The Fire Burns On
Maine Home + Design Magazine, 2007
Mount Desert Island, 1947.
It was mid-October when the fire broke out. The leaves had just changed from green to blazing reds and oranges. Within days, high winds off the ocean swirled the smoldering flames into an inferno. As the fire gradually slipped out of control and countless acres succumbed to the lick of scorching flames, the island was evacuated. A sad procession of 700 cars ferried 2,000 people to safety on the mainland. But one man, a caretaker and gardener named Jock Riddell, remained.
On Highbrook Road, at the edge of Bar Harbor’s bustling downtown, Riddell oversaw the grounds of a small, white-clapboard Cape Cod known as the Farm House. Built in the early 1800s, the house is separated from the busy road into Bar Harbor by a large, tree-lined cow pasture and rambling stonewalls. Inventor Robert Hall McCormick purchased the Farm House in the late 1800s to service his large Shingle Style home, known as Mizzentop, which was located just up the road. The fields and paddocks of the Farm House held McCormick’s horses and milk cows, and its gardens fed his family.
In 1916, the Farm House was gifted to the youngest McCormick daughter, Mildred. It was an era of opulence on Mount Desert Island, and many of America’s most prominent families—Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors—had built massive summer estates around the island. A single woman, a summer resident of Bar Harbor herself, designed the landscaping and gardens of several of those estates: Beatrix Farrand.
Farrand, the niece of American novelist Edith Wharton, was one the most important American landscapers of the early 1900s—in fact, she was the only female among the eleven founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects, a group that included the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park. Farrand became renowned for her neoclassical garden designs that often featured layered plantings and an impressionistic palette of colors. Many of her designs were based on the belief that native plants should be used to connect a site’s natural and designed landscapes. In 1928, Mildred McCormick hired Farrand to completely redesign the Farm House’s landscape and add a formal garden. It was not only the Farm House, but the Farrand landscape surrounding it—the garden paths lined with unbroken drifts of flowers in diverse colors, the formal walled garden and pergola, the fruit orchard and vegetable garden—that kept Riddell on the burning island when everyone else around him was fleeing.
While the evacuation was taking place, Riddell hid in the basement of a cottage that Miss McCormick had built for him just across the front yard and driveway from the main house. As the firestorm engulfed homes and barns all around, including Mizzentop, Riddell stood astride the rooftop of the Farm House and—in an effort that must have seemed as futile as a child trying to empty the ocean with a pail—pointed the little trickle of water from his garden hose at the blaze.
In the end, the fire of 1947 consumed more than 17,000 acres of Mount Desert Island. According to the Bar Harbor Historical Society, the blaze burned the homes of 170 year-round residents and 67 summer residents. But thanks to Jock Riddell, the Farm House and its gardens survived. Today, some 60 years later, a mother and daughter related to the late Miss McCormick have, in a sense, honored the risk Riddell took by returning the structure and gardens of the Farm House to their original luster.
A Garden Reborn
In the early 1980s, Elizabeth Mills began her loving restoration of Farrand’s gardens after her former husband, the great nephew of Miss McCormick, inherited the Farm House. Mills, who studied landscape design at Radcliffe College, quickly immersed herself so deeply in a study of Farrand and her work that she even researched the landscaper’s greatest influence, the English gardener Gertrude Jekyll. But the garden restoration took off in earnest when Mills tracked down Farrand’s original plans for the Farm House in her archives, which are now held at the University of California at Berkeley.
The plans, drawn up with notes in Farrand’s delicately slanting script, show that the most dynamic move in Farrand’s 1928 redesign was flipping the front and back of the house. Farrand turned what was once the front yard of the Farm House into a secluded backyard oasis of connected outdoor “rooms.” Outside the back door, a peastone path that is bordered on both sides by overflowing terrace beds leads to a gated opening in high, arborvitae hedges. Inside the hedge walls are an elegant pergola, a formal perennial garden, and flowerbeds full of dahlias, delphiniums, astilbes, and phloxes in the soft whites, pinks, and blues Farrand was known for. Beyond the walled garden, a path meanders through a slightly wild, but well-maintained, apple orchard and leads to a large vegetable garden at the back of the property.
While the gardens were not in utter disrepair when Mills began her restoration, they had been haphazardly maintained over the years with apparently little attention given to Farrand’s design. Mills was both horrified and elated when she discovered that several of Farrand’s original perennial plantings had been pulled up and tossed into a compost heap beside the vegetable garden. She rescued and replanted the flowers. Over the years, Mills has continued to make discoveries as she’s researched the plants around the property. In one instance, she found that Farrand used strains of Rosa Rugosa and lilacs so rare that botanists at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History were not able to identify them.
