Of Horticulture and Historic Preservation
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How would you like to step back in time and take a sneak peek into a stunningly beautiful Carrère & Hastings-designed manor house (open to the public for only the second time since the 1982 Decorators’ Show House) while being surrounded by award winning Olmsted Brothers-designed gardens and enjoying beautiful food, drinks and music on a warm June evening?
I know that I certainly would!
And I hope that you will join me in supporting the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (Mass Hort) as it offers a rare opportunity to visit the Cheney-Baltzell Manor House at Elm Bank in style.
Along with a look into the grand ballroom of the home, which will be decorated with antiques, paintings and decorative arts from the era in which the house was built, guests will be able to enjoy the beautiful Italianate Garden, with its magnificent 14th century baptismal font that the original owners of the home, the Baltzells, sent back from their honeymoon (and which, itself, has recently been cleaned and restored). In addition, the other eleven gardens on the property will also be open for strolling. Can you imagine anything more lovely?!? Please see the link at the end of this post to get the full scoop on how you can be part of this once in a lifetime evening.
You’ll be supporting Mass Hort’s efforts to keep the Elm Bank gardens beautiful, but you’ll also be supporting Mass Hort in its undertaking of additional research before restoration work on the Manor House can begin.
HISTORY AND DESCRIPTION OF THE PROPERTY
The Cheney-Baltzell Manor House, which is situated on land once owned by Alice Cheney Baltzell’s father, Benjamin P. Cheney, and which was built in 1908, is a Georgian Revival style home designed by famed architects John M. Carrère and Thomas Hastings. In creating this classic three story brick design, Carrère & Hastings incorporated both English Georgian and American Colonial architectural elements into the house. With the use of brick, white trim, a hipped slate roof and classical details, Carrère and Hastings referenced great American homes like Westover Plantation, built by Wm Byrd III in the mid 1700s in Charles City County, VA. Of note in the design, also, are the unfluted, Ionic Italian marble columns and terrace, which lighten the heavy brick and slate elements of the house. Evocative of the gentility and history of both English country and American Colonial houses, the Manor House is a fine building by two of America's greatest architects. It is truly timeless and more than worthy of careful restoration.
While the exterior of the House tends more toward the Georgian, the interior mixes a variety of Classical styles from various historical periods. The House interior boasts a grand gallery with a black and white marble floor. Expertly crafted custom millwork throughout the House is seen in paneling, dentils, pediments, and beautifully detailed, yet understated, door casings and moldings. In addition, the exquisite, finely-crafted two story library located to the left of the entry foyer is reminiscent of one or two of the better known rooms in the New York Public Library, which Carrère & Hastings also designed. While similar to rooms at the New York Public Library, the library at Elm Bank was actually modeled after that of Sir Walter Scott.There are several different types of fireplace designs within the House, all in Classically inspired-styles, all with reliefs, friezes, shields and other decorative items. In some cases, fireplace mantels were shipped directly from their original homes in Europe to be incorporated into their new home at Elm Bank.
The rooms on the second floor are similar in design to those on the first floor, though on a smaller scale and less ornamented. From the first floor to the second is an imposing stairhall, with thick, strong, intricately turned balusters that follow perfectly the curve of the majestic steps. In addition, though there is some water damage to them, the ceilings upstairs mirror those found downstairs, having been created from intricate plaster molds, each of which included ornamental frames, corners and centerpieces to create works of art to rival the art in and around the rooms of the house. The one glittering exception to this is the ceiling purportedly shipped from Spain and made of gold.
Finally, as was common at the time, the House also included a space that celebrated the connection to the natural world. At the rear terrace, house and land merge, as a colonnade leads one from the ballroom directly down into the Italianate Garden.The Garden was (and still is!) accessible from the terrace via steps of Italian marble. The terrace is defined by three bays of paired Ionic columns that mirrored the three arches into the ballroom. Even with the French doors under each archway closed, the columns and the white marble steps visually create an expanded ballroom that allowed for the marrying of man and nature in even the worst of New England weather.
Because the House, like so many of the grand homes of its era, has fallen into disrepair, Mass Hort is currently undertaking meticulous research to prepare a master plan for the home’s upcoming restoration. The restoration, once all is said and done on the planning front, is expected to take several years to complete. As these things always do…but oh, how worth it to preserve this stunning architectural gem!
Mass Hort is the oldest continually operating horticultural society in America. Founded in 1829 as the Boston Horticultural Society, its mission is to “to encourage the science and practice of horticulture and to develop the public’s enjoyment, appreciation, and understanding of plants and the environment”. Mass Hort has been responsible for many of the important garden movements in the United States, including what may be the most important movement, that of Cemetery as Garden (Mt. Auburn Cemetery exists thanks to Mass Hort’s purchase of “Sweet Auburn” in 1831). With the creation of Mt. Auburn Cemetery, the US saw the first “cemetery” intended for multiple uses. In addition to being a place to bury the dead, the cemetery became a destination in and of itself, a garden and arboretum where one could walk, could learn about those who had come before and could enjoy quiet time away from the urban hustle and bustle of the day.
In addition, Mass Hort has always been at the forefront of teaching and perfecting horticultural techniques. In fact, Mr. Ephraim Bull, a horticulturalist and politician who lived in Concord, MA, and who cultivated the Concord Grape, exhibited his horticultural wonder, which we all still enjoy, for the first time at the Society (when it was based in Boston) in 1853.
For the last 16 years, Mass Hort has made its home at Elm Bank, which occupies space in towns that include Wellesley and Dover. In an interesting side note, well before his purchase of Elm Bank or the sale of his transportation company to American Express, Mr. Cheney was already a prominent member of Mass Hort and a tremendous supporter of the institution, serving on the Finance Committee for several years. And so it is quite fitting that his (and later, his daughter’s) estate would become home to Mass Hort’s headquarters more than 125 years after his initial purchase of the property. We hope you’ll join us to support the upkeep and preservation of this gorgeous property and its important place in architectural, social and garden history.
I would like to thank my friend Christine Huckins Franck for her invaluable assistance with this post. She is a brilliant architect, an engaged educator, the winner of many well deserved awards and a friend whom I will always admire and treasure. Please look at her amazing site, and you will see how lucky I am to have her wonderful guidance. Thank you, Christine!!