In Briarcliff Manor, Serenity With A View

Walking around the Briarcliff Manor garden that landscape designer Jan Johnsen of Johnsen Landscapes & Pools created for her client, she gives a running inventory: “This fountain was already here,” she says, while navigating around immense and ornate cement pieces elevating urns. “And we found those plinths hidden in the undergrowth. The curved wall was here,” Johnsen says as she gestures to a gracefully arched stone wall that now embraces a boisterous balcony of roses. Then she points to the scene-stealing element that stops everyone in their tracks—“but the view was not.”

Apparently, Johnsen and the home-owners were operating on blind faith when they first began the project adjacent to Sleepy Hollow Country Club 10 years ago. The fact that the house is nestled as close as possible to the golf tees without danger of a ball breaking a window is telling. This family is passionate about the outdoors, no matter what season happens to be unfolding. If the brick-and-stucco Tudor house and its eight acres can be accessed only by gliding through the club’s gates, that’s fine with them. In fact, it sets the mood for the quintet’s outlook. Each family member perennially has one foot out the door, and they are constant fixtures on the green. But even though a family member or two on the fairway is par for the course, they made haste to extend their home’s floor plan to include the greenery immediately around the house. First on the agenda, they wanted patios hemming their new home—with an outdoor fireplace, of course. And that’s where Jan Johnsen came in.

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Left to right: The homeowners found this “pod” to create a secluded alcove, steps from the pool. “With arborvitaes forming a screen behind, it’s the perfect hideaway,” says Johnsen; a fountain cosseted in the tranquility of ferns adds a water feature to the frequently-used terrace;  once a lackluster utility shed, the philosopher’s hut is now the focal point of the dell, accented by a clipped cloud of ghostly white Salix ‘Hakuro-nishiki’.

She fitted them with a series of bluestone patios that work hand-in-glove with the house so seamlessly, the closely knit elements feel like family. There is an outdoor kitchen/informal dining area with a built-in grill surrounded by a series of convenient raised herb beds that form a skirt around the dining space, and a fountain caps it off with a splash. And if the daughters overflow from indoors into the comfy wicker chaises installed specifically for them to stretch out on that patio, who can blame them? From there, the garden moves into a boxwood parterre with a crisscross of low hedges that spill with colorful annuals during the growing season, then remain prime long after frost. Serving as a segue between “rooms,” the brocade functions like a hall between recreational spaces. But that's just the beginning.

It’s a testimony to Johnsen’s insight that elements she designs for clients tend to lead into further projects. Her clients almost always want more. That’s no surprise for the author of the newly published Heaven is a Garden: Designing Serene Spaces for Inspiration and Reflection (St. Lynn’s Press, 2014). Johnsen has a warm personality coupled with a keen eye and a sixth sense for seeing beyond what is given to ingeniously envision hidden possibilities. But most important, she has established a reputation for inserting serenity into a scene—and that’s what gardens are really all about, right? At the Briarcliff Manor garden, Johnsen delivered a hard-working outdoors, but nothing feels busy. Instead, the gardens seem intuitive—they belong. 

Left to right: The oversized armillary counts autumn hours nestled in chrysanthemums; ivy gives the stone walls instant maturity and frames the graceful gate from Barbara Israel Garden Antiques. 

Landscape designers tend to have a signature style, but Johnsen refuses to be typecast. Her expressions vary according to the client and the site, but she does have a specialty that is infinitely invaluable in Westchester County: She has never met a slope she couldn’t surmount, and adapt into the design with fluid agility. In this case, incorporating ledge into a landscape is a fact of life. So when the homeowners requested a pool to be added into a scene with zero level ground, Johnsen didn’t skip a beat.

