Great Gardens: Edith Wharton’s The Mount

August 8, 2018

By Robin Catalano​

Photo Credit: The Mount

Say the name Edith Wharton, and classic American novels like Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth come to mind. But for gardeners and nature lovers, Wharton’s name evokes a different kind of reverence, for the stunning gardens the author—also a talented interior and landscape designer—created in 1901 at the Mount, her “summer cottage” in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Wharton had a natural affinity for aesthetics and décor, and coauthored her first book, The Decoration of Houses, in 1897. After traveling Europe and observing the work of master designers and gardeners, in 1904 she published Italian Villas and Their Gardens. Italianate gardens and country houses in mind, Wharton, with an assist from her niece Beatrix Jones Farrand, who would go on to become a celebrated landscape architect, set about creating her little piece of Europe in the Berkshires. Coming after the outsize adornment of the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island (which Wharton spoke out against), and before the Adirondack Rustic Great Camps that followed, the Mount is considered a prime example of the transitional period between the two design styles.

Wharton had the house—based on an Italian villa—built on a rock outcropping, all the better to appreciate the view of the property and Laurel Lake just beyond. Believing that gardens should be a transitional space between the house, the lake, and the woods, and should complement that natural landscape, she separated her garden design into “rooms.”

On the left side of the house is the 100’-by-110’ French Flower Garden, reminiscent of Victorian Parisian gardens. Wharton may have had a special fondness for this design, because this is the garden that’s visible from her upstairs bedroom, where she spent much of her time. The garden was damaged in 2014 when it was submerged for several hours during a torrential rainstorm. Storm runoff also carried nearly twenty tons of road and pathway material into the garden, requiring a major cleanup and renovation effort that cost more than $60,000.

The French Flower Garden, based on Wharton’s original plans, is now home to more than 3,000 annuals, perennials, and shrubs—phlox, stocks, lilies, hydrangea, dianthus, delphinium, and dahlia among them. An alcove with a trellis offers respite from the sun on a hot day, while a trio of dolphins sends up a playful spray of water from the stone fountain in the small rectangular pool at the center of the garden.

Exiting the flower garden, a 300-foot gravel walkway lined with stately linden trees, dubbed the Lime Walk, passes the steps leading up to the veranda of the house. Nearby Wharton also included a landscape feature common in Europe and Asia, but rare in the United States: molded grass steps that blend seamlessly into the hill sloping down from the house. It’s yet another example of the author’s philosophy that landscape design should work in harmony with the environment.

On the opposite end from the French Flower Garden is the 80’-by-80’ sunken Italian Garden. After Wharton’s death, this garden in particular fell into disuse and disrepair, and had completely grown over before the estate painstakingly restored it.

With its shaded stone walls and “windows” providing the perfect environment for mosses and climbing plants, Wharton’s Italian Garden feels like less like a New England landscape and more like one of the forums in Rome or Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. A walk down the stone steps, past the trimmed boxwoods, leads to a rustic fountain made out of rocks in the center. It’s surrounded by a ring of white begonias; beyond that, four quadrants bordered by white Bridal Veil astilbe form the main section. Gravel walkways line the perimeter beside the stone walls, and lead to several alcoves and a beautiful portico that looks out into a meadow and the woods beyond.

Viewing Wharton’s designs now, it’s hard to believe she lived at The Mount for just ten years. The designer herself once wrote, “I am amazed at the success of my efforts. Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.”

In 1911, with her marriage failing, Wharton left the Mount for good and moved to Europe. As the New York Times sums it up, “Ahead were many productive years of novel writing and a Pulitzer Prize. Behind was the Mount, her country estate in Western Massachusetts, to which she applied her formidable design skills.” Thanks to a team of dedicated experts, we’re still able to enjoy them today.

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