder of Wertheim & Company, a New York City investment firm. He and his wife Alma Morgenthau retained it as a summer home and it eventually evolved into a family compound.

It was at Wyndygoul that their daughter Barbara Tuchman wrote the The Guns of August, winning the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for her historical tome about the run-up to the First World War. Her interest in the global cataclysm was presumably heightened by her maternal grandfather Henry Morgenthau, the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time of the conflict.

The gardens of Wyndygoul's current condition image: James O'Day
The gardens of Wyndygoul’s current condition
image: James O’Day

Little remains of Wyndygoul from its zenith. Barbara Tuchman continued to live there until her death in 1989. Subsequently, the Town of Greenwich eventually acquired a large portion of the estate for the purpose of preserving it for open space conservation. Over time, the manor house became ramshackle, graffiti-tagged, and litter-strewn, and was recently demolished as the town lacked the funds to sustain it. The parterre, a remnant of the Belle Époque, slips away—threatened with certain obliteration as invasive trees encroach and untended stone walls crumble into the pond.

The gardens of Wyndygoul's current condition image: James O'Day
The gardens of Wyndygoul’s current condition
image: James O’Day

by James O’Day, ASLA, Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Liaison for the Potomac Chapter of ASLA

2 thoughts on “The Gardens of August: Wyndygoul

  1. CeCe Haydock August 27, 2015 / 11:32 pm

    Thank you, James, for revealing this little-known house of the Country House Era — another gem hidden amongst us.

  2. marion W. miller October 28, 2015 / 9:09 pm

    I grew up in Cos Cob on a street called Cat Rock in a beloved country farmhouse that I cannot get out of my recollections. There is so much beauty there. There are rock outcroppings that we played on for all out childhoods. We collected polliwogs in jars & I brought Jack in the pulpit home to my father for his beloved “Springtide.” The area is blessed with so many souls who knew her special beauty. Thank you for writing this piece.

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