Friday, September 23, 2016

A Matter of Interpretation

The parterre formal garden smelled.  But not the pleasant fragrance you would hope to find in such a lush array of flowers.  The odor was ­– even the head gardener in answering my question as to its source struggled to avoid using the word – unpleasant.  (I later read it described on as “like cat urine. Unneutered male cat piss to be exact.”)
But she had no difficulty telling me the answer, “Boxwood” – the slow-growing evergreen shrub maintained here at a two-foot height to edge the multiple "compartimens" that comprise the flowerbed.

Mars and I were touring Roseland Cottage in Woodstock Connecticut – the bright coral pink, 6,000 square foot Gothic Revival former summer home of Henry and Lucy Bowen and their young family built in 1846.  The site is now owned and operated by Historic New England, “the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation.”  Although occupied until the late 1960s Roseland Cottage is presented (“interpreted” in the jargon) as it was in the mid 19th century.

According to the HNE website, “Roseland Cottage epitomizes Gothic Revival architecture, with its steep gables, decorative bargeboards, and ornamented chimney pots. The interior of Roseland Cottage is equally colorful, and features elaborate wall coverings, heavily patterned carpets, and stained glass, much of which survives unchanged from the Victorian era.”


During a one-hour tour of the home with our exuberant guide Sandy we learned that Henry Chandler Bowen (1813 – 1896) was a well-respected and well-connected successful New York businessman, born and raised in Woodstock as a member of what calls  “an old established New England family whose roots were watered by faith and commerce.”   Henry’s identically named ancestor was one of the “Thirteen Goers” who on April 5, 1686 founded what was then called New Roxbury, the first European settlement in the area that became Windham County. 

 In New York City Henry C founded Bowen & McNamee, later Bowen Holmes & Co. – sellers of dry goods, silks and ribbons.  He also owned two newspapers.  Henry married Lucy Tappen (the daughter of his initial New York employer and mentor) and together they had ten children.  After Lucy’s death Henry married Ellen Holt with whom he had one child.  The Bowen’s permanent home in BrooklynHeights on the corner of Willow and Clark Streets was considered one of “The Heights” most beautiful homes.  It is unfortunately no longer standing.  Henry C was an abolitionist and one of his papers, The Independent, was a prominent voice for the movement featuring columnists such as Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe– for which it is said to have lost over 3,000 subscribers but, in turn, gained nearly twice that many new ones.   In 1850, in order to keep their trade with the South going, over 5,000 merchants in New York City signed “the call” opposing the elimination of slavery.  The Bowen & McNamee Company refused to sign.


During the 1870s, in Woodstock, Henry C Bowen annually staged what became recognized as the largest Independence Day festivity in the country.  These celebrations continued for more than two decades and in 1876 (partially to accommodate these crowds) Bowen opened the sixty-acre Roseland Park along Roseland Lake with a boathouse, private bungalows, fountains, and statuary among its facilities.  The park is still open to the public.  At this and other occasions he entertained friends and political connections such as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, and Rutherford B. Hayes, and future Chief Executive William McKinley.  Other guests included Henry Ward Beecher, Julia Ward Howe, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John C. Fremont. 

One source of entertainment for these visitors was what is now the nations’ oldest surviving indoor bowling alley located in the Cottage’s Carriage House.  On his initial visit to that facility President Grant supposedly threw a perfect strike with his first ball – then declined to continue the game having already succeeded at it.  He was allowed to “achieve and leave”, however his attempt to light a victory cigar was quashed by his host who did not allow tobacco, alcohol, or card playing in his residence.   After dinners, as was the custom of the time, the women would repair to the parlor to discuss feminine topics while men would go to the den and talk politics and business.  But no one partook of alcohol or tobacco during these gatherings.  Bowen was a devotee of a healthy lifestyle and he and his family played various games on their large lawn, and golfed on a course in town that he helped to construct.  There was also a stable on the grounds and sports equipment displayed today in his son’s closets includes polo as well as croquet mallets. 


The HNE website tells us, “The entire complex of house, furnishings, outbuildings, and landscape reflects the principles of Andrew Jackson Downing, a leading nineteenth-century tastemaker.”  A prominent advocate of the Gothic Revival, he is memorialized by the Downing Urn in the Smithsonian's Enid A. Haupt Garden, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  He believed "There is a moral influence in a country home.”

In his book “Cottage Residences”, Downing published the designs for twenty-eight houses plus plans for laying out the gardens, orchards, and grounds including lists of various plants to be used.  Presumably following those guidelines Henry Bowen planted his formal gardens in the 1850s including, according to the gardener with whom we spoke after our tour, many of the very same boxwoods that still exist today.  The 175 years of wear and tear did not however account for the unpleasant aroma of the bush – that’s just the way they are.

“The three decades from 1830-1860 showed greater progress in horticulture in America than in all the time before.”  U.P. Hedrick, A History of Horticulture in America to 1860.

In the mid nineteenth century gardening was man’s work, and Henry along with other prominent and successful town residents met frequently to discuss state-of-the-art horticultural ideas – much like my Men’s Garden Club only probably with a nicer meeting place and better snacks – but no cigars.  The garden at Roseland Cottage however ultimately fell into disrepair under the watch of the house’s last resident, Miss Constance Bowen.  And in 1969 when Historic New England purchased the property the boxwood was over five feet tall in several places.

