Landscape Design Lessons from a Newport Mansion

Several weeks ago MJ and I made the drive to Rhode Island for my niece’s high school graduation. We stayed an extra day so we could celebrate my mom’s birthday. Since everyone had to work during the daytime and we don’t get to RI very often, we made the trip to one of my favorite Newport Mansions, The Elms.

You would think that the grounds of a place like The Elms would be so far removed from reality that there’s nothing you could take back and use in your own space. Au contraire mon frere! Just like a catering recipe, you can totally reduce it down for home use (now I want cupcakes).

Lesson #1: A comfy place to sit in the shade is always a great idea.

Sometimes a bench is just to create a focal point, and sometimes it gives people a place to sit and chat. It should always be fabulous, though.

Lesson #2: Outbuildings deserve love too.

When I’m working with my clients to design screen houses, pool houses, or even sheds, I always try to pull architectural details from the house to tie everything together. This gate is on the carriage house behind the mansion. I doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Berwind or their friends ever had reason to see it, but the architect knew.

Lesson #3: Focal points are important.

This section of the garden is a really cool “hallway” of clipped evergreens that leads to a service drive. However, the fountain serves as a focal point that “stops” the eye. See how different the space would look without it?

Instead of stopping your eye, the rhythm of the landscape design leads you right out of the garden. No me gusta!

Lesson #4: Everyone loves a surprise.

I’m a huge fan of elements of a space revealing themselves to you a little at a time. It adds to the sense of wonder if we can move through a garden and periodically say “hey, what’s that? Cool!” Even in a manicured garden like that at The Elms there’s room for surprises.

Lesson #5: The lawn is a design element.

There are a lot of lawn-haters out there. I’m not one of them. Sometimes you need lawn area for practical reasons (kids, dogs, lawn darts) but other times the lawn can make the design by acting as negative space. This allows individual elements to pop in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

Look at that awesome weeping beech on the right side of the photo. Forget the architectural elements in this shot, losing the punch of this tree would be a shame. Sitting on the broad flat plane of the lawn as it does, the tree makes a strong statement.

If you’ve never been to The Elms, I strongly encourage you to go. Why is it my favorite “summer cottage”? Mr. Berwind believed that a proper house should run as if by magic, with guests never seeing the utilitarian aspects. It’s pretty amazing.

Do you have a favorite Newport Mansion?

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