Hill-Stead Museum

Birth of an architect

While attending Miss Porter’s School 1886-1888, Theodate Pope was charmed by the Village of Farmington and its 18th-century homes. She had long dreamed of owning a small New England farm when she began to sketch and make notes on buildings and scenes she encountered on a Grand Tour of Europe with her parents. She was enchanted by the beauty of the English countryside, the Cotswold vernacular, and the Tudor styles. After returning from the Tour, she went not to Ohio, but to Farmington, with her parents’ blessing. She rented and eventually purchased an 18th-century saltbox she christened “The O’Rourkery.”

The O'Rourkery Hill-Stead Museum Archives

She spent several years restoring her first home-away-from home, and thus began her practical training as an architect. Over the years she pursued various commissions and projects on which she lavished her considerable talent and resources for two decades. Theodate became a licensed and registered architect in both New York and Connecticut, and a member of the American Institute of Architects as well as other professional organizations.

Hill-Stead: The great new hilltop house.

Hill-Stead was Theodate’s second on-the-job architectural experience. Alfred Pope wanted to own a country estate back east near family and friends, a plan that coincided with his daughter’s dream of establishing a New England farmstead. He purchased tracts of land on the hill behind The O’Rourkery, and ultimately amassed 250 acres. Theodate worked with Edgerton Swartwout, a junior architect at the distinguished New York firm of McKim, Mead & White, and designed a clapboard house equipped with the latest modern conveniences.

In June of 1901, Alfred and Ada Pope moved into their “great new house on a hilltop,” as American novelist and occasional house guest Henry James would later describe it. See a floor plan.

Avon Old Farms School and other projects.

Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut, was Theodate’s most ambitious professional project, occupying her from 1918-1946. In addition to designing the buildings, she helped develop the curriculum, hire staff and oversee operations. She built the school as a memorial to her parents and financed the undertaking with her inheritance. The school opened on 2,700 acres in 1927 (www.avonoldfarms.com) .

Other architectural projects include Westover School in Middlebury, CT; private homes in Middlebury, CT and Locust Valley, Long Island, New York; a public elementary school in Naugatuck, CT; the reconstruction of Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace in New York City; and worker housing in Farmington, CT. See the Westover School web site: www.westoverschool.org/home/alumnae/archives/heritage.


Theodate did her own landscaping. Naturally.

From 1898 to 1901, Theodate Pope Riddle transformed 250 acres of thin-soiled, rocky New England farmland into a picturesque landscape that supported a working farm and also reflected the refined tastes of a wealthy and widely-traveled family.

A sample of plowing at Hill-Stead 1902
After consulting with the influential landscape designer Warren H. Manning, Theodate located her buildings on the highest point of land, taking advantage of sweeping vistas. From this vantage point she ingeniously and subtly layered the design over the natural agrarian landscape.

Theodate was particularly drawn to the grand scale and beauty of the English countryside. The Arts and Crafts vernacular of the Cotswolds, and the Neoclassical Revival of urban formal gardens also played a role in her overall vision. With the farm buildings, transplanted mature trees, and network of stone walls, Theodate sought to mimic the farmsteads of the 1700s: Hill-Stead was to give the appearance of having existed for generations.

Moving of Elm tree at Hill-Stead 1902
Thirty-foot elm trees were hauled in by horse and wagon and planted close to the west facade of the house to provided scale as well as shade. A gracefully-curving andgently-rising drive, flanked by stone walls and an allée of stately maples, created a dramatic sense of arrival.

A pond, located in a natural swale just north of the house, was dug as a water hazard for Alfred Pope’s six-hole golf grounds, but supplied water for fire suppression and provided block ice for refrigeration as well. A large kitchen-and-cutting garden was set on the northeast side of the house. To the south was situated the octagonal Sunken Garden, for many Hill-Stead visitors a destination in itself. It was surrounded by massive eight-foot stone walls and contained a summerhouse, pergola, and sundial.

The Sunken Garden

Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden is set across the drive and down a flight of steps from the main house. This oasis of greenery and tranquility gave family and guests a place in which to escape the heat of the summer, enjoy conversation, or take a quiet stroll. The “subterranean” garden occupies nearly an acre of land and boasts a summerhouse, brick walkways, a formal hedge, and 36 perennial beds of more than 90 plant varieties.

The garden is octagonal. Along the central axis, between the summerhouse and the wooden gate to the sheep meadow, is a stone sundial inscribed with a Latin phrase that translates as “Art is Long, Life is Brief," with a flower-themed poem about life and death along its base. Beyond the garden gate is the sheep meadow, where the family’s flock would have grazed. Remains of the original 100-foot greenhouse can be accessed through the southwestern opening in the stone wall.

Originally, The Sunken Garden held beds of old-fashioned flowers, favorites of Ada Pope, Theodate's mother. Sometime around 1920, American landscape designer Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959) redesigned the planting plan.

In the early 1940s, during wartime shortages of labor and supplies, the garden was removed and the area seeded over with lawn.