In addition to severely cutting back the hedges, the bigger task was determining what plants grew here and therefore should be grown in this historic site in order to interpret it as the 1850s.  Horticulturalists from Yale University and the University of Connecticut came in to forensically analyze the soil, and Henry Bowen’s records of seed purchases were studied.  (Note to self – keep all those receipts from Stonehedge Nursery just in case Mars and my humble abode ends up on the National Historic Registry.)

The good news is that the result of all this work is a relatively perfect replica of Henry’s original garden – including the exact varieties of the plants (most of which are annuals) that were available at that time.  The bad news is that the garden contains the exact varieties of the plants that were available at that time – meaning flowers that are less resistant to disease (both modern and 19th century) and less hardy.   Plus it is not that easy to get authentic seeds.  Modern organic treatments are allowed, but even so the geranium bed – the centerpiece of the garden – contracted a makes-the-plants-dried-and-ugly disease a few years ago, which they have not yet been able to get a grip on.  The gardener is currently searching for an historically accurate substitute to use instead of geraniums for next year.   Mars asked if there were any roses.  The gardener pointed to a seven-foot tall tangle of stalks with occasional clusters of orange berries, which she said were rose hips.  There were no blossoms.  The bushes from that era produce considerably fewer flowers, bloom considerably less frequently, and have longer, leggier stems than today’s varieties.  Oh, yeah – they get sick a lot also.

As a member of the Wethersfield Men’s Garden Club and Wethersfield HistoricalSociety I have an interest in both worlds that Roseland Cottage is striving to keep alive.

Coincidentally two days prior to this visit I was doing some volunteer work in our town’s Rose Garden and noticed once again, as I have frequently in the past, the complete lack of fragrance surrounding me.  That’s just the way modern roses are cultivated to be since, unlike wild ones, they no longer need to attract pollinators in order to reproduce.  Like the wealthy one percent, they have people who take care of that for them.  The current varieties also produce lots of flowers, with virtually no finicky attention from us other than watering (which happens in the background via in-ground irrigation), dead heading, and weeding.  As a visitor to this garden I miss the perfumey aroma, but when I am laboring in the hot summer sun to nurture the prickly bushes and present them “at their best” I do appreciate the reduced amount of special care the modern versions of the thorny perennials require.   

The terms of the trust that established this spot was to “make and maintain a hardy flower and rose garden to be planted on a slope of good soil” – fortunately for us makers and maintainers there are no historical interpretation requirements.  We however did, on our own, try a few of the older roses several years back with similar results to those at Roseland Cottage.  Unencumbered by any historical restrictions we decided they were not in keeping with the purpose of the garden, and replaced them with bushes that provide a “better show” for our audience.

A couple of days before my rose garden work Mars and I were volunteering for the Historical Society at a 350th birthday party and house tour for our town’s second oldest dwelling – a privately owned residence originally built in 1666 as a “two-room” structure (two up, two down) in the center of our village.   Since then it has been moved in toto, within town, on two different occasions (1711 and 1952) – and then added on to at its current (and presumably ultimate) location.  The last mover was local author and artist Eleanor Buck Wolf, one of Wethersfield’s leading preservationists and nature conservationists who lived there with her family until her passing in 2002.  Before Mrs. Wolf relocated it the building was scheduled for demolition in order to make way for highway construction.  The residence now sits on a spacious sloping lot overlooking Wethersfield Cove. 

Mrs. Wolf added a modern yet traditional-looking wing with large windows from which she could see the Cove, while leaving some of the original rafters exposed so that visitors could see how the house had been constructed.  “The purpose of saving an old house was to give it new life,” said Anne Kuckro, a friend and town historian/preservationist.  “She was not rigid in her respect for the past. She wanted to enjoy it.”  The self-imposed goal of the current owners, M & M, is to preserve the historical condition of the house, and to enjoy living in it.  M says that waking up each morning in this house “just makes me happy.”

Our Historical Society’s Curator is fond of saying that “historical buildings should have a job.”  And when that job is to be an active, lived-in, 21st Century home, while still remaining a living representation of the past, the balancing act can be quite tricky.  One change that M & M did make was to convert one of the added-on bedrooms into a Pilates studio for her business – a repurposing of which I am certain Eleanor Buck Wolf, Henry Bowen, and Andrew Jackson Downing would all have approved – a game of tenpins not being as popular today as core-strength, flexibility, and body-awareness exercises.   

The idea for the celebration and open house came from the homeowners, who wanted to share their unique homestead and its story with the people of Wethersfield.  After the event there was birthday cake for everyone.  The women and the men sat outside together looking out at the sunlit landscape and talked to each other.  There were no cigars.

(photos by Mars) 

A longtime friend and Woodstock native sent me the following correction and story.

Your referred to the last occupant of Roseland as Constance Bowen.  No, she was Constance Holt, the last of two spinster sisters to live in the home.  The other sister, Sylvia Holt, died several years before Miss Constance.  They had at least one brother, Hamilton, who founded Rollins College in Florida.  His large home was diagonally across from Roseland and located next to Woodstock Academy. 

When I was in my very early teens, the sisters brought the daughter of the famous John Drinkwater from England to live with them during the WW 11.  Her name was Penelope (really now, could that be any more British?) and by coming to the USA, she was safe from the German bombs.  Penelope attended Woodstock Academy during her brief stay with the Holt sisters. 


No comments: