On a hot but not too humid day toward the beginning of August, we wound our way up the hill in our old jeep to Wethersfield Garden, the house and gardens of the investor and philanthropist, Chauncey Stillman (1907 – 1989).
With panoramic views of the Catskills and the Berkshires, the gardens in New York State’s northern Dutchess County are a breezy, and yet secluded, spot for a perfect getaway. Covering 10 aces of formal and outer gardens in and around the brick Georgian-style house, Wethersfield is a step back in time and a true respite from our speedy lives.
Designed in Italian renaissance style, the gardens are notable for their elegance, flow and synchronicity with the house. A series of grassy courtyards progress from one to the next with neatly trimmed pathways, hedges and stone stairways leading you along. Garden enfilades are created out of shrubbery, pines and statuary from around the world. Major stonework and wide grassy staircases transition from one courtyard to the next.
You arrive at the house via one path only to be drawn down another by an alluring bend or planting. The visitor always finds the center as the garden is designed on an east/west and north/south axis with beautiful vistas out to the fields and farmland.
Some of the garden spaces are calm and restful with closely cut grass, large oval pools and fountains while the cutting garden bursts with hundreds of rows of flowers of exuberant colors ranging from big deep purples dahlias to the bright orange bouncy marigolds. Peacocks wander the grounds or are kept in a secluded cage.
One of the main long courtyards has four very dignified 40 foot tall weeping beech trees that have beautiful stature and transport one for a moment to Italy. The two sculpture horses by Jean DeMarco perched on stone pillars grace the entrance to yet another garden courtyard, while a cupid fountain nestles in another wall. Hidden pathways allow the visitor to take in the garden from different vantage points.
While some gardens have the disadvantage of seeming to be transitory relying for their beauty on the blooming season, the Wethersfield Gardens has a sense of permanence emanating from the garden plan, stone walls, statuary and court yards.
Bryan Lynch designed the original formal gardens around the house in 1940; and then, in 1952, Evelyn N. Poehler was hired to oversee the maintenance of the gardens. Working closely with Chauncey Stillman, Ms. Poehler led the development and expansion of the gardens for the next 30 years. English sculptor Peter Watts and Polish-born sculptor Josef Stachura created all the statuary during the late 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Stillman himself studied architecture at Columbia University and took a great interest in his gardens as well as his entire 1,200-acre estate with the carriages and farm.
A tour of the house helps to appreciate the beautiful plan of the garden. From every point inside, one can see another vista or garden courtyard that serves as a visual, and literal, extension of the house. The axes of the gardens echo the well-planned central axis of the house with hallways ending in narrow pools and French doors opening on to grassy courtyards.
On the garden’s website, you will find a wonderful assortment of activities ranging from piano concerts, falconry demonstrations, plein air workshops, theater performances and riding events including trail rides and carriage outings. Regional nonprofit organizations such as Bard College and the Dutchess Land Conservancy often rent the gardens for parties and luncheons and talks.
Highly recommend is a tour of the house that has a wonderful collection of Mr. Stillman’s art and sculpture collected by him and his family with paintings by Cassatt, Sargent, Stuart, Toulouse-Lautrec, Dega, and Ingres among others. Visitors can also tour the carriage house and Mr. Stillman’s extensive collection of carriages dating from 1850 to 1910.
WHEN YOU GO:
Wethersfield is open June through September on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 12noon to 5pm. Admission is charged to the house and gardens. Advanced reservations are required to tour the Main House and Carriage House. Group garden tours are available by advance reservation. Check their website for updates on admission and hours open.
The extensive trails are also open from mid-April to mid-November from dawn to dusk with a day pass (fee charged). These are accessible only to equestrians and hiking enthusiasts. Check the website for details.
The best way to get to Wethersfield from the north or south on the Taconic is to take the US44/Poughkeepsie/Millbrook exit toward Millbrook. Continue 10.9 miles on 44 east to Bangall Amenia Road. Watch for the blue Wethersfield Garden sign. Turn left on the Bangall Amenia Road and continue for 2.4 miles. Turn right on Pugsley Hill Road and continue for 1.4 miles to the estate entrance on your left.
Most accommodations are in the nearby town of Pine Plains (2.5 miles away) and The Inn at Pine Plains, is a perfect spot right in the middle of town at 3036 Church Street with well-appointed rooms named after local heritage spots and reasonable prices.
A few doors down, the Pine Plains Platter is where most of the locals and visitors are to be found. The restaurant serves up hearty breakfast and a variety of sandwiches and salads for lunch. For a midafternoon juice cleanse, try Isabella’s Juice Bar, but save space for dinner. There is no better choice than Stissing House Restaurant on the corner of South Main Street which serves delicious food thanks to Chef Jean Michel and his wife Patricia who once owned and operated the French restaurant Provence in New York’s SoHo.
Victoria Larson is an avid traveler and garden culture enthusiast.