With their elegant designs imposing order on nature, formal French gardens make it possible to satisfy an art fix while remaining outdoors. The following stateside versions are currently open to visitors.
An American take on the Petit Trianon, Marie-Antoinette’s private retreat on the grounds of Versailles, Nemours boasts the country’s grandest French-style gardens. The 1910 mansion, a gift from industrialist and philanthropist Alfred I. du Pont to his second wife, Alicia, was designed by Carrère & Hastings, architects of such Beaux-Arts landmarks as the New York Public Library. Its elegant grounds feature a quarter-mile-long vista with terraced lawns leading down to a vast reflecting pool around a central fountain. Before a colonnade lies a graceful, red-accented parterre dominated by French-American sculptor Henri Crenier’s gilded embodiment of Achievement. Other highlights include sunken gardens added by Alfred’s son and, at the far end of the vista, the circular Temple of Love, housing not Venus but Diana the Huntress, rendered by Jean-Antoine Houdon.
© The Nemours Foundation
Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens
The former estate of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post includes a Georgian-style mansion set on 25 acres of lawns, formal gardens, and woodlands. In addition to containing the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside Russia, the house reflects Post’s love of 18th-century French furnishings and luxury arts, with its lavish French Drawing Room, French Porcelain Room, and Louis XVI-style bedroom looking out onto an intimate jardin à la française. Framed by ivy-covered walls, this elegant outdoor room features symmetrical boxwood scrolls, gravel paths, and a central pool in which two cherubs sit astride sea creatures spouting water from their mouths. Presiding over the garden is a 19th-century terracotta statue of Diana after Antoine Coysevox’s 1710 marble original at Versailles. Opposite sits a pair of 18th-century French terracotta sphinxes, one representing Marie-Antoinette, the other her close companion Marie-Thérèse, Princesse de Lamballe.
© © Erik Kvalsvik/Courtesy of Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens
Huntington, New York
The financier and arts patron Otto Hermann Kahn bought a plot of land on Long Island in 1914 then added a hill over the next two years so the castle he would build upon it would dominate its surroundings. The massive French-style château, designed by the prominent Gilded Age architects Delano & Aldrich, with formal grounds by the Olmsted Brothers of Central Park fame, was completed in 1919. It served as the Kahn family’s summer home and the scene of many a glamorous soirée. After decades of decline, changes in ownership, and eventual abandonment following Kahn’s death in 1934, the estate was purchased by a developer in 1984, meticulously restored, and transformed into a hotel. The grounds regained their original, austere splendor, with some 2,500 boxwoods planted around eight reflecting pools and three fountains. Oheka and its gardens have appeared in many big and small screen productions, notably Orson Welles’ classic 1941 film Citizen Kane, Taylor Swift’s 2014 “Blank Space” music video, and the HBO show Succession.
© Oheka Castle
Newport, Rhode Island
The 1901 summer “cottage” of coal magnate Edward Julius Berwind and his wife, The Elms was designed by architect-to-the-moneyed Horace Trumbauer after the mid-18th-century Château d’Asnières near Paris. Complementing the mansion are acres of formal grounds in the classical revival style. A vast lawn extends down to a grand allée of clipped linden trees, arborvitaes, fountains, and statuary, with marble pavilions at either end. Hidden beyond lies a charming sunken garden featuring a begonia-filled parterre edged with boxwoods.
© The Elms Mansion
New York, New York
These six manicured acres in the northeast corner of Manhattan’s Central Park constitute the only formal garden in that vast green space. Access is gained through a stately wrought-iron gate that once stood before Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s palatial Fifth Avenue mansion, itself replaced by Bergdorf Goodman. Conservatory Garden is actually three gardens, a clean-lined Italianate central garden with a large rectangular lawn flanked to the south by a more intimate and free-flowing English-style garden and to the north by a classic French-style garden. Laid out around a fountain showcasing German artist Walter Schott’s Three Dancing Maidens, this last has a sculpted germander parterre ringed by masses of seasonal blooms. Tulips put on a vibrant show in the spring, but starting in late October, 2,000 Korean chrysanthemums will be in flower, creating what longtime garden curator Diane Schaub has called “a 3-D Monet.”
© Consevatory Garden
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
If there is a French-influenced garden in the U.S. that rivals Nemours in grandeur, it is Longwood, designed by Pierre S. du Pont, Alfred’s cousin and (until the relationship soured) partner in the family’s gunpowder-turned-chemical business. The showstopper here is the Main Fountain Garden. Inaugurated in 1931, it married formal landscaping with the latest in hydraulic engineering to create a watery spectacle on par with those du Pont had seen at Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Villa d’Este, and other European palaces. Its linden allées, planted when the garden was ambitiously overhauled a few years ago, are undergoing a scrupulous, decade-long pruning process based on French practices to square them off and make them all appear the same height on sloping ground. Also not to be missed: the Topiary Garden with its meticulously sculpted cones, obelisks, and other shapes.
© Courtesy of Longwood Gardens
Article published in the September 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.