Since March 16, 1916, Garden Club of Hartford members have been meeting to enlarge their own and the public’s knowledge of horticulture, conservation, flower design and so much more. Frequent meetings coupled with speakers, workshops, demonstrations and hands-on projects have helped educate members on topics from garden layout and flower arranging to the importance of good river ecology and trees in the urban landscape.
From the beginning, the group was determined to hold as many meetings as possible in members’ homes. Every member was also to be subjected to an annual visitation of her garden from a club delegation to make sure things were up to snuff! During these initial get-togethers, the idea of doing service to the greater Hartford community “took root,” and today, GCH can point to a long history of projects that have raised awareness about the environment and made the greater Hartford area greener and more beautiful in ways large and small. We have planned flower shows, participated in the Atheneum’s Fine Arts and Flowers, documented gardens, shopped at wonderfully creative and financially productive Holiday Auctions, gone to Flower Show School, and learned about spices, bees, soil nourishment, the best ways to photograph gardens…and everything in between.
The first members, eight in all, committed themselves to beautification, among other goals. That first year, they voted to spend $200 to plant a strip of unused land at the Connecticut School for the Deaf, then located on Asylum Avenue. Since then, GCH has raised nearly $450,000 to either initiate or support such varied projects as restoring the landscape at Bushnell Park’s Corning Fountain, assisting with Pope Park and Jubilee House landscaping, giving Hartford youth training in horticulture, and partnering with Knox Parks Foundation to create gardens in a number of Hartford neighborhoods.
The Roaring Twenties
In 1919, the Club was admitted to the recently-formed Garden Club of America. And early in the 1920s, GCH began another beautification project. The Colonial Dames had acquired the old Webb home in Wethersfield in 1919; the home “in which Washington stayed, and where he is said to have planned the Yorktown campaign…. [and] the Club looked with favor on the idea of restoring the garden, or at least of creating a period garden; and Mrs. Charles Goodwin was appointed chairman.” This garden was a border running along the front of the house; today, not much of it survives.
The Twenties saw a further commitment to beautification with plantings at such institutions as the Mitchell House Settlement and the Hartford Social Settlement – now part of the Hartford Neighborhood Centers – as well as the Newington Home for Crippled Children and the new YWCA building.
The 1930s—The Depression Era
The early 1930s saw a change in some of the club’s financial focus. The resources of many club members, and the money raised by such ventures as an annual Flower Mart, meant that significant donations could be made to such organizations as the Unemployment Relief Fund of Community Chest. Children’s art classes were funded as were scholarships for teachers to attend various nature camps. And the Club joined the newly-formed Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut, first paying dues as a member in 1934.
But the horticultural focus never ceased, and by 1934, the Flower Mart proceeds ($1769) were being funneled to the restoration of the grounds at the Old State House. In 1937, the Club took on a major tree planting project at Trinity College – the “beautifying of a desolate, wind-swept tract of several acres on the Trinity College campus (the south end)….The horticultural committee had charge of the planting which followed an existing landscape plan. As 1937 was the sesquicentennial of the signing of the Constitution, it seemed fitting to dedicate three (20 foot) white oak trees to the three Connecticut signers of the Constitution (William Samuel Johnson, Oliver Ellsworth, and Roger Sherman).
“These were planted at a special ceremony of March 30th and were accepted by President Ogilby on behalf of the college. A row of 25 pin oaks, each donated by a member of the club, was also planted on Summit Avenue, as well as 80 Japanese cherry trees given as a memorial to a former member. On the east border a screen planting was put in consisting of 50 Douglas firs, 17 Austrian pines and 34 dogwoods. The Hartford Superintendent of Parks, George Hollister, obtained three grandchildren of the original Charter Oak from Peter Cascio, which were donated. In all, 212 trees were planted, representing an investment of $579.00.” (Taken from the minutes of the 1938 annual report.) Today, some of those Summit Avenue oak trees still remain.
The 1940s – The War Years and Beyond
In 1940, GCH members voted to stop the Flower Mart efforts – the work involved detracted from the energies needed for the war efforts. Labor and gas shortages during the war years meant that both harvesting and shipping food to markets was hard. The government solution was to call on citizens to plant Victory Gardens so families could become more self-sustaining. Told, “A garden will make your rations go further” and “Our food is fighting,” the public sprang into action. Urban rooftops, backyards and empty lots became gardens and suburban vegetable gardens were enlarged, all in the patriotic effort. Families were encouraged to can their own produce so that commercial foodstuffs could go to the soldiers. Answering the call, Americans bought 315,000 pressure cookers in 1943, up from 66,000 in 1942.
Following the directive of the Federated Garden Clubs to “help the Land Army in every way possible,” the Garden Club of Hartford, along with other garden clubs in the area, became quite involved in encouraging Victory Gardens and in supporting the war effort in a variety of ways, including establishing plantings and Victory Gardens at Bradley Field, a major embarkation field for bombers on their way to Europe.
By March 1944, beautifying Bradley Field had become a major focus of our Club. With all the manpower available at the base, and with planting and cultivating gardens considered “recreational work” by the staff at the Bradley Field Hospital, the state had offered 100 trees to beautify the grounds. The minutes of the March 28th meeting reveal the club would “like to plant shrubbery and flowers in the Red Cross Area, as this is very barren now. The soldiers will care for these.” By June, the quadrangle at Bradley Field had been successfully planted with shrubs and hollyhocks under the supervision of the Cascio Nursery Co. and with the help of men from the base.
Victory Gardens and war efforts weren’t over, though. In 1944, GCH members agreed to help man a booth for three days “at Fox’s, where literature will be given out with information concerning vegetables…. Mrs. Terry offered $5.00 for charts, which will explain about vegetable planting, and can be given out at the booth.” By April, Club members had also agreed to “stand ready to serve when called” to help at a local garden near the State House.
The Fabulous Fifties
The early 50s saw a concerted effort to invest in education with donations made to aid educational efforts at UConn and Yale and for tuition for summer nature camp attendees. Two teachers were sent to the University of Connecticut for summer conservation courses in 1953, and that same year, conservation information was placed in 17 West Hartford schools. Apparently, these packets were impressive enough for a Mr. Kiersted of the Ford Foundation to order