Mills has reveled in the cornucopia of information she’s unearthed over the years, and Farrand’s papers from the University of California at Berkeley, in particular, have been a constant source of guidance and inspiration. Among the many discoveries in the archive are drawings for the garden’s gates, benches, fences, bird houses, lighting fixtures, and other ornaments. On those rare occasions when Mills has not followed Farrand’s plans, she has tweaked the design in ways intended to pay homage to the landscaper’s original vision. One example is how Mills has replaced Farrand’s hard-to-grow hollyhocks with sunflowers, and swapped the annual snapdragons for the perennial astilbe. To help guide her in this effort, Mills has often sought out the advice and assistance of Patrick Chassé, a Mount Desert Island landscape architect who’s particularly well-versed in Farrand’s work.
Today, the thoughtful and loving attention Mills has given to restoring the Farm House’s gardens stand as a tribute to Farrand. And it seems fair to speculate that Farrand would have appreciated that Mills hasn’t turned the garden into an emotionless museum. Even though it has been nearly 80 years since Farrand first designed them, the Farm House’s gardens are as thriving and alive as they ever were. “If the queen were arriving,” Mills quips, “I could do up every room in the house with cut flowers from the gardens in about 45 minutes.”
A Home Revived
Since she was a young girl, Leandra Fremont-Smith has not only watched her mother painstakingly revitalize the long-suffering Beatrix Farrand gardens, she’s rolled up her own sleeves and chipped in. Recently, Fremont-Smith, who has her own Freeport-based interior design business, has turned her attention to reviving the Farm House’s interior.
In the tradition of her great-great aunt Mildred McCormick, who filled the Farm House with a museum-quality collection of American antiques and Sandwich glass, Fremont-Smith has been gathering new collections at the house. She delights in finding old glass treasures, particularly green Fire-King milk glass, in Maine’s many antiques shops and outdoor flea markets. “Everyone should collect something,” she says.
Fremont-Smith has also overseen the re-wallpapering of several rooms in the house, including the library, study, and one of the guestrooms. In a serendipitous moment while roaming through a New York City antiques shop, Fremont-Smith discovered rolls of the exact, circa 1930 Nancy McClelland wallpaper used in some rooms of the Farm House. “They’d never even been unrolled,” she says with a hint of disbelief. For another room in the little Cape, Fremont-Smith was able to track down a reproduction of a McClelland design that’s still manufactured by Thibaut Inc., a high-end wallpaper and fabric company in New Jersey. Pointing to a feature on the Farm House from a 1932 issue of House Beautiful magazine, Fremont-Smith notes that “in a lot of ways, you could have taken this picture yesterday.”
But just as her mother has expanded on Farrand’s vision in the gardens, Fremont-Smith has begun taking a bit of artistic license within the house. She recently brightened the bedroom located at the back of the house, which overlooks the first “room” of the gardens, with new soft-green wallpaper. The muted color gives the room continuity with the natural landscape outside the windows. “My mother wasn’t sure at first,” Fremont-Smith admits, “though she really likes it now. It’s a little bit of the younger influence coming into the home.” Fremont-Smith makes sure to mention that her work at the Farm House is never about winning design spars with her mother. In fact, she’s quick to point out that “my mother’s success as a landscape gardener and antiques dealer has served as the foundation of my achievements as a designer.”
Fremont-Smith says the most important aspect of the Farm House project is how it has brought her closer, both personally and professionally, to her mother. “I look to my mother for her in-depth knowledge and resourcefulness,” she says, “and in return, she asks me for contemporary ideas that I combine with classic and sustainable design.”
“Leandra is like a collage of this wonderful background of the house and its gardens” Mills says of her daughter. “And this house has such a special spirit, so it’s fun to see how she’s emerging now.”
There may have been a moment on that October day in 1947 when Jock Riddell looked up at the smoke-filled sky above him, and the eerie glow of the burning woods around, and wondered if he had made a mistake in staying. Did he ask himself at some point if a house and its gardens are worth dying for? The garden hose must have felt pathetically small as he watered down the Farm House’s roof and soaked the garden beds for the umpteenth time.
But in the end, what Riddell really saved that fateful autumn was more than a soulless house or some patch of earth covered in flowers. Riddell saved a bit of history—the history of a place and a family—and that, for certain, is no small thing.