Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

by Editor
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

In 1910, philanthropist and industrialist John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller purchased a house in Seal Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine, for a summer home. They weren’t the only ones. By the early 20th century, Maine’s cool summer months and natural beauty had drawn everyone from the Fords and Astors to the Vanderbilts and Pulitzers to build extravagant summer “cottages.” Fear of mass tourism prompted Rockefeller and others to donate land that became Acadia National Park. The Rockefeller legacy also lives on at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, which combines an English flower garden with Asian sculptures just outside the embrace of Acadia.

A Brief History of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

The Rockefellers’ summer home, The Eyrie, was a Tudor-style mansion overlooking Seal Harbor that eventually expanded to more than 100 rooms. Flowers, of course, naturally enhance any space, leading Abby to conclude that a cutting garden of her own would be a good way to decorate all those rooms. She enlisted the aid of celebrated landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand, who had first visited Mount Desert as a child and was a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Because the Rockefellers had spent several months in China and were already passionate collectors of Chinese art, Abby knew that she wanted to combine her English flower garden with the spiritual influence of Asian sculptures. For statuary, she turned to Yamanaka Sadajiro, a Japanese art dealer specializing in Buddhist sculpture.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

A bronze seated Buddha / Beth Reiber

The result was a meditative oasis, designed and constructed from 1926 to 1930 and unlike anything else on the rugged coastline of northern Maine. Built on a north-south axis, it became home not only to a profusion of seasonal flowers but also seated Buddhas, stupas, stone lanterns, and other Asian statuaries spaced in and around the garden in shaded woodlands and on carpets of luxuriant moss.

While the statuary could rest in peace, the garden beds required meticulous care and planning every year. Flowers were selected based on their peak performance during the summer months the Rockefellers were in residence, with supervision maintained over the years by successive members of the family. In 2017, David Rockefeller Sr. bequeathed the garden to the Land & Garden Preserve, which today administers 1,400 acres of gardens, natural areas, and trails on Mount Desert Island between Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor. All are open to the public.

Visiting the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

Summer flowers / Beth Reiber

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, designed to be at its floral peak in August, is open mid-July through early September by reservation only. While Acadia National Park, one of our smallest but most toured parks, can be congested in peak season, timed entry into the Rockefeller Garden ensures visits that are deeply intimate, almost like it’s your personal paradise. Indeed, even the garden’s entrance is unmarked and easily overlooked; you’ll receive directions when you make reservations.

The English Flower Garden

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden’s centerpiece is a three-acre English garden, with a grassy lawn in the middle and a profusion of flowers around the perimeter. It’s enclosed on three sides by a plastered, rose-colored Chinese wall, topped with thousands of glazed yellow tiles that were salvaged from renovation work at Peking’s Forbidden Palace. Decorative entryways, including a moon gate, a “bottle gate” in the shape of a Chinese vase, and a gate topped with a traditional Chinese roof, give the illusion of stepping into a secret garden.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

A garden entrance / Beth Reiber

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

The bottle shaped gate / Beth Reiber

The flowers of the border garden are mostly annuals, grown from seed, plugs, and cuttings in the Land & Garden Preserve’s greenhouses. Only organic fertilizers, fungicides, and insecticides are used, along with homemade compost.

The result is a gardener’s and floral-designer’s dreamland. Although many plants are reused, new varieties are introduced every year, identified with signs to help both the novice and expert alike. Plants include echinacea, oriental lilies, hostas, begonias, prairie sunset, false sunflower, gladiolas, phlox, hydrangea, bee balm, and silver king white sage. “Hot-colored” flowers grace the east side of the garden; “cool” flowers are on the west.

Abby’s favorite spot to view the flower garden was from its south end, where the Oval Garden provides shaded benches, perennials, and a reflective pond home to native Maine frogs.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

The Oval Garden / Beth Reiber

The Asian Sculptures

More than two dozen sculptures round out the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, mostly from ancient Korea, China, and Japan. Bronze and stone Buddhas, stupas, lanterns, basins, animals, pagodas, and incense burners are spread throughout the garden’s grounds, including shaded woodlands and mossy carpets kept free of leaves and needles. The effect is ethereal.

Indeed, the Spirit Path is lined with 12 Korean funerary sculptures, shaded by paper bark birch, jack pine, red spruce and red maple and accented with hair-cap moss, hay-scented fern, juniper and winterberry.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

The Spirit Path / Beth Reiber

The garden’s brochure includes a map, helping visitors locate the bronze, seated Buddhas dating from 17th-century China, the stone toad from 18th- or 19th-century Japan, a pair of granite 17th- or 18th-century Korean guardian animals, and other statuary.

Massive granite lanterns, including those from 17th- to 20th-century Japan, lead the way through woods to Eyrie Terrace. On a granite outcropping overlooking Seal Harbor, the terrace is all that remains of the Rockefeller home, razed in the 1960s. Luckily for us, Abby’s garden remains.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

Seal Harbor view / Beth Reiber

When You Go:

The Land & Garden Preserve’s 1,400 acres include hiking trails and carriage roads. The carriage roads are part of 45 miles of historic gravel roads built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. from 1913 to 1940, today considered the best and most extensive network of broken-stone carriage roads in the United States. Although most of the carriage roads are in Acadia National Park, the Preserve’s Little Long Pond, west of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, offers 10 miles of carriage roads, as well as 10 miles of hiking trails, meadows, marsh, a bog, crystal-clear streams, and almost 1,000 acres of forest.

Farther west, near Northeast Harbor, is Asticou Azalea Garden, famous for its more than 70 varieties of azaleas and rhododendrons, as well as Japanese elements like cherry trees and irises situated around a pond and sand garden. Nearby is Thuya Garden, the highlight of which is Thuya Lodge, completed in 1914 and filled with period furnishings.

Of course, the star of Mount Desert Island is Acadia National Park, established in 1916 as a national monument and named a national park in 1929. Encompassing more than 47,000 acres of rugged coastline, lakes, meadows, mountains, and lakes, it was the first national park created by land donated entirely by private citizens. These include John D. Rockefeller Jr., who donated more than 10,000 acres to the park.

Featured image: The English Border Garden / Beth Reiber

Beth Reiber is based in Lawrence, Kansas. Although Japan is her specialty, having written many guidebooks and articles about the country over the years, she loves researching and writing about everywhere she goes.

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