A Grand Undertaking

The Castle Hill Grand Allee on the morning work began on Phase One of the restoration project.

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April Austin is pursuing a certificate in landscape design history at The Landscape Institute. She spent 20 years as an editor and writer for The Christian Science Monitor, focusing on the arts, architecture, and gardening.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

Few landscapes possess the sheer drama of the Grand Allée on Castle Hill at the Crane Estate in Ipswich. A vast carpet of lawn bordered on both sides by evergreens, the Allée flows toward bluffs overlooking Crane Beach and the open sea beyond.

by April Austin 

Measuring 2,060 feet long – about five and a half football fields – and 100 feet wide across its grassy middle, this beloved avenue provides a breathtaking natural transition between the stately Crane mansion and its wild ocean vistas.

But the Allée is not what it once was. Nearly 100 years after their planting, the trees are showing their age. A Nor’easter in 2007 brought down two dozen trees, leaving gaps in the rows like missing teeth, and continued exposure to harsh New England weather has weakened many more. The mature height of the remaining trees clutters sightlines, not only to natural features, but also to the classical-style sculptures so prized by Mrs. Crane and generations of visitors.

This is not the sweeping grassy mall laid out by famed landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff from 1913 to 1915. And the trees, reaching the end of their lifespan, can no longer be improved by pruning. So The Trustees of Reservations, who have cared for
Castle Hill, a National Historic Landmark, for more than 50 years, have launched an effort to restore the Allée to its original glory.

A Vision Re-Realized

The Grand Allée came about at a particular moment in landscape history. In the early 20th century, wealthy Americans, including the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, built lavish estates and summer retreats. Richard T. Crane, Jr., had made his fortune in the manufacture of plumbing and industrial supplies, and his family was eager to assume the social and philanthropic duties that came with great wealth. The Cranes purchased land on the North Shore of Boston, which had become a summer resort for the wealthy, to create a place where they could entertain friends and escape stifling Chicago summers.

Well-to-do Americans of that era often traveled to Europe, returning home with elaborate designs in mind, in particular, the park-like grounds of English manor houses and the manicured gardens of Italy and France. Architects and landscape designers were increasingly called upon to recreate the Italian style for their well-heeled clients, including the Cranes, whose first house atop Castle Hill was an Italian-style villa. The Cranes engaged Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons, who had taken over their father’s famous landscape firm and established a national reputation of their own, to create its gardens.

Landscape historian and Allée project designer Lucinda Brockway of Past Designs, who conducted extensive research on Castle Hill’s landscapes, says Olmsted’s sons were as adept at designing open parkland – their father’s legacy – as they were at fashioning Italianate gardens. Their formal Italian Garden became a highlight of the estate, but Mrs. Crane was less satisfied with their proposal for a large lawn off the north terrace area.

In 1913, another landscape architect emerged serendipitously on the scene: Arthur Shurcliff, an Ipswich neighbor. He was brought in to consult on the complex drainage and irrigation system being installed on the then 1,380-acre estate. Although he had trained with Olmsted Sr., Shurcliff was sympathetic to Mrs. Crane’s desire for an Italian-style feature that would link the house to the sea. He suggested a mall – a grassy expanse bordered by trees, says Brockway. Several such malls existed in Italy, including at the Villa Borghese and the Boboli Gardens, both of which would have been familiar to Shurcliff.

Shurcliff ’s brilliance shows in the deceptively simple arrangement he devised, a design that took ten years to mature to its ideal height. Shurcliff chose trees that grew well in this part of the country: The inner hedge was Norway spruce, sheared to a height of 12 to 15 feet to provide a green-curtained backdrop to the classical sculpture. The hedge was backed by a row of white pine, and the last 500 feet were edged with red cedar.

The resulting grand avenue, or greensward, is unique in American landscape design.While other estates of the so-called Country Place era boasted similar features, none approaches the size or scale of that at the Crane Estate, according to Brockway. It is also the largest surviving example of Shurcliff ’s work in the Italian style. (Shurcliff is today best known for his Colonial revival gardens at Old Sturbridge Village and Williamsburg.)

The renovation now underway will restore the original dimensions of the Allée, revealing the architect’s original patterns and intentions. “Our plan preserves the integrity of Shurcliff’s design,” says Castle Hill superintendent Bob Murray, who is overseeing the work. Murray knows how important it is to ensure the continuity of the picturesque qualities of the Estate, so popular for concerts, weddings, tours, and other events.

The project has also created a unique opportunity for The Trustees to revitalize a cavernous underground cistern and rainwater harvesting system, part of the Crane Estate’s original, self-sustaining infrastructure. This system will meet all of the
irrigation needs of the project, creatively supporting the Allée’s environment now and into the future.

Water conservation is just one way The Trustees are working to care for this landscape in as “green” a way as possible. “We’re managing the soils very carefully and choosing trees and other plant material that are well suited to the harsh weather conditions here,”Murray says.With such a massive undertaking on a property of national significance, he continues, “we recognize that this project can serve as a wonderful example of how to manage the care of historic landscapes sustainably.”

Murray realizes that some visitors may prefer the look of the Allée’s windswept, mature trees. But, he says, while the project will restore Shurcliff ’s original vision, the plan is also a practical decision, one made with the health of the trees and the integrity of the landscape uppermost in mind.

What You’ll See, and When

The Allée project – for which The Trustees expect to raise $1,000,000 with an equal match from an anonymous donor, which will help offset costs of long-term care – will be completed in three phases over three years. Each phase will involve the removal and replanting of a section of trees, starting near the house and moving outward.

Phase One began this winter, taking advantage of the frozen ground to minimize soil disturbance. A crane has carefully plucked out individual trees between the house and the buildings known as the Casino, cutting them into logs and sending them to a mill in Essex for lumber. The remainder of the trees will be chipped and composted, and eventually returned to the property to enrich the soil. “Nothing will go to waste,” says Murray. A shipbuilder has even expressed interest in several specific trees. This summer, visitors should see a replanted stand of 6- to 7-foot-tall Norway spruce, backed by a stand of 7- to 8-foot-tall white pine.

As they gaze at this work in progress, visitors might find themselves appreciating Shurcliff ’s skill and vision more than ever. They might see the stretch of young trees and marvel at the foresight of a landscape architect who could imagine their extraordinary effect, and at a whole new perspective on a beloved place.

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