Lyndhurst Landscape Restoration to Enhance Visitor Experience
by Linda Viertel
“This property was not a museum; neighbors called, came by and expressed their neighborliness, they strolled through the greenhouses, the public walked the grounds multiple times throughout the year,” said Lyndhurst’s executive director Howard Zar, describing the legacy of railroad baron Jay Gould’s fabled Tarrytown estate. Well before air-conditioning, landscapes were designed to be enjoyed during the spring and summer in uniquely varied natural settings. Now, with a million dollars in grants and matching state funds from the New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP), together with experienced guidance from landscape architect Peter J. Viteretto of Heritage Landscape LLC., restoration will begin in August to recapture Lyndhurst’s west lawn and welcome the public back to experience the grounds as they would have long ago.
Originally designed in 1836 by architect Alexander Jackson Davis for William Paulding, situated high atop a knoll well away from the fronting road and with sweeping views of the Hudson River, “The Knoll,” as it was called, was surrounded by picturesque grounds in the English landscape gardening tradition. Luckily, Paulding’s master gardener, German immigrant Ferdinand Mangold, managed the property for 30 years, adding orchards, a greenhouse, curvilinear roads, wooded areas and multiple spaces within the landscape for shade.
When Jay Gould purchased the property in 1880, he embellished the house and landscape and constructed an elaborate tree house for his daughters. When Helen Gould inherited the house from her father after his death in 1892, she used the property more than just as an estate but as an institution: she supplemented the mansion’s grounds with a sewing school, a recreation center and bowling alley, and opened up the greenhouse as an asset to the local community. But she maintained the property’s style, as did her sister, Anna Gould from 1938-1961. Unfortunately, by the time Lyndhurst was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1961, invasive species began to dominate the landscape, trees had developed diseases, the greenhouse was lost, rockeries were a jumble of stones, and pathways had been removed.
So, this restoration project, based on a 1996 Treatment and Analysis Plan, was designed to recapture Lyndhurst’s western property, the historic walks, plantings and trails in order to elevate the visitor’s experiences and encourage visitors to bask in the Hudson River viewshed landscape. The 1996 treatment plan looks to cautiously preserve and sustain the infrastructure that already exists while suggesting reinstatement of the rockeries, trails, the tree house, and garden enclosure.
On June 13 at Lyndhurst’s carriage house, landscape architect Viteretto presented an extensive overview of the projected site improvements, complete with archival photos, design illustrations, and maps. He explained, “We are informed by historical knowledge; we have the basic footprint to understand the social habits that created these landscapes. We are not guessing, but using archival resources, maps, written accounts, newspaper articles, photos, and on-ground proofing.” For instance, an 1870 photo shows the western perimeter walk – removed in the 1980’s, which will be reconstructed with accommodations, adding steps in order to deal with the slope grade.
The rockeries, secluded little shaded gardens with benches – originally designed to create quiet places to get away from the heat, were destinations along the walkways in a pastoral landscape. Lushly planted, they were cool, energizing spaces angled toward the house, but there is no hint of their beauty today. Now they have been lost to vegetative cover in a highly altered historic condition. So, Viteretto asks, “How do you start to think about it? The work is to make the character of the place known to the contractor to create something new but also that has been there since the 19th century.”
The rockeries’ spatial organizations and connective path alignments have been retained through ground proofing and a few archival drawings. The challenge will be to take apart, lay out and put the stones back together while retaining their character and without damaging them. Viteretto’s message is simple: “Do the work for posterity.”
A 1905 photograph of the tree house shows restorationists an elaborate wood structure with steps leading up to a cedar platform nestled around a massive multi–trunked birch tree. Mapping has located footings for the lower stair, and some archeological finds have furthered the construction’s possible direction.
Paths between the two rockeries and down to the bowling alley, connecting to the RiverWalk, will help visitors understand the property and its landscape viewshed better. Recreating the west lawn’s paths will authenticate visits to Lyndhurst by creating different sensibilities for the participant who will be able to start to follow various paths, directing the visitor to multiple views – to the river, back to the mansion- and into the rockeries. When complete, Lyndhurst’s west lawn restoration will enable the visitor to look at and experience the grounds as if in the 19th century – the lost experience of going on foot to stop and look will now be found.
Other restoration projects include enhanced plantings following along the recreated pathways and within the rockeries, and, in the future, planting orchards and shrubs to restore the property’s understory. Executive Director Zar is really looking at a decade of future projects, but soon, the restored west lawn will make Lyndhurst a more accessible and valuable site to encounter. Being able to experience the property as a full public amenity, and as the seasons change, will give everyone who visits this National Historic Trust site many more reasons to keep coming back.