When the New York City-based husband-and-wife homeowners first looked at the Cortlandt Manor property 28 years ago, there was nothing special about the ranch house or its 15-acre site. The Brooklyn-born, not-yet-bit-by-the-gardening-bug husband and his wife just needed a getaway, and it served that purpose just fine.
But after a few additions to bring the house up to speed, they recognized that the sorry surroundings also needed some attention. Exactly when the husband was struck by the urge to create a gorgeous setting, he cannot exactly remember. “Someone gave me what looked like an onion, I planted it, and I got a tulip,” he says of how his interest was piqued during those pre-horticultural days. However, he saw immediately that the property—a craggy hill leading down to the ultra-scenic Twin Lakes—held infinite possibilities.
Meanwhile, the homeowners were beginning to love their serene country property so much that they had a brilliant idea: Why not purchase adjacent parcels and create the sort of place their children and grandchildren would be attracted to share? The more they toyed with the concept, the more it dawned that an idyllic scene outside was apt to rope the next generation in.
Newly minted landscape architect Patrick Chassé was just starting in the field when he was introduced to the family through mutual friends. “The genesis of what lured me in was their hope that their kids would fall in love with it,” Chassé recalls. That spark, plus the fact that “it had wonderful form,” was what brought Chassé to the table. Later, he went on to work with other fine dreamscapes, including the research and restoration of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden on Mount Desert Island, Maine.
A Japanese-style wooden bridge/walk leads out into the pond. Top: Moss has become an intrinsic sculptural element of the garden.
“We talked about space and how we both like green,” says the husband, recalling their initial interview. “I knew what was beautiful. I bought this place for the view and the venue. But I didn’t understand the concept of an open canvas and how to handle it. I didn’t know how to compose.” He recognized the young landscape architect’s talent immediately, but Chassé had one stipulation before accepting the assignment. “He told me that he’d only help if I was willing to make a great garden,” the husband says. With that priority agreed upon, they went to work on the land.
What followed was a 25-year collaboration wherein a legendary garden was forged. At first, the homeowners were seriously protective of the status quo and revered every living thing—perhaps to a fault. “Originally, they were moving weeds out of harm’s way,” Chassé chuckles. But gradually, they got the hang of the process in which the forest was revealed by removing a portion of the trees. Chassé—who has a strong affinity for Asian gardens—came up with a solution to reroute their nurturing instincts. “I transitioned them into transplanting moss,” thus leading to the plush moss carpet that ties many of the spaces together. As for the grove of spindly, 12-foot rhododendrons that came with the house—Chassé lost that battle. They had to stay, but not without some surgical nips and tucks to sculpt them into comely swans. Gradually, the long, lean, lakeside property took shape with flowing paths pulling it all together and deftly selected shrubs and trees meticulously pruned into statuesque contours. Woody things were not the only element introduced. A previous owner had unfortunately removed the glacial boulders from around the house. “It looked like bad plastic surgery,” Chassé recalls, “and the character of the place was lost.” The boulders were reinstated, especially on the north side of the lake where glacial deposits would naturally accumulate. As the property began to be transformed from what all parties describe as “a mud bank” into a gem, the homeowners began to become seriously involved. “They were fascinated,” says Chassé. A natural-born collector, the husband would call his landscape architect up with a description of a rare plant that he had seen somewhere. Invariably, the phone call would end with a declaration that might put fear and trembling into the heart of a lesser designer. “I just bought 500 of them,” the husband would say upon signing off. Together, they made it work.
A cantilevered pavilion beside the pond is a serene dining space
Rooms were created, each with a unique personality. The homeowners acquired rare plants—both perennial and tropical (which are housed in three greenhouses over the winter)—by the hundreds, and incorporated them meaningfully into the garden. Rather than attempting to create an apples/oranges dialogue with perennials, the tropicals became players in their own space. Their containers are clustered on the terrace immediately behind the house, and also grouped beside the swimming pool that was transformed into a more comfortable fit with its rocky surroundings when a boulder became the diving board. Rather than sprinkling fine sculpture throughout the scene, the homeowners opted to feature only a spare few, very apropos elements—such as the gargoyle that spews water by the lotus pond. Instead, potted and sculpted plants became the focal points. And of course, all that patiently transplanted moss gives the landscape its sense of timelessness.
They wanted a lotus pond, but yearned to look into the blossoms when the flowers turned to face the sun. The answer? A wooden bridge that walks out into the water and allows the family to commune with their favorite flowers. When a large oak tree came down on a bluff by the lake and they were left with a 24-inch stump, the initial idea for a patch was to transition into a tree house for the grandchildren, but research revealed that the stump could not support that option. The second idea was even more ingenious: They put in a “crow’s nest” bubble crafted out of curved glass that extends out over the bluff toward the shore of the lake, allowing for a full view of both shores. The grandchildren rapidly discovered that it is the perfect place to read a book, protected from the wind. The lures to tempt the next generation to the country were working.
The “crow’s nest” viewing station is a favorite place to sit in the sun and read.
Seizing solutions became a way of living on the land. So when Superstorm Sandy took down 50 trees, the husband had an answer: He made a stumpery. Of course, “only the most beautiful roots” were used. But the disaster made ample possibilities available and they were placed meaningfully to resemble sculpture. “The catastrophe that initially caused a lot of grief turned out to be a wonderful thing,” the husband says. “You have to see the beauty in an overturned root.” He planted ferns and woodland plants in the up-ended stumps, let the moss climb over, tucked in some tropical staghorn ferns, and now they add poignantly to the milieu of the place.
Tweaking the now 70-acre property never ends. The areas are now defined, but making the gardens even more wonderful is watching the original goal come to fruition: Two sons have built houses on the property and every weekend, grandchildren come to enjoy the space and its inherent beauty.
Come see this Cortlandt Manor garden for yourself on July 27 as part of The Garden Conservancy Open Days program this summer. Visit www.gardenconservancy.org for details.
In the stumpery, ferns are tucked into crevices of up-ended roots.
A gargoyle spouts water into the lotus pond.