Like the pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China, Innisfree helps us to define what we mean by ‘civilization’. It’s one of the few places in this world that lived up to — nay, exceeded — my expectations.
— David Wheeler, Editor, Hortus (2013)
A Lifelong Project
In the late 1920s, Walter Beck and his wife, avid gardener and heiress Marion Burt Beck, began work on Innisfree, their country residence in Millbrook, New York. Walter Beck’s fascination with Asian art influenced his painting, the collecting he and his wife pursued, and their ideas on garden design. In the 1930s, Beck discovered the work of 8th-century Chinese poet, painter and garden maker Wang Wei. Studying scroll paintings of his famed garden, the Wangchuan Villa, Beck observed that Wang created carefully defined, inwardly focused gardens and garden vignettes within a larger, naturalistic landscape. Wang’s place-making technique — christened “cup gardens,” by Beck — influenced centuries of Chinese and Japanese garden design. It is also the principal design motif in the Innisfree landscape. Like his Chinese predecessor, Beck created three-dimensional pictures in the garden, incorporating both rocks from the site and horticultural advice from his wife. Unlike Wang Wei, or perhaps more familiar figures like Lawrence Johnston, who used his cup-like rooms at Hidcote in England to draw one through a sequence of events and create an overall sense of place, Beck focused more on individual compositions. Relating these to each other and to the landscape as a whole was the genius of Lester Collins.
Western gardens are usually designed to embrace a view of the whole. Little is hidden. The garden, like a stage set, is there in its entirety, its overall design revealed in a glance. The traditional Chinese garden is usually designed so that a view of the whole is impossible. [It] requires a stroll over serpentine, seemingly aimless arteries. The observer walks into a series of episodes, like Alice through the looking glass.
Lester Collins, Innisfree: An American Garden (1994)
Walter and Marion Beck met Lester Collins early in 1938, when Collins was an undergraduate at Harvard. That spring, this trio began their long and remarkable collaboration on the garden in Millbrook. In 1939 and 1940 Collins traveled through Asia with fellow landscape architect John O. Simonds. He received his Master of Landscape Architecture degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1942 — the place and the moment when Modernism truly arrived on the American design scene. Following service in World War II, Collins joined the Harvard faculty and quickly became Dean of Harvard’s landscape architecture department. In 1954, Collins spent a year in Japan as a Fulbright Scholar, studying traditional garden design and construction methods, and working with a Japanese scholar to create perhaps the first English translation of the 1,000 year-old Sakuteiki, the seminal Secret Garden Book. This text urges gardeners to study nature and great gardens but to build the essence rather than a copy — exactly what both Beck and Collins sought to do at Innisfree. On returning to the United States, Collins went into private practice. Key projects include the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, multiple commissions for the National Zoo, and the Enid A. Haupt Garden, all for the Smithsonian in Washington, DC; the American Embassy in Cairo; as well as the town plan for Miami Lakes, Florida, which established a new model for communities in the region. To an unusual degree, Collins combined the intellectual, the pragmatic and the intuitive in his work, all of which can be felt at Innisfree.
The genius of this place lies not so much in the ideas which the designers formulated for the cup gardens, many of which are disarmingly simple, but in the way they have been maintained over the years. Essentially, everything is allowed to settle into the prevailing spirit of the place; if it does not, it is removed. It is this sensitivity, care and attention to the qualities of landscape, natural and made, that make Innisfree such a memorable success.
Tim Richardson, Great Gardens of America (2000)
Throughout his 55-year association with the garden, Lester Collins evidenced a superb ability to sculpt the land and choreograph movement through space. Drawing on these particular skills as a landscape architect, as well as the episodic, Alice-in-Wonderland aspects of traditional Chinese and Japanese gardens, the jazz-like syncopations of Modernism, and the ideas of abstraction and occult or asymmetrical balance common to all three, Collins created the dreamlike sequence of vignettes that defines Innisfree. To have done this for wealthy clients, as during his 20-year collaboration with the Becks, would be remarkable. To have created much of present day Innisfree in the face of serious economic constraints after the Becks’ deaths is extraordinary.
Like the great Chinese Masters of the landscape, [Collins] listened to the garden itself when making his improvements.
Guy Cooper and Gordon Taylor, Gardens for the Future (2000)
To create a viable public garden on limited means, Lester Collins simplified the estate’s design but kept its sensibilities. In the process, he doubled the size of the garden and enhanced the breadth of experience. As funds allowed, he opened portions of the Becks’ densely wooded site, carefully editing existing vegetation to leave magnificent trees and great swaths of natives like blueberries, iris and various ferns; and created the first route around the lake with construction of the Channel Bridge to the Island in 1969. Over the years, he created new cup gardens; designed extraordinary water features like the Mist, the Water Sculpture, the Air Spring, and the Fountain Jet; sculpted fanciful berms like those along the Entrance Drive, the Front Lawn, and around Tiptoe Rock; and judiciously added plants like Japanese primroses, Joe Pye weed, and columnar maples to create a living collection that is unpretentious by design and undemanding by requirement. He found the cup garden to be infinitely scalable — it could be a mossy rock or the entire site — and infinitely flexible. When a tree grows significantly or comes down in a storm, a rock or another tree or shrub can be added or subtracted to rebalance the composition.
