Innisfree is perhaps unique as the creation of a single landscape architect in two incarnations, a private and then a public garden.
Walter and Marion Beck had created Innisfree as their private landscape garden, with Lester Collins the renowned landscape architect. After Walter Beck’s death in 1954, Marion Beck asked Lester Collins to actively help her plan a non-profit foundation. Inspired by Dumbarton Oaks, in Georgetown, a former private estate given to Harvard as a public garden, museum, and study center, she decided to endow a foundation in her will for the “study of garden art at Innisfree,” that would create a public garden and study center much like Dumbarton Oaks. She planned an endowment of $1,000,000 and designated Lester Collins as the foundation president. This nonprofit, Innisfree Foundation, was to transform Innisfree into a public garden, create a study center for scholars and students, and sponsor exhibitions, symposia, and publications on garden art and related subjects.
Marion Beck died in 1959 after a long illness that consumed her financial resources. Without the expected endowment, the newly formed nonprofit had to raise money to settle the Becks’ debts simply to secure ownership of the property, opening to the public in 1960. In the early 1970s, Innisfree sold land surrounding the 185-acre garden core to Rockefeller University for use as a research station and preserve, allowing a measure of financial security funding a small endowment.
Organizationally, Lester Collins helped the Becks craft the original mission for the Innisfree Foundation and then shaped the nonprofit that exists today. Physically, after helping create a private retreat for the Becks, Collins orchestrated its material transition to a public space that would “both hold and survive public attention.” Collins focused on developing and refining the design and maintenance of Innisfree. The garden was maintained with extreme thrift on admissions income and a limited drawdown from the modest endowment.
After his death in 1993, members of the Collins family carried on garden management until 2017, so his remarkable maintenance practices were perpetuated, and the landscape is remarkably intact. However, money was thus not available for certain major repairs that are inevitably needed over time, like rebuilding of stone walls and updating utilities. In 2013, Innisfree added a part-time landscape curator to the tiny staff. Public programming and community outreach as well as a membership program and fundraising events were started. A five-year grant from New York State was secured, as well as several smaller grants.
The research and documentation forming the National Register listing of 2019 are now being used, as funding allows, as the basis for a preservation maintenance plan. The nonprofit is professionalizing, creating active committees and fine-tuning its organizational practices. New professional staff members have been added, including a property manager and an administrator. Work has begun cataloguing archival materials at Innisfree. Planning is underway for Innisfree’s first major fundraising event celebrating six decades as a public garden on September 12, 2020.
The significance of Innisfree and Lester Collins’ large body of work is now documented, but this important landscape is still seriously underfunded. Innisfree Foundation has taken purposeful and effective steps toward appropriate preservation and organizational development. With support from landscape lovers everywhere, it will be possible to secure the future of this remarkable place for another 60 years and more.
Jean Parker Phifer, President
Jeffrey Priest, Vice President
James C. Cornell, Treasurer
Lynden B Miller, Secretary
E. Peter Krulewitch
Mark C. Winmill
George Wislocki, Emeritus