During the days that I was in Mount Desert Island, I noted a documentary film on Beatrix Farrand showing at the Bar Harbor Library. Here is where I admit that I had NO idea who Ms. Farrand was, but I did know that my friend Jen with whom I was staying was an architect by training and a Bar Harborite by birth so suggested it to her. The further truth is that I would go to any event at the Jesup Memorial Library because I love its dark crowded beautiful self. I just notice they are looking for a Director of Development so see you all later, this will be my last post. I would love to live there.
Anyway, movie. So we decided to go to the movie and grab a bite to eat downtown beforehand. We had not quite planned out how busy town was going to be (gah! downtown Bar Harbor during the summer is not my favorite) and were running a little late. Fortunately, we had struck up a conversation with a woman at the bar (a master gardener) who was also going and she volunteered to save us seats. This turned out to be a true lifesaver since she secured basically the last seats on the balcony. And gave us some entertaining commentary during the movie as she had worked (not happily) for one of the people interviewed in the documentary. See the trailer here. At the end of the documentary, there were lots of rumblings from the native BHers about different small errors in the documentary, and different perspectives. But I am ahead of myself.
So yes standing room only at the Jesup, where the documentary filmmaker introduced her film and I learned a lot about an amazing woman. I won’t belabor her awesomeness but here was a woman at the turn of the 19th century who competed with men for work as a landscape architect (though apparently she preferred to be called a landscape gardener. Her start was helped by being related to Edith Wharton, and friends with Henry James, and having a summer home in MDI next to Rockefellers. But though she may have had a silver spoon at her birth, she worked hard for what commissions she got. And what commissions they were: East garden and West garden at the White House, Dumbarton Oaks near DC, many residences in Bar Harbor. When her husband got a job at Stanford, she commuted from the west coast to the east coast by train to attend her clients. I am no gardener myself though I do love them–and I was enchanted by her designs with different colors and textures.
I couldn’t help but feel sad about the end of Beatrix’s life. She moved to her family’s cottage (when I say cottage in MDI, I do not mean cottage, I mean giant mansion and property like all those Newport-y places) called Reef Point which she was going to turn into a study center for all things landscape Then came the fire of 1947 and a change in MDI’s fortunes, and she decided to sell Reef Point and all the plants to fund her retirement. She sold in 1955–many of the plants including azaleas were bought by the Rockefellers and if you want to see them, you can visit Asticou. Let me re-phrase that–go visit Asticou for sure, especially at azalea time. Be blown away. I was.
Beatrix spent the last three years of her life in a separate space at the home of her Reef Point property manager and his horticulturist wife and friend of Beatrix, the Garlands. There she created her last garden. She was 86 when she passed away, so imagine, if you will, this 84 year old digging in the dirt. Add her to the list of people from long ago I wish I had known.
Jen and I visited Garland Farm, which fortuitously had its opening day while I was there. The Beatrix Farrand Society had bought the place in 2004 and is in the long and slow process of renovating the house and garden, with very little funding. As an aside, I would ask the wonderful Rockefellers for a big fat grant, as they are so interwound in Beatrix’s (and MDI’s) story. Maybe they have given, what do I know? The Society is pretty soft on their ask–I would have joined on the spot if someone had asked me–alas they only gave me an envelope to send in and of course I never did.
The house is pretty interesting with its set-up for both Beatrix and her live-in help–both rooms had outside access to the garden, then were attached by a hallway to the rest of the house. Beatrix’s actual room has mostly been converted to a library though some of the original furniture exists. The main things I can remember from the house tour were the comfortable, light-filled window seats overlooking the garden — and our lovely tour guide.
Our tour guide was at least 80 himself and a native Mainer. He didn’t know the answers to everything and didn’t pretend to do so. When we had been there for a short while, two 70ish gentlemen joined our tour–they were wearing Nantucket red bermuda shorts and polo shirts with the collars up–yes apparently somewhere in the world (here), you can still do that. Preppies live. They were clearly acquaintances of the tour guide and they all proceeded to talk about their most recent yachty experiences. There is a very rich side to this island which I have not even touched on, nor want to. I thought the yachties were funny, especially their careful ignoring of Jen and I, the townie and the tourist. It takes a while to perfect that lockjaw Eastern accent so I stalked them through the house to hear more of it. I must have been very very scary to them.
We walked outside and in the late June weak sunlight, I have to say the garden was looking a bit ummm, scruffy? Sad? Not quite ready for primetime. I have seen pictures from later in the summer and it does get lovely–though I think there is a ways to go to recover the look of Beatrix Farrand’s time. What a fantastic way to spend an afternoon in MDI–I highly recommend Garland Farm for an hour or so escape from Bar Harbor town madness. If you’re lucky, maybe the yachties will stop in.