Do you remember reading The Secret Garden? Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, along with the 1949 and 1993 movie renditions that followed, charmed readers with the concept of a secret paradise in the heart of an English estate. While the emotional ups and downs of the story drove audiences to the final chapter, the allure of a secluded oasis in the heart of society remains at the core of the tale’s undeniable magic.
On the eastern border of the Hudson River in Dutchess County, that very same magic hides in Hyde Park’s Bellefield, another of the historic estates for which the region is known. Yet unlike the fan-favorite estates at Vanderbilt In Hyde Park and Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, Bellefield remains a very local secret. (Had you ever heard of Bellefield before clicking on this article?)
Lesser known though it may be, Bellefield represents a longstanding local history that is rich in architectural significance and community culture. Although technically part of the Home of Franklin Roosevelt National Historic Site since 1975, it maintains independent origins that date back to 1795, when Judge John Johnston purchased 175 acres to build the federal-style home that now forms the core of the current house.
After Johnston added an additional 300 acres to the estate and bestowed the property with its name, Bellefield changed hands a number of times until 1885, when part of the land was purchased by Thomas Newbold and his wife, Sarah Coolidge. As prominent personages in their own right (Newbold was a state senator while Coolidge was the descendant of Thomas Jefferson and the daughter of a judge), the couple kept a friendly connection to the Roosevelts, their neighbors in Hyde Park.
When the Newbolds began renovations on the property in the early 1900s, they created the version of Bellefield that the public knows today. To the property, they added not just a pump house, water tower, and children’s playhouse, but also The Stone House, an aptly named edifice that stands near to the mansion itself. The significant renovations, which were completed by McKim, Mead & White in 1911, combined with the early heritage of the property, earned Bellefield a place on the National Register of Historic Places in the Hudson Valley.
Perhaps the best addition to the grounds, however, is not a building at all. Designed by visionary landscape designer Beatrix Farrand, the estate’s expansive garden is precisely the modern-day oasis so iconized in The Secret Garden. As the earliest existing private garden by Farrand, the terrain shines through its harmony of colors, bloom sequences, and textures. Farrand, who studied at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, earned a reputation for clever use of perennials and mixed border landscapes.
Although many of her projects have withered away over the years, evidence of her work lives on at Rockefeller’s Eyrie Garden in Maine, on parts of the Princeton and Yale campuses, and at the Dumbarton Oaks garden in Washington D.C.
“We are fortunate to have the earliest existing example of [Farrand’s] work here in the Hudson Valley,” says Anne Cleves Symmes, the garden educator at the Beatrix Farrand Garden Association. As part of the association, Cleves Symmes develops workshops for community programs and educates students on Farrand’s legacy and local horticulture.
She notes that, in comparison with other regional gardens like the one at Locust Grove, which boasts 19th century romantic landscapes, and Innsifree, which was designed in the mid-twentieth century and incorporates Chinese and Japanese traditions, Bellefield unites European formal garden styles with an American viewpoint. “The garden is thoughtfully connected to the McKim, Mead & White architecture of the house and, while it starts out as a highly formal structure, it gradually becomes more naturalistic, moving finally into what [Farrand] called the ‘wild garden’ beyond.”
For the greater portion of the 20th century, the Beatrix Farrand Garden and Bellefield itself remained in the Newbold family, passing first to Newbold’s daughter, Mary, and later to Mary’s son, Gerald Morgan, Jr. Between 1973 and 1975, Gerald donated the land he inherited to the National Park Service, which clustered the property with the nearby Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. Now protected, the land became an open space for locals and visitors.
As the years passed, however, the gardens fell into disrepair. It was not until 1994 that the National Park Service chartered the Beatrix Farrand Garden Association to revive the grounds that the garden began to flourish once more.
Nowadays, both the Beatrix Farrand Garden and Bellefield shine as historic beacons in Dutchess County. Flora of all types thrives inside the garden, which is arranged in monochromatic color schemes of white, pink, and purple.
“Her perennial borders were inspired by English cottage gardens popularized by Gertrude Jekyll, but again, she created her American style of planting, incorporating many of the region’s native plants,” Cleves Symmes explains.
Visitors can explore the grounds outside the Federal and Colonial Revival house (the home itself serves as administrative offices for the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites and is not open to the public), then get lost inside the perfectly manicured garden or retreat with a book under a shady tree. According to Cleves Symmes, the best times to visit are in late May and early June, when the garden’s irises, foxgloves, and peonies reach full bloom. In spring, newly flowering bulbs signal the promise of the season, while the garden’s purple asters and surrounding foliage highlight the colors of fall. Even in winter, fresh coats of snow create a soft blanket over the clean, elegant lines of the garden as a whole.
Nearby, the Hyde Park Trail is open to anyone who wants to wander along the riverside expanse. To the south, the FDR grounds and Presidential Library and Museum host visiting hours and local events throughout the year.
The Bellefield grounds and the Beatrix Farrand Garden are open year-round, free of charge. Check their websites for more information on visiting hours and site information. In March, keep an eye out for the new documentary, Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes, which follows award-winning public garden designer Lynden B. Miller as she explores Farrand’s life, landscapes, and career. On June 1 and 2, the documentary celebrates a local debut and educational symposium at the Beatrix Farrand Garden, as well.