From Louise Beebe Wilder's rock garden, 1928

From Louise Beebe Wilder’s rock garden, 1928

 ‘…that each of us should feel free to express himself–his most extravagant, whimsical, ardent, honest self; to work out his own theories and bring his bit of earth to what seems to him its finest and fittest expression.’ Louise Beebe Wilder

It’s still June in the year 2014, but a freakish hailstorm has just flattened everything beautiful and blooming within a few miles of here.

Orbs of ice that fell by the billions from the skies...

Cute little orbs of ice that soon became epic when they fell by the billions from the skies yesterday

I think that’s what they mean by ephemeral.

So let’s ditch the current spring of shattered bloom, (although I have some lovely delphiniums to tell you about later) and travel back in time with me to 1909. It’s the month of April, and we are in a place called Bronxville. Bring along your Thoreauvian ‘sharp eyes’.

“I like to borrow Thoreau’s sharp eyes when looking at many things.” Louise Beebe Wilder

We’re going to visit one of the gardens created by Louise Beebe Wilder; a garden that no longer exists, like today only more so.

IMG_0911There is a shadow of a woman just barely visible in this garden, and the fragile poppies she tended have left their vibrant stain on the grasses now left to grow wild.

Her beloved magenta blooms have softened their harsh stridence, their after-image lingers now in the faintest wash of pink. Roses long faded still perfume the air.

via Wisconsin Historical Society

via Wisconsin Historical Society

Think of any popular gardener since the beginnings of our picture taking age, and you almost always can find their image captured somewhere. Be-hatted and be-smocked, wielding trug and trowel, dappled in shadows or squinting in bright sunlight….gardeners most like to be photographed in their gardens.

Elizabeth Lawrence

Elizabeth Lawrence

Not so Louise.

Either her physiognomy was a carefully guarded secret, or she was as shy of publicity as she was eloquent about her poppies.

My library contains many an old gardening book that I have squirreled away, and I dearly love the vintage magazines with their catchy covers and newsy articles on gardens of olden days. Though most of my garden reading is of the actual paper kind (laced with toxic mildew effluvium ensuring that they can only be read in a well-ventilated room) the digital type has definitely come into its own in my house, as well.

Thus I was delighted to realize that the cover of the April, 1909 issue of American Homes and Gardens, pictures the home of Louise Beebe Wilder.

Featured home in this 1909 issue--The Wilders of Bronxville, NY

Featured home in this 1909 issue–The Wilders of Bronxville, NY

Better than that, the magazine takes you on an inside tour of the home, and better than that? They take you outside to tour the gardens…and that is where we find Louise.

The Wilder home

A bit of pre-history to our time travel…(“no worries…a slight disorientation is common for readers of these posts”)…When Louise Beebe Wilder married in 1902, it was to Walter Robb Wilder, Esq., an up-and-coming young architect.

Initially, the growing family had two homes—one at Balderbrae in the country, and the other, a ‘suburban’ home in Bronxville, near New York city.

When the magazine American Homes and Gardens did a feature article in 1909 on the Wilder’s second home in Bronxville, NY, the feature was to be, not just the house, but the talented architect who designed it—Walter Robb Wilder.

But this is 1909, and Walter is married to a very special woman who isn’t famous…yet. Louise’s first book is being lived, but not written. She is still gardening, raising children, and jotting down copious notes. The article ‘The Artistic Expression of the Small Country House’ makes no mention of the wife of the architect. Instead, he lauds the designer of the home, and states:

‘[The house is] ‘a unique expression of the architect’s character and taste. It shows…marked individuality, and is essentially the creation of a cultured and artistic mind requiring congenial surroundings.’

Louise certainly knew a thing or two about ‘congenial surroundings’, and one gets the feeling that it is Louise who is giving the interview and tour. She certainly didn’t write the article…

‘The ceiling is stuccoed…in a very effective manner.

The fireplace is the feature of the room.

The furniture is very black-brown.

The color scheme is most delightful.’