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Of course, a little earth-moving was necessary to create the terrace that would surround the pool (as well as a personal putting green, naturally). And, needless to say, the family needed a cabana with all the fixings (surrounded by a wisteria-laced pergola) to serve cold drinks, etc. All those elements were accomplished with the greatest of ease. But there was one challenge unique to pools that required a little research. “It’s easy to design a pool,” Johnsen explains. “It’s the fence that’s the hard part.” But she found a simpatico metal fence that does the job without being intrusive, and also incorporated antique French metal gates with a graceful reed pattern that appear to be custom-crafted for the site. Conveniently (and essentially), the pool fence does double-duty as a deer barrier. Plus, on the pool side, it’s hidden behind the greenery of boxwood clipped into dentil-work and then accented by pencil-thin strips of grass segmenting the herringbone-laid bricks hemming the pool. The result looks very smart, especially combined with the green-on-celery colored cushions that were selected for the lounge chairs stationed around the pool to let family and friends soak up the sun. 

The curved wall gives a sense of fluidity juxtaposed against the craggy rock left in place below the Tudor lookout cottage.

With only a narrow ribbon of flat surface skirting the crest of the property, Johnsen nevertheless managed to tuck in side alcoves, each with a mood and an accent. Slip through a gate and you find yourself admiring a larger-than-life armillary surrounded by a wall of purple beech designed to hide the parking area. The beech was a bit of a nail-biter at first. “People need to know that it takes a few years before the foliage turns its dark color. For the first four years, it was a leap of faith,” warns Johnsen. 

Following along the crest of the hill, you come to the extant curved wall that originally introduced the beginning of stone stairs going down. The homeowners immediately realized that the hillcrest had promise as the site for a cottage with a view. So they cleared and limbed up some trees; their neighbors followed suit. Architect David Graham designed an octagonal Tudor cottage with a cupola, and this jewel box became the property’s defining element. Not only did they gain a recreational space that welcomes friends and family to party and linger, they also gained a drop-dead gorgeous view: In the not-too-far-away distance stretches the Tappan Zee Bridge spanning the Hudson with its verdant, tree-lined shores. Says Johnsen: “It’s like Oz.” 

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Yes, the view draws you in, especially from the bank of watchtower-like windows that survey it. But Johnsen didn’t neglect the close-in scene. The cottage is cushioned in its nest of easy-care “Pink Supreme” and “Appleblossom” Flower Carpet roses that now spill over the sides of the curved wall and pump out a continual supply of zesty blossoms throughout the summer. She also installed an Atlas cedar to drape dramatically down the wall, its blue needles playing beautifully against the stonework building up to the Tudor cottage that echoes the architecture of the house.

Left to right: The pillars flanking the property line were in place when the homeowners came, but Johnsen added trellis work and planted the beds in zesty impatiens and Athyrium ‘Ghost’ Japanese painted ferns; the plinths were on the property, but Johnsen found massive planters to match, filling this one in a froth of scaevola and red zonal geraniums; on what the homeowner calls “the sunset terrace,” five fountainheads from Barbara Israel spout into a water garden. 

Down below the breakneck hill, the terrain is rocky, but mowed, and has that craggy romance of the moors. Johnsen transitions down with sweet fern and other wildlings to change the mood from formal to natural. There’s an orchard-in-the-making at the bottom, plus a little cabin. Originally, it was just an old utility shed, but that was before the homeowner saw its promise. She hired some Irish craftsmen who transformed it into an enchanting thatched-roof cottage, with layers of scalloping cut into the stacked straw sheaves on the roof. Johnsen dubbed it the “philosopher’s hut” and planted low-maintenance cottage bloomers such as Japanese iris, peonies, and Stachys “Hummelo” with limbed-up trees all around to reveal the view from all angles.

So the outward-bound family now has a home that opens beautifully into the splendor of its surroundings. Elegance abounds, but nothing feels contrived; the landscape naturally falls into the scenery. Does the family use the space? Continually—starting with orange juice on the back terrace, followed by poolside Ping-Pong, then cocktails in the evening, and warming up to the outdoor fireplace after dark. All day long, it’s nourishment for the soul. With her usual finesse, Jan Johnsen delivered serenity with a view.

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