Walking into Innisfree always makes me feel like I’m holding my breath. There’s such a stillness, such an otherworldliness about it.
I’ve been several times and I must admit, I didn’t get it at first. That’s something I hear quite often, so please give it another look, if your first experience is like mine. It’s much more than a nice place to take a walk.
At first viewing, the landscape seems very natural. For many years, you never even saw a gardener working. That’s changed, but it doesn’t spoil the experience.
Innisfree was the country home of Walter Beck, a painter, and Marion Burt Beck, the daughter of a 19th century iron baron. They purchased the 950 acre plot of land, which included a 40 acre glacial lake.
Their house they built was in the Queen Anne style and they originally intended to put in a complementary English style garden. One look around and you’ll see it didn’t turn out that way.
While traveling in England to get some inspiration for their own garden, Mr. Beck was taken with some illustrations of Chinese gardens. In particular, the paintings of the 8th century Chinese poet Wang Wei.
Wei is credited with being an innovator in landscape painting. The Chinese style avoids wide views of the garden, forcing the viewer to peek and wind around obstructions to see what’s coming next.
Beck was impressed with the way Wang presented gardens that were focused inward or within themselves. Out came the English garden and work began on what Beck was to call “cup gardens”.
The idea of a cup garden is to use the landscape as a framing device to direct the eye to a scene or meditation. Natural cup-shaped vignettes are shaped with trees, rocks or the topography, like self-contained garden pictures, or garden rooms. It’s hard to explain but it sinks in as you tour. I think he succeeded well.
To create the gardens, Beck brought in landscape architect Lester Collins. Collins was still an undergraduate at Harvard, when he began his collaboration with the Becks, but he also appreciated Asian design and seemed a natural choice for the project. Collins had traveled and studied throughout Asian for almost 2 years and earned his Masters degree as Modernisms was becoming the fashion in the U.S.
Although it feels natural, there is a fair amount of contrivance. To create these “natural” vignettes, boulders were moved and repositioned to cause strollers to pause or to direct the eye. It was Collins who took these rooms and connected them to each other and the whole of the landscape, though both men wanted to maintain the lay of the land. Although the naturalism was contrived, it has been given the opportunity to make itself at home. Everything looks as though it has found it’s own level.
The landscape took over 50 years to create, but what garden isn’t constantly evolving? The Becks had planned to endow a foundation for the study of garden art, with a study center and a public garden, but Mrs. Beck’s lingering health issues ate through most of the money for the endowment and it was pretty much depleted at the time of her death.
Collins, who had helped the Becks set up the plans for the study center, also stepped in for Plan B, the nonprofit that oversees the garden today. The first task for the new trustees of Innisfree was to settle the Becks’ debts. 185 acres were sold to Rockefeller University, to create a research station and nature preserve.
Innisfree’s brochure says that Collins “…simplified the estate’s design but kept its sensibilities. In the process, he doubled the size of the garden and enhanced the breadth of experience.” Oh that I could do that in my garden; simplify and yet expand.
A lot of what we see today was done after the Beck’s tenure. It seems Collins couldn’t get enough of fiddling and refining. Many of the most familiar cups, like the Mist and the Channel Bridge, were his later undertakings. What impressed me most, when reading about his experimentations, was how he considered this style of gardening both scalable and flexible. If something died or fell, it was easy enough to put something else in its place. He would thin out aggressive plants or overgrown trees to make space for a new vision.
Some of my favorite spots at Innisfree are actually the views. Be sure to look up and across the lake, as you’re walking. The sight of the Air Stream and the Fountain Jet keep you curious enough to walk the whole loop. Then there’s the aged beauty of the stone stairs, arch, and something about the cypress ‘knees’ poking out of the lake reassure me each time that the garden is carrying on just fine.
There’s a picnic area with tables. Guided tours are offered on designated Saturdays. Check their website. Group tours are also offered, at other times. I highly recommend the group tour. The new Landscape Curator, Kate Kerin, has really delved deep into Innisfree’s evolution and brings that place alive.
362 Tyrrel Road, Millbrook, New York 12545