By Mel Bellar
I often see Andy Wos at the post office and around town. Many of you probably know Andy. He is casually handsome, always with baseball cap, pickup truck and easy manner, and always seeming purposeful. He is also the passionate protector, restorer, evangelist and lover of Broadlands and the Gerry estates, one of our most preeminent and historic Andes properties. During a friendly chat at the post office, Andy mentioned the amazing Fredrick Law Olmsted and Fletcher Steele landscapes at the Gerry estates and invited me to come for a tour. I had only been to Broadlands once for a party at dusk and what I remembered most was an amazing release of dozens of Chinese lanterns and their assent into the stars. After many “let’s do it soon” assertions on my part over a couple of years, I finally made my way down Biggar Hollow in June.
Andy was awaiting my arrival and we hopped into the golf-cart-like thing (gator? mule?) and off we went with Andy delivering a running commentary with the flow of a seasoned tour guide. I really enjoyed getting to zip around all the private roads, through different terrains, and hearing about all of Andy’s efforts over the years to shape and improve the landscape. It was wonderful to see beautiful meadows that had developed over time from clearing and brush-hogging. I occasionally got to identify a plant that Andy had been wondering about. We stopped to see an amazing Olmsted stone arch bridge and the pond that was designed to solve a drainage problem but in turn created a very nice spot. It was interesting to hear how Andy had a bunch of trees taken out and had some grading done to open the views from the Broadland house, and in doing so inadvertently exposed the other Gerry estate home across the now-visible Lake Delaware.
The main reason for my visit was to see what remained of the landscaping done by Fletcher Steele at Ancrum, the home of Angelica Gerry, the only daughter of the Colonel and Louisa Gerry. In truth, I am not a history buff and Andy claims that he wasn’t either until he got interested in Broadlands. However, now he has deep knowledge of the history of the Gerry properties and most things Andes. During his research he acquired a book on the work of Fletcher Steele and learned that Ancrum was one of Steele’s largest and most extensive projects. I knew very little about Mr. Steele before this adventure, but I had been to visit his most famous work in Stockbridge Massachusetts called Naumkeag, which has a series of distinctive tiered steps and railings descending through a grove of white birches. It is cool.
Fletcher Steele is an important landscape architect who is considered to be a bridge between 19th century old guard landscape design and the modern more innovative and experimental approaches.
Fletcher had a really good gig with Angelica. He worked on her property from 1925 until 1948. Although it was his biggest project, Steele’s biographer didn’t seem to think that it was a perfect match. Apparently, Angelica wasn’t that interested in “revelry” (which I take to mean his grand gestures, detailed architectural elements and attention to framing and views) which seems to have not inspired him to use “his whole heart or imagination.” It still turned out to be an amazing and important work. Miss Gerry (she never married) was more interested in “a flower-filled garden with small fountains where her little dogs could drink” and Steele was looking to combine different elements from European design with a modern sensibility. But in the end, geometry created with flagstone and large beds provided a perfect setting for her renowned delphiniums.
The project consisted of large garden rooms with long shady walks, sunny areas and lots of space for flowers in simple borders. There were many grand walls, ramps, stairs, fountains and architectural elements, including a dramatic pergola with huge stone pillars (that are still standing.) The client collected numerous sculptures, including 10 lead gargoyles that Mr. Steele sited and displayed. Many of these elements are still visible, but much has begun to crumble, and the trees are about the only things left from the plantings. There remains a lot of amazing concrete and stonework with wonderful patinas and moss that add even more character. The garden was designed to maximize the gorgeous views from different perspectives. Now, since the house is gone, the main vista is from the top of a huge wall that affords a glorious view across the valley to the houses and farms up Lee Hollow.
It is amazing that such incredible opulence exists here in our own back yard. Apparently, Miss Gerry kept quite tight control on the finances even while spending a fortune. A favorite anecdote that I came across involved the planting of 73 beech trees 30’ to 45’ tall. They all had to be hand dug and weighed up to 8 tons each; she insisted on using horsepower because it would be less expensive, even though Fletcher wanted to use modern machinery. He had to design tree moving “machines” (I think they must have been baskets on runners) at $625 apiece (modified to cut cost) and then it took 5 or 6 double teams of horses to move each tree. The root balls were 6 to 8 feet in diameter. Oh my!
Fletcher was not especially friendly with Angelica, as he was with many of his clients, but Fletcher, along with some of his clients, were invited to huge parties at Ancrum. Showing off the progress of one’s landscape was a way to display one’s status. Fletcher felt that something should always be going on in a client’s landscape in order for them to have something new to show, and it was also great for his business. Sounds like a good plan to me!
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~