Edgerton Park: New Haven’s English Manor Garden

 

Edgerton Aerial View 1879

Bird’s eye aerial view of Edgerton in 1879 (Library of Congress)

Edgerton Park is a 22 acre public park located on the New Haven-Hamden border in Connecticut.1 Originally, the park was the private estate of a wealthy industrialist and capitalist, Frederick Brewster (1872-1959), a descendent from the Brewster family of the 1620 Mayflower landing and Plymouth, MA settlement. In 1906, Frederick Brewster purchased the 22 acre property, which sits along Whitney Avenue at the edge of town. Beginning in the late 1880s and continuing until the 1910s, Whitney Avenue experienced a suburban development boom fueled by a horse-drawn street car line – later replaced with an electrified trolley – extending northward from the city center.2

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By 1909, Brewster’s estate included a 12-foot high stone wall around the property, gatehouse, carriage house, conservatory, mansion and fully designed landscape. The mansion and landscape were designed by Stephenson and Wheeler of New York as a Tudor style, English Manor House with complementary 18th Century English landscape garden-inspired grounds. As part of Brewster’s will, the mansion was demolished after his wife’s death in 1963 and the estate was turned over to the City of New Haven to be used as a public park, which it remains to this day.3 Maintenance and improvement costs to the park are shared by public funding sources and private donations, which support the remaining structures, buildings, and landscape.

Although the property has moved from private management to public-private partnership management, the park remains faithful to the original design. Therefore, what was experienced by guests a century ago is similar to what may be experienced by the public today. On-street parking surrounding the site is provided for patrons entering from one of two south-facing entrances and one north-facing entrance. Two wrought-iron gates and one opening, each just large enough to fit a single car through, serve as the only breaks in an otherwise continuous grey stone wall that surrounds the entire 22 acre site.

Edgerton Park_Fountain

The main entrance is located down slope to the east and is accessed off of Whitney, from Cliff Street. An impressive stone-veneered, slate-roofed gatehouse welcomes visitors upon entering and at one time would have served as a check-in for guests of the Brewster family.A winding roadway circulates through the rolling landscape connecting the gatehouse with the conservatory and the second entrance located uphill and west of the main entrance, then the road continues to the carriage house and the final entrance located at the top of the hill on the north side of the site. The buildings are placed on the site in a manner reminiscent of pavilions in emblematic gardens.

Clusters of different species of trees have been organized around the southeastern part of the site to control views, define space, and shade or light paths. These clusters are used to narrow the main entrance, providing a visual impediment to the rolling open field that lay beyond. Moving along the roadway the trees vanish ahead to reveal the open field, while plantings to the west, shade the road and block any views that would serve as a distraction to the sunlit hill. Beyond the bright and open hill lies a small ravine filled with densely packed trees fighting one another for sunlight.

Continuing on the roadway leads to the discovery of what the plantings to the west were previously blocking – a large garden attached to the conservatory. The road splits and visitors can continue northward towards Brewster Fountain (b. 1991) or head west around the back of the conservatory to the garden entrance. The gardens are maintained privately by people who rent plots to grow vegetables, flowers and plants. In the center of the garden is a peculiar site – four curved, trimmed hedges forming a 75-foot diameter circle around a central grass plot. To the north, past the gardens and conservatory, are fields with a splattering of fully, grown rounded trees much in the spirit of Andrew Jackson Downing’s Beautiful aesthetic and benches facing east, which look over the entire southern half of the park and the Mill River with the large trap rock ridge of East Rock beyond.From this viewing area, patrons can go back down to the roadway or walk parallel to the stone wall on the grass, under tree canopies to the third entrance, and continue to the large carriage house and adjacent garden.

Beyond the carriage house are the stables, which hold the New Haven Police Department horses. The carriage house is surrounded by flower plantings with a hydrangea-lined axial path running to the east and terminating at a commemorative bench, which faces back towards the building to plantings and large iron-framed, lead-imbedded glass windows. Back on the roadway walking towards the Brewster Fountain, now from the other side, leaves only one area left to discover – the bridge. The small ravine seen earlier from near the main entrance is now viewed from above. Although initially a very Beautiful landscape, the ravine has overgrown with coniferous specie trees, which act in opposition to the arch of the stone bridge.Traveling into the now wooded area reveals the narrow bridge that crosses the miniature ravine and persuades guests south with dense tree plantings back to the foot of the open, rolling field where park-goers are likely to be seen sprawled out on blankets and children running around them.

Edgerton Park_Carriage House

Robert Storer Stephenson’s 1909 design was very much in the tradition of 18th Century English landscape gardens, like those designed by Lord Burlington, Coplestone Bampfylde, Henry Hoare II, and slightly later precedents by Capability Brown. Even elements of the Parks Movement lead by Frederick Law Olmsted can be seen in some of the later adaptive use of the property. However, Edgerton Park perhaps most resembles the principles laid out in AJ Downing’s landscape design work for large suburban mansion residences. On large enough sites, Downing felt that a mixture of the modern styles could be accomplished tastefully. Edgerton Park is certainly a prime example of this mixture successfully implemented for the Brewster Estate. The Tudor style mansion with steeply pitched gables, dormers, textured walls and asymmetry in Stephenson’s design was well placed in a landscape of coniferous, spire-top trees and a winding road.

