Blithewood Garden: Remember the Past
In an interview of 1903, Hoppin set out his conception of a garden [as being] an architectural garden … surrounded by high walls [and] symmetrically designed, with at least one central line from the house.” A walled garden implied ‘solitude’ for Hoppin, a quality Hoppin prized for making the garden a haven for its owners. – Wendy Joy Darby, for Lepera and Ward, Architects, “The Blithewood Garden at Bard College Historic Landscape Report,” September 1989, p. 3
BLITHEWOOD GARDEN AND THE BARD COLLEGE CAMPUS as a whole have significant connections to the heritage of the Hudson Valley region and the evolution of American landscape design. Blithewood was significant in the Picturesque movement in architecture (1840–1880), as it was one of the earliest estates in the United States to emphasize the landscape more than the house. Acquired from local native Americans by Pieter Schuyler in 1680, the property was sold to Robert Donaldson circa 1835, who commissioned the preeminent landscape gardener of the day, Andrew Jackson Downing, to design the grounds. In 1860, John and Margaret Bard, who purchased part of the Donaldson estate in 1853, donated 18 acres for the founding of St. Stephen’s College (later renamed Bard College).
At the turn of the twentieth century, new owners Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie (1853–1916) and his wife, Frances Hunter Zabriskie (d. 1951), commissioned Francis L. V. Hoppin (1867–1941), of the architectural firm Hoppin & Koen, to design a house and garden according to the tastes and trends of the Gilded Age. Hoppin’s Georgian manor house and Italianate garden that we see today are examples of the Country Place Era in the Hudson Valley. After Captain Zabriskie’s death in 1916, his widow, Frances, took an active part in the development and upkeep of the gardens and grounds. After Frances died in 1951, the Zabriskies’ son, Christian, donated Blithewood, by then an 865-acre estate, to Bard College. In 1987, it was renovated and transferred to the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. In 1990, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior included Blithewood as a contributing property in the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District, a 32-mile stretch that extends from Germantown to Hyde Park.
Image courtesy of Historic Red Hook
Robert Donaldson (1800-1872), pictured here, owned Blithewood from 1835 until 1852 when he sold the estate to John and Margaret Bard. Donaldson is credited with bringing together and working with Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis, the most significant landscape designer and architects of the Romantic period. Donaldson envisioned Blithewood as an example of an estate designed in the Picturesque mode, (fully natural and pleasingly wild).
Charles R. Leslie (1794-1859), Robert Donaldson, 1820, oil on canvas. Courtesy Richard Hampton Jenrette.
Andrew Jackson Downing began his career as a landscape designer, operating out of Newburgh, NY where he owned a nursery. In 1846 he founded ‘The Horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste’ which served to popularize his ideas of architecture, landscape design and his belief that one’s surroundings--particularly beautiful surroundings--helped to shape one’s moral character. This portrait of Downing is from Rural Essays, by A.J. Downing, Leavitt & Allen: George P. Putnam, 1857
Downing’s 'Horticulturist' was a foremost publication of its day, informing a growing middle class on matters of taste in gardening, home design, and their connection to the refinement of the mind and spirit. Blithewood and its modifications were often used as the subject of articles, as Downing confirms here on p. 58 “Most of our readers are already familiar...with Blithewood, one of the most beautiful of American country seats, the residence of Robert Donaldson Esq. The present structure bears the same marks of superior taste and refinement in landscape embellishment and building, that we have before so gladly admired and commended in this demesne.”
This engraving served as the frontispiece for Andrew Jackson Downing’s Treatise on Landscape Gardening and Rural Architecture. This shows the exterior of Donaldson’s Blithewood. The house faced the river and featured a broad, trellised porch that expanded the living area of the house, and brought people outside to enjoy the beauty of the landscape. The woman and child in the right foreground are believed to be Susan Donaldson and her young son.
Alexander Jackson Davis, or A. J. Davis (July 24, 1803 – January 14, 1892), was one of the most successful and influential American architects of his generation, known particularly for his association with the Gothic Revival style.
This image is an enlargement of an engraving of the Blithewood Gatehouse designed by A.J. Davis from an edition of A.J. Downing’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Rural Architecture and Landscape Gardening. Interestingly, Downing describes this structure as a “simple and effective cottage in the bracketed style--octagonal in its form, and very compactly arranged internally.” Compact it is, as our many colleagues in the Institute for International Liberal Education can attest, but the gatehouse is actually hexagonal. “Prince Albert,” Robert Donaldson’s prize bull, can be seen at the right.
Map of Blithewood by A. J. Davis, ca. 1840s. This image is scanned from Robert A. Toole’s book Landscape Gardens on the Hudson, a History, in which he describes this as “one of the best site plans to survive showing a Picturesques landscape garden.” Original watercolor housed in the Avery Library, Columbia University
Called variously the Gardener’s Cottage or Gardener’s Lodge, this building was built on the Blithewood estate during Donaldson’s tenure. Though A.J. Davis is often credited as the architect, an 1845 article in an agricultural publication entitled ‘The Cultivator’ gives the credit for the design of this building to Donaldson himself. “The credit of introducing to this country the Rural Gothic, or pointed style of architecture belongs to Mr. Donaldson. The first specimen of this style was the gardener’s cottage which, for its taste and simplicity, excels anything of the kind we have ever seen.” This is the only known photograph existing of this house which was removed by the Zabriskies to make room for a coach house.
This oval window was photographed during John and Margaret Bard’s tenure, but it was created by Robert Donaldson. Ornately framed, with a view of the Hudson River, it was originally surrounded by Donaldson’s art collection that included many landscapes by Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. Nature and art were presented as equals, a central principle of the Picturesque Movement.
Partial view of the structure known as ‘Zabriskie’s Drill Hall,’ which today stands precariously beside Blithewood mansion. This photograph is dated 1888, and identified as ‘the Coach House on the estate of John Bard,’ though the structure dates to Donaldson’s time.
Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie (1853–1916) and his wife, Frances Hunter Zabriskie (d. 1951), owned the Blithewood estate from 1899 to 1951. Their son, Christian Zabriskie, donated the property to Bard College after the death of his mother. The house and garden was designed circa 1903 by Francis L. V. Hoppin (1867–1941) of the architectural firm Hoppin & Koen.
Inscription and bookplate in the 2nd edition of Downing’s Landscape Gardening and Rural Architecture. Inscription reads “Bought in Summer of 1897 & the reading of this book first brought to our attention our future country seat Blithewood. A.C.Z.”
Detail of hand tinted Hoppin & Koen elevation blueprint for the Blithewood Garden, 1903
Blithewood was featured in this article in 'Town and Country, an Illustrated Weekly' on March 5, 1904. Note the Shropshire sheep grazing on a hill. Looking at this today, it is not clear what hill is represented here, though the Zabriskies owned many acres of land on the east side of 9G.
Blithewood Garden image, ca. 1915. From Beautiful Gardens in America, by Louise Shelton. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1916, Plate 49.
Taken soon after the transfer of the Blithewood Estate to Bard College in 1951, this photograph, taken by Charles Eggert, depicts the garden with the formal shrubbery specified in the original 1903 Hoppin & Koen plan commissioned by Mrs. Zabriskie.