After falling in love with the rolling hills and painterly landscape of New York's Hudson Valley, Chauncey Stillman built his sprawling dream home there in the mid-1900s. The estate's exquisite gardens recall classic styles from Europe and beyond, and exude Old-World charm. Today, anyone can stroll the grounds, breathe in the blooms, and revel in the vistas.
Chauncey Devereux Stillman was not your garden-variety gentleman farmer. The grandson of the chairman of the National City Bank of New York (later Citibank), Stillman was tremendously rich but far from idle: He graduated from Harvard College and the Columbia University School of Architecture; served on several philanthropic boards, including the New York Zoological Society, the National Audubon Society, and the New York Botanical Garden; and was an equestrian, a collector of impressionist and Old Masters paintings, and a skilled needlepointer. But his enduring legacy is Wethersfield, his rural thousand-acre estate in Amenia, New York, and the foundation he established to maintain it.
Stillman started the project in 1939, when he hired architect L. Bancel LaFarge, a founding member of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, to design a stately Georgian-style colonial home on a hilltop with sweeping views of the Berkshire, Catskill, and Taconic mountain ranges. He also commissioned landscape architects Bryan J. Lynch and, later, Evelyn N. Poehler to plot the property's masterful gardens and riding trails, which he'd refine over the next 50 years. (He owned Hackney horses to pull his collection of 22 antique carriages, now displayed on-site.) Stillman also raised livestock and grew vegetables, and was an early champion of conservation, practicing crop rotation, biodynamic farming, and reforestation.
Turn down Wethersfield's driveway today, and you enter a genteel, bygone world. The formal gardens cover three acres and showcase "rooms" modeled after Italian Renaissance and English styles through history. The walled inner garden is laid out in the arts-and-crafts tradition popularized by English designer Gertrude Jekyll and her frequent collaborator, architect Edwin Lutyens, and features a grape arbor, a parterre (a low area planted in a pattern), a rill (or narrow water channel), and a dramatic tunnel of 17 beeches. "This area is essentially an extension of the house," says director of horticulture Toshi Yano, who was hired in 2019 to breathe new life into the landscape. The house and garden were aligned so that from his seat in the dining room, Stillman had a perfectly composed view of a reflecting pool and the connecting formal Italian Renaissance–inspired garden rooms beyond, with their massive green shrubs framing the sky.
Wethersfield is at once understated and breathtaking, seducing with both sounds, like the gently gurgling fountains, and the scents of fragrant roses, dianthus, and potted citrus trees (over-wintered in the greenhouse), planted so their aromas would waft into the living room and Stillman's bedroom above it. It impresses with architectural evergreens, and enchants with vivid colors, as Stillman loved begonias, fuchsia, geraniums, and magenta rhododendrons. "It's fun to play with old-fashioned colors," says Yano. "It's an anachronistic garden meant to inspire awe." And that's an understatement, too.
Here, on the lower level of Wethersfield's south terrace, sweet autumn clematis drapes a wrought-iron fence; mature lilacs grow on the other side. Pots of ivy-leaf geranium sit atop a stone wall that serves as a backdrop for a border of roses, phlox, and sweet-smelling sedum.
At the threshold between Wethersfield's inner garden and Italianate Renaissance landscape, two angels stomping on the necks of demons flank a wrought-iron gate beneath a pleached (interlaced) bower of beeches. This spot on the east-west axis of the garden was positioned to frame the sunrise. Most of the bluestone and cobblestone that make up the paths and patios is said to have been salvaged from the deconstruction of New York City sidewalks and streets.
In the walled garden behind the house, a grape arbor leads from the dining room to a shed-turned-teahouse featuring interior murals by American artist Hight Moore. It's called the Grasshopper House, after its whimsical grasshopper weather vane. The area's upper terrace (foreground) features a parterre of a low Arctic-willow hedge surrounding blue-and-white mealycup sage and silver Plectranthus.
Obelisks flank stairs leading to a belvedere (Italian for "beautiful view"): a temple of six Corinthian columns and a low dome on the highest point of the property. Visitors may encounter one of Wethersfield's several resident peacocks sauntering along the pathways in this area. Beyond the formal garden, Poehler designed seven acres of allegorical, sculpture-dotted woodland trails inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy.
An elliptical reflecting pool, originally built for swimming, marks the intersection of the garden's east-west axis. Massive topiary yew balls, pachysandra ground cover, and two towering honey locusts frame it. The estate, which was recently placed in the National Register of Historic Places, opens to the public in spring. To learn more, visit wethersfield.org.