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The entire experience of the roadway, however, is not one of picturesque quality, but rather is varying in spatial definition, light penetration, shadow contrast and views. Downing’s natural style contains these same elements, which are first derived from the form and style of the architecture then begin to vary as the landscape progresses outward from the residence. Along one pathway, some routes are clearly defined and visible ahead, while others are hidden and meandering. Open spaces are revealed through strategic view corridors and vast, open expanses. As showcased in Edgerton Park, Downing often placed trees to screen undesirable or unwanted views. While agriculture was usually Downing’s unwanted association, Edgerton Park was a private estate in the middle of a substantial residential neighborhood and privacy was of utmost concern to a wall and trees around the perimeter were a necessity. Considering that the original estate provided a “retreat from the industrial city,” Downing would have greatly admired the effort to create a more dignifying space for people to inhabit.Unfortunately, not all of the design decisions made in Edgerton Park have been in accordance to Downing’s natural aesthetic standard.

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There are some stark differences between the principles that Downing adhered to and showcased in his work and components of Edgerton Park, many of which are derived from the adaptive use of the estate as a park. In addition to the issues already discussed with the arch bridge and the topiary hedge in the garden, another difference between Edgerton Park and Downing’s Mansion Resident is the design of water features. In 1991, a classical fountain, balustrade and staircase – funded by descendents of the Brewster family – were constructed of polished white granite in quite stark contrast to the natural forms of the landscape and rough-cut grey stone of the existing architecture. Downing would have characterized its style as being ancient rather than modern. Although, if the fountain were not maintained and allowed to become ruins, Downing may then consider it picturesque.

Mansion Estate Natural Layout

Natural looking streams and bodies of water, like those found in early work by Capability Brown, were integral in creating ideal environments where people could live in harmony with nature rather than in opposition to it. Downing was adamant about preserving nature from such destructive forces as rail road expansion and clear cutting forests. Therefore, he perhaps would not have looked too forgivingly on the choice to create a fountain that used piping and electrically powered pumps to move, lift and control water. At the bottom of the ravine, there is also a sewer drain system that carried excess storm water away. Downing probably could have envisioned this as an opportunity for a narrow water feature running under the bridge and into a larger, irregularly edged body of water. This way something that is currently hidden from view could become a focal point of the landscape. While there are many similarities between Downing’s landscape design principles for estates and Edgerton Park, there are certainly some areas of divergence in execution.

Edgerton Park, located on the outskirts of New Haven, CT, serves as a magnificent example of a landscape garden originally built for an American version of the English manor. The landscape borrows many of the guiding principles from early and late 18th Century English landscape gardens, and the 19th Century Parks Movement and work done by Andrew Jackson Downing. The park also serves as an interesting example of adaptive use that follows in a tradition exemplified in places like Versailles in Paris, where private estates are transferred to public ownership. Edgerton Part, while not perfect, certainly provides a landscape that makes for an experience worthy of comparison and worthy of its National Register of Historic Places designation as a historic district with seven contributing buildings, eight other contributing structures, and one contributing object.8

 

Endnotes

1. “The 22 acres making up Edgerton Park…”

Edgerton Park Conservancy website. Park History and Facilities http://www.edgertonpark.org (last accessed on 02/28/16)

“…majestic 25-acre ‘Edgerton’…”

Edgerton The Hamden Chronicle (September 3, 1964)

2. “[Land lining Whitney Avenue] remained parkland until the horsecar arrived in the ‘90s, when the estate began to break up into building lots…”

Elizabeth Brown. The Hartford Turnpike: Whitney Avenue New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design (Yale University Press, 1976) p. 36

3. “The house was demolished by the owner’s orders when the estate was left to the city in 1963…”

Brown. New Haven p. 39

4. “For years, the Brewster New Year’s Eve party at the huge English Manor House…was New Haven’s annual social highlight.”

Edgerton Hamden Chronicle (September 3, 1964)

5. The Beautiful style landscape as a modern design aesthetic and defined by open spaces, “round-headed” trees, scattered plantings, soft terrain, etc.

Andrew Jackson Downing. Section II. Beauties and Principles of the Art Treaties on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (New York & London, Wiley and Putnam 1844) pp. 45-60

6. According to AJ Downing, a pointed and angled bridge would be more appropriate in the now picturesque landscape of the ravine. 

Ibid.

7. “The estate was intended as a retreat from the industrial city.”

Edgerton Park Conservatory website. http://www.edgertonpark.org

8. Janice L. Elliot and Marian Staye. Frederick F. Brewster Estate: Edgerton Park National Registry of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form (National Park Service; March 10, 1988) and accompanying photographs

 

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