Like his traditional Chinese and Japanese counterparts, Collins used his deep knowledge of the site and clear ideas for the garden to design in situ at Innisfree, instead of on paper. This methodology was unique in his oeuvre. In this way, he experimented with and refined his design from 1938 until his death in 1993. All the while, Lester Collins maintained the cup garden concepts and the spirit that he and the Becks envisioned for Innisfree — a contemplation on the joyous union of man and nature. When he died in 1993, Collins was about to complete a spectacular fountain, called the Water Sculpture, at Innisfree. It was finished to his design the following year.
On September 3, 2019, Innisfree, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places– the perfect way to mark Innisfree’s 60th season as a public garden. The period of significance, 1930 to 1994, recognizes the entire design arc of this exceptional site, which met the criteria for national significance in landscape architecture and the higher bar of “exceptional significance” set for anything completed in the past 50 years. The nomination itself received a 2019 New York State Historic Preservation Award from the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Collins developed cost-effective and environmentally sensitive garden design techniques and maintenance practices that are still implemented on site today. By understanding the ecosystem in each section of the garden, he could make small adjustments over time to favor certain elements. As an example, the native rose mallows Collins prized were not forceful enough to self-sow as vigorously as he desired in established bogs. He discovered that simply by making small openings in existing vegetation, mallows would appear and flourish. To capture these ideas, Collins wrote Innisfree: An American Garden. A 1994 New York Times article by Anne Raver said the garden showed “such respect for the land” that Innisfree and this book “could change how we see gardens, in much the same way that William Robinson’s ‘Wild Garden’ shook up the formal English garden 100 years ago.”
Perhaps the most intriguing of Collins’ many innovations at Innisfree are the ways he achieved specific design goals by partnering with nature, drawing on his deep understanding of natural processes and how individual ecosystems work. Collins relied on what he called his “farmer common sense” to create a resilient landscape that is environmentally and economically sustainable but is most definitely a designed landscape, not an ecological restoration. Creating gardens that function as plant communities as opposed to traditional mixed borders or mass plantings is a concept now at the leading edge of horticultural thought. Through carefully timed but minimal interventions in the natural succession process, Collins caused different plant communities to emerge (not be planted) that perform different aesthetic functions. These are carefully but minimally edited over time, relying on highly developed aesthetic sensibilities and plant/ecosystem knowledge, but not an army of gardeners. Most of these ecological gardens Collins created are bog gardens in Innisfree’s broad natural bowl, although some are upland meadows and woodlands. These ideas that merge design, construction, and maintenance enable Innisfree to function effectively with a remarkably small maintenance staff and budget.
Also remarkable is the innovative water system Lester Collins developed at Innisfree. There are no wells on site. All water used for the many water features and limited irrigation is rainwater collected in the natural bowl that defines Innisfree and drawn from a loop that includes the 40-acre glacial lake at the center of the site and a 7-acre reservoir on a ridge above the garden. Before scientists understood how to control algae bloom, Collins used his “farmer common sense” to solve the issue at Innisfree by taking nutrients from undesirable plants (algae) and giving them to desirable ones. He installed a pump to draw the lowest, sediment-rich layer of water out of the lake to the reservoir. The material in that layer fed the algae, so without it the lake cleared. Today, this process is known as hypolimnetic withdrawal. The Innisfree reservoir is thereby nutrient rich, essentially compost tea. By designing a water system that could handle a heavy sediment load, Collins was able to feed all of the plants along streams, in bog gardens, around fountains, and in any area that was irrigated. The plants draw nutrients out of the water, and the ground itself in this natural bowl serves as a giant sand filter, so by the time the water returns to the lake, it has been naturally filtered and aerated by waterfalls, fountains, and sprinklers.
The techniques Collins developed to create drama and interest without costly construction or intensive ongoing maintenance could serve as a playbook for 21st century landscapes: a Giacometti-like stone — a glacial erratic — poised just so along the sculpted lake shore; a sweep of rolling natural topography revealed through judicious clearing and emphasized by an undulating field of constructed berms nearby; a wide, sensuous curve in a stream looking for all the world like a fragment of a Henry Moore piece that brings the reflected sky down in to the garden and ties together a trio of hills. With his focus on the individual experience in nature as well as making purposeful design choices, Lester Collins’ Innisfree is the embodiment of mindfulness.