Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Historic Loutrel Briggs Garden "Discovered" in Pelham Manor

In the last few days, the owners of the home located at 20 Beech Tree Lane in Pelham Manor known as The Lockwood Barr House (after the man who built it in 1927-28) have discovered that the garden in the rear of the house was designed by the renowned landscape architect Loutrel Winslow Briggs (1893 – 1977). An early photograph of a small portion of the garden taken shortly after its initial planting appears immediately below.

Briggs is widely noted as among the “Pioneers of American Landscape Design” who literally shaped our history. See Birnbaum, Charles A. & Karson, Robin, eds., Pioneers of American Landscape Design, pp. 35-37 (The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. 2000). An expert on his work and the work of many of his contemporaries has described him saying “Briggs, above all others, is credited with establishing what is generally known today as ‘Charleston’s garden style.’” Cochran, James, Preserving Charleston’s Landscape Legacy, Historic Preservation, Vol. XV, No. 1, p. 2 (American Society of Landscape Architects, Spring 2005). In the last few years, heightened awareness of the importance of his work has led to surveys intended to identify remaining gardens that he designed, preservation workshops dedicated to teaching the owners of Briggs gardens how to preserve, document and maintain his original work, as well as lectures, tours and a weekend charrette all dedicated to Loutrel W. Briggs and his landscape architecture. See id., p. 3.

Loutrel Briggs was born in New York City on December 12, 1893. Id., p. 2. He graduated from Cornell University in 1917 with a degree in “Rural Art”, the then equivalent of a landscape architecture degree. Id. After graduation, he served as head of the department of landscape architecture at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. Id.

As James Cochran recently observed in a brief biography of Loutrel Briggs, during the 1920s and 1930s wealthy New Yorkers and other northerners began to buy townhouses and “low-country plantations” in and around Charleston, South Carolina as “winter retreats”. Id. The young landscape designer, apparently sensing an opportunity, changed his practice to take advantage of this seasonal migration and “opened an independent practice of landscape architecture” in Charleston in 1921. Id. Soon, according to the same source, he was practicing landscape architecture in Charleston during the winter months and in New York during the summer.

By the time Lockwood Barr designed and built his home at 20 Beech Tree Lane, Briggs was coming into his own as a nationally renowned landscape architect. Indeed, by the late 1920s and early 1930s he was beginning to receive important and lucrative commissions for landscape design in Charleston, New York and elsewhere. According to one source:

“One of Briggs’s first commissions in Charleston was in 1929 for Mrs. Washington Roebling, widow of the famous engineer who supervised the construction of New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. Briggs later became involved in the design of gardens and grounds of other Charleston properties, including numerous Low-country plantations like Mulberry for Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Chapman of New York (1930), Rice Hope for Senator J.S. Fraulinghuysen of New Jersey (1932), and Mepkin for Henry and Clare Booth Luce (1937).” Id.

Today Loutrel Briggs is best known for the more than one hundred gardens that he designed that now rest within or near Charleston’s National Register Historic District. In recent years, citizens of Charleston began to realize that due to “changes in property ownership, poor maintenance, and natural disasters” some of the finest Briggs gardens were being lost. Thus:

“In the spring of 2003, the Historic Charleston Foundation in concert with James Cothran, FASLA (an Atlanta landscape architect and author of Gardens of Historic Charleston), sponsored a workshop at the Foundation’s headquarters to highlight important contributions made by Loutrel Briggs to Charleston’s landscape legacy. . . .

Following a consensus of workshop attendees to participate in a survey / documentation program of Loutrel Briggs’s gardens, Historic Charleston Foundation agreed to serve as the coordinating organization for this effort. . . .

The Briggs project has achieved many milestones in its first year and a half. In addition to the successful documentation of over ten Briggs gardens, extensive archival material (surveys, plans, photographs, etc.) has been assembled and catalogued. In addition, Historic Charleston Foundation has sponsored two lectures on Loutrel Briggs and tours of his gardens during its annual Spring Festival of House and Garden tours.” Id.

The work of Loutrel Briggs is distinctive and, some say, easy to spot. As one author has noted regarding his work in Charleston gardens:

“Briggs’s ability to work within these tiny spaces resulted in many creative and aesthetic designs. . . . In the design of Charleston’s small town gardens, Briggs adhered to certain design principles that proved to be tremendously effective throughout his career. He believed that each space and its surroundings should be carefully considered in determining the design of an individual garden. Briggs also believed that, if at all possible, a garden should be visible and easily accessible from the house to establish a clear interior / exterior relationship between the house and garden plan. His desire was to create a garden that served as an outdoor room.” Id.

Another author has said that Briggs “defined the Charleston garden style: High brick or stucco walls enclosing a sequence of outdoor rooms with lawns outlined in old brick and stone paving; fountains, pools, statuary, arbors and trellises as focal points; and a palette of 25 to 30 plants, often shade-tolerant.” Lowry, Patricia, Charleston Radiates a Seductive Charm, The Cincinnati Post, Oct. 16, 2004 (originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Such words easily could be used to describe the simple, small garden that Loutrel Briggs designed for Lockwood and Berenice Barr at 20 Beech Tree Lane. The back entrance of the home opens onto a slate patio that is perfectly level with and flows into the central portion of the garden with a small, slate framed pond in the center designed for a fountain sculpture. The center “room” of the garden is framed on three sides by low stone walls on which rest slabs of slate that, once again, match the patio site. It is “open” with no wall on the side facing the rear of the house so as to those within the house and those who step outside into the garden.
At the rear of the garden is an opening in the low stone wall with a series a stone steps leading to a slate terrace with a birdbath in its center. The steps and terrace are built upon a natural rise at the very rear of the property, thus using the lay of the land masterfully to create another quiet and somewhat secluded area for contemplation visible from the house with the decorative garden birdbath as a focal point in the design of the terrace at the rear of the garden.

The photograph above, likely taken in the 1940s, shows the pond, known as the "Lilly Pool" within the "Evergreen Garden" -- one of the four "rooms" that form the Garden. The birdbath on the terrace is visible in the background.

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