The pictures of the interior show very charming, cottage style rooms, but the lackluster description hardly seems worthy of the house of a woman who would later inspire gardeners nationwide with her vivid and articulate Colour In My Garden; the woman who wrote:

“We are haunted by visions of exquisite colors in perfect harmony…the prettiest blue border I ever saw was one wherein a few Nasturtium seeds had been accidentally dropped, and between the elegantly aspiring stalks of Larkspur and Anchusa one got little sparkles of flame and saffron and buff that endowed the blue flowers with a shimmering spirit that would certainly not have been theirs without those unbidden companions.” (Louise)

Although her name is never mentioned, Louise’s charismatic presence–as it would later be described–is everywhere felt. As the magazine writer labors on to extol the design of the concrete balustrade, our attention is irresistibly drawn to…

‘…a pergola with stucco piers. Over this was trained a large grape vine, forming a dark green background for the beds of bright colored annuals and perennials, the sides being [en]closed with lattice and covered with vines for the same purpose.’


There is our first glimpse of Louise… sitting on the concrete balustrade.

The caption reads:

‘Rough stone steps covered with masses of growing vines lead from the middle garden to the entrance to the house.’

All this about ‘masses of growing vines’ on the rough stone steps, and a pergola ‘covered with vines’ reminds us that Louise would later devote an entire chapter in a future book to ‘Green Draperies’. She would write about the need for luxuriance when it came to the softening aspect of vines:

‘Many a crude and unsightly object is brought into harmony with its surroundings through the kindly tact of some gracious climbing plant. No need to emphasize the charm of vine clad arbors and porches, of green-draped walls and gateways, which do so much toward giving to our gardens the appearance of permanence and livableness so much desired. But perhaps it is a little needful to speak of the fact that the chief factor in this charm is luxuriance.…’ (Louise Beebe Wilder, from My Garden, 1916)

Continuing with the ‘house’ tour, we are now led along to the workshop (noting the elegant use of space) and have it pointed out to us that ‘rugosa roses frame the entrance, a mass of shrubs at the further corner of the house, and a border of peonies, nasturtiums and perennials along the top of the drive wall.’

Again, we are reminded from our reading of Louise that she particularly loved the rugosa rose:

“Honeysuckle and loose white rugosa rose make a delicious combination and possess a delicate poetic beauty.” (Fragrance in the Garden, Louise Beebe Wilder)

Leave it to Louise—Even something as utilitarian as the workshop will be draped in poetic beauty.

The writer of the article makes a further, focused attempt to direct our attention back to the house, and how the drive complements the approach, but soon enough we are back at ‘the rose garden, a line of lilacs…dwarf crabs and other flowering trees. At each corner are large triangular beds filled with perennials.’

Oh, and remember the vine-draped pergola? There we see her; gazing out upon the woods beyond, where the hand of man has not been visible. We are reminded of Louise’s words, where she decries the unnatural, tortured use of evergreens in the suburban landscape:

“There seems little evergreen wisdom abroad in the land.” (Adventures in my Garden and Rock Garden)

Louise Beebe Wilder enjoying her pergola, and the unspoiled woods beyond

Louise Beebe Wilder enjoying her pergola, and the unspoiled woods beyond

So there you are, Louise. We heard you, now we see you. At least a glimpse.

And we are assured that gardens will outlive the ravages of time (or even of ice projectiles) by fixing their sweetness upon our memories.


4 thoughts on “Shadow and Substance

  1. This entire post — the original article as well as your observations — provide an intimate glimpse into another time and place. It gave me a new appreciation for detailed description, something I sometimes tend to skip over when reading. I also noticed that my brain creates images, even when I don’t know what the objects look like. For example, I pictured white rugosa roses, or at least my distorted version of them. Do you do that?

    • I love writing of other times and places…of real people who once lived so vibrantly, so joyfully, but are now gone. I find it very easy to picture a garden–be it rugosas or ranunculus, when I read of it, because my mindset is geared toward these images based my own experiences. Perhaps if I was reading an article on ‘Mining Plutonium in the Himalayan Mountains’ (as an example, in case ‘They’ do such a thing), my powers of visualization would be strained to the limit, as I have no frame of reference to guide me…That means the author has to be really really good to give us ‘eyes’ to see.

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