garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
Regular readers will know of my great admiration for the American landscape designer Dan Kiley (1912-2004).
I came across an unusual, unrealised garden plan of his, while conducting research for the city of Cambridge Historical Commission. My work was identifying and examining significant private gardens in the heart of that historic Massachusetts city. It was slow, often frustrating, research, trying to locate poorly documented gardens from old client lists, partial addresses, or tantalising but unlabelled photographs.
In Kiley’s Complete Works of America’s Master Landscape Architect, I was intrigued to find a single line entry for a 1995 landscape at the “Phelan House, Cambridge (MA).” No-one seemed to know where or what this project was, and it took some months, and several happy co-incidences, to identify the property, which turned out to be an unassuming mid-nineteenth century house on Foster Street.
Although his designs were usually for large sites, late in his career Kiley had produced a plan for this tiny plot in Cambridge. The house was owned by Ellen Phelan, the New York painter who had recently been appointed as professor of the practice of studio arts at the Visual and Environmental Studies Department in Harvard’s Carpenter Center. (She was later made director and chair of the department.) Kiley knew Phelan and her husband, sculptor Joel Shapiro, and had recently designed a splendid garden for them at Kenjockety, their home in Westport, in upstate New York.
Phelan now invited Kiley to design something for the much more modest grounds around her new Cambridge home. The entire plot was barely 2,000 square foot (0.02 hectares), much of that taken up by the simple clapboard house. At the front was a small strip of land between the house and road, with a driveway and carport to the right. Access to the rear yard lay through the carport and a gate and fence, with the basement steps immediately behind the fence and, beyond that, the back door to the house. The shady rear yard was a rather haphazard shape (simply the residue left after the house had been constructed) and, apart from a few trees on the boundary, largely covered by brick pavers.
At the same time that Kiley was considering the outdoor space, architect Catherine Lassen was advising on changes to the house, including ways of opening it up more clearly to the backyard. She remembers informal meetings with Kiley and Phelan, to discuss ideas and options. They talked about ways of making the outdoor space into a clear and substantial room, and about varied ways of perceiving and exploring scale in this tiny property. Among her suggestions was the idea of a new summerhouse adjoining a room at the rear of the property.
Late in 1995, Kiley produced a schematic plan for the plot. The original was probably subsequently destroyed in a fire at Kiley’s home. But Jane Amidon, the landscape architect who worked with him on the project at Foster Street, retained a copy, and has kindly made it available.
The plan revealed a simple design, seeming effortlessly to overcome the many challenges of the site. It related perfectly to its surroundings, not just supporting the built architecture but, like so much of Kiley’s work, creating a space that integrated buildings and site, and that somehow added a new dimension.
At the front of the house, the intrusive carport and fencing were to be removed. Instead, a low clipped hedge would mark the boundary with the road, with two honey locust trees [Gleditsia triacanthos] growing through the hedge to enclose the space and to filter the view. The honey locust was one of Kiley’s favorite trees, proposed here as elsewhere for its delicate foliage and structural qualities. To the left, a small entry garden was defined by a tightly arranged bosquet of flowering trees (crabs or cherries) that was to act as living architecture, balancing the off-set front entryway and thus responding directly to the built landscape.
The narrow, seemingly wasted space that ran along the left side of the house was to be planted with a row of five fastigiate ginkgo trees, to provide dramatic year-round structure. A simple path of flagstones surrounded by thyme (for its scent when crushed underfoot) ran across the front yard, linking the driveway, main entrance, and entry garden.
Between the gate into the rear yard and the back door, Kiley proposed an L-shaped entry walk, covered by a large pergola. This bold gesture would transform the awkward area formed by the basement steps into a major feature of the property. It welcomed visitors, helped direct their movement through the space and, with its patterns of light and shade, provided a sense of dynamism and movement, even in this small plot. It also signified a new focus for the yard: the main structure had previously been the carport, providing protection for an automobile; the new pergola offered shade and shelter for the human visitor.
Beyond the entry walk, the backyard had shed the impression of being residual space: in Kiley’s plan, it was now a functional, elegant square. A dining lawn with table and chairs was to be its focal point. The lawn was framed on three sides by a stone dust border. On its fourth side, a rectangular bed of ground cover planting and bulbs offered horticultural interest, even in such a shady spot.
The careful geometric combination of lawn and planting bed provided a hint of the asymmetric grid patterning for which Kiley was renowned. Climbing plants covered the boundary fences, turning the space into an intimate green enclosure. To the left, steps defined on either side by low planting led up to the proposed new summerhouse. Deceptively simple, the design thus proposed beautiful, functional spaces for the client and revealed many of the hallmarks of Dan Kiley’s mature style.
Phelan later decided to make more substantial changes to the house, planning to add a two-storey extension. Kiley’s proposed design would no longer work in the re-ordered space and the architects’ plans now suggested the narrow plot would consist of a meandering path through ground cover plants, leading to a new back door and a small shed. The building extension was approved in March 2001.
Sadly for Phelan, her relationship with Harvard had soured by this time and she was controversially removed as departmental chair. Soon after, she sold the Cambridge house. Neither the extension nor the Kiley landscape design were to be implemented, and the new owners brought in contractors who simply spruced up the existing design with new brick pavers and fencing.
All that remains of Kiley’s design is the copy of his plan, and the memories of those involved in the discussions. It still provides a fascinating glimpse of how even an unremarkable, tiny plot such as the one on Foster Street, Cambridge, could be transformed by the hand of a master of landscape design.
I’m grateful to Jane Amidon and Catherine Lassen for their help, and to the Cambridge Historical Commission, which funded the original research on which this post is based.