In 1983 the Connecticut Valley Garden Club and the Garden Club of Hartford undertook the major project of funding and reclaiming Hill-Stead’s Sunken Garden using the original plan that Beatrix Farrand had drawn for Theodate Pope Riddle. The Sunken Garden is maintained with the help of volunteers who cultivate and reposition plants to keep them in locations specified on the original Farrand plan. Volunteers also direct the ongoing research into the garden’s history.

Artfully done: Beatrix Farrand planned The Sunken Garden to complement the Impressionist Masterworks collected by A.A. Pope.

Today, visitors can experience the Sunken Garden as envisioned by Theodate Pope and Beatrix Farrand. It features the designer’s trademark use of color, texture and interwoven drifts of plants. It is believed that Farrand chose the colors of the plants to complement the palette of the French Impressionist art on display in the house. The garden invites study and reflection. Painters and photographers create in the garden. School groups sketch and write. The garden also serves as an unforgettable setting for special celebrations, corporate events, and weddings, as well as the acclaimed Sunken Garden Poetry Festival.

Beatrix Farrand at Hill-Stead

The finest female landscape designer of her generation and a pioneer in her field, Beatrix Farrand (American, 1872–1959) was born into the elegant world of New York society. She trained at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum and was one of the eleven charter members of the American Society of Landscape Architects. She designed parts of the Yale and Princeton University campuses, and accepted commissions for private estates throughout the Northeast.

In addition to the remarkable Hill-Stead Sunken Garden, Beatrix Farrand is best known for the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., and the rose garden at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.

Other Beatrix Farrand Gardens:

Guides to the Garden

Click here to download the Sunken Garden Guide for an interpretive plan of the Sunken Garden with each section’s plantings.

Hill-Stead Plant Book: Beatrix Farrand’s Sunken Garden (Hill-Stead Museum, May 2009). Hill-Stead's former Garden Manager, Paula Brisco, catalogued the many varieties of flowers and plants in Hill-Stead's Sunken Garden, all historically based on Beatrix Farrand's original plan. Each description in is accompanied by a beautiful photograph, taken here in the Sunken Garden. Journalists, horticulturalists, professors and garden designers contributed essays to the book about the significance, beauty, and function of Hill-Stead's Sunken Garden. Available for sale in the Museum Shop.

Click here for a listing of plants and flowers featured in the sunken garden by season: Garden Books

The Walking Garden

Just beyond the Sunken Garden, a loosely planted Walking, or Wild, Garden provides a gentle transition from the domestic area to woodlands and a sheep meadow beyond. Now rustic and partially overgrown, at one time this spot was a significant part of the landscape, offering the family a quiet, intimate space for walking or repose.

The Walking Garden reflects the influence of Irish-born designer William Robinson (1838–1935.) At the turn of the twentieth century, many estate owners adopted his concept of the wild woodland garden as a landscape ideal. Plantings were less formally structured or constrained within their boundaries, and were generally hardier and demanding in terms of maintenance.

Volunteers are compiling an inventory of the plants still growing in the Walking Garden, and a section of two-tiered path is being cleared in hopes of reclaiming portions of this fascinating landscape feature.

The Carriage Trails

From apple blossoms to grand vistas and fiery fall foliage, Hill-Stead’s three miles of carriage trails are exquisite in any season. A pond habitat, meadows, low lands, and low bush, deciduous and conifer forests… the trails are a nature enthusiast’s and bird watcher’s paradise.

Most likely originating, in part, from Native American walking paths, and encompassing 18th- and 19th-century farmstead lands, the trails present a rich historical legacy. Early 20th-century carriages and sleighs coursed through the grounds, later joined by mechanized farm vehicles and flocks of herded sheep. The trails were enjoyed by guests that included Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy (when she was a student at Miss Porter's School).

Today the trails are enjoyed by neighbors and visitors from around the world. Hikers explore the Blue-Blazed Metacomet Trail, which runs along the eastern ridgeline of the estate. Children, families, and the solitary hiker seek adventure and solitude, strenuous exercise or a leisurely stroll, in all kinds of weather.

Download a Trail Map

Recommended Reading

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden (Mount Desert, ME: Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, 2009)

Diana Balmori, Diane Kostial McGuire, and Eleanor M. McPeck, Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes: Her Gardens and Campuses (Sagaponack, NY: Sagapress, 1985)

Jane Brown, Beatrix: The Gardening Life of Beatrix Jones Farrand, 1872–1959 (New York: Viking, 1995)

Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller, The Golden Age of American Gardens: Proud Owners, Public Estates, 1890–1940 (New York, Harry N. Abrams, 2000)

The Hill-Stead Plant Book: Beatrix Farrand’s Sunken Garden (Farmington, CT: Hill-Stead Museum, 2009)

Robin S. Karson, A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, in association with Library of American Landscape History, 2007)

Carmen Pearson, ed., The Collected Writings of Beatrix Farrand: American Landscape Gardener, 1872–1959 (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2009)

Judith B. Tankard, Beatrix Farrand: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes (New York, Monacelli Press, 2009)

Judith B. Tankard, Gardens of the Arts and Crafts Movement: Reality and Imagination (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004)

William Robinson, The Wild Garden (1895; reprinted Portland, OR: Sagapress/Timber Press, 1994)

Hill-Stead Museum  |  35 Mountain Road, Farmington, CT 06032  |  860.677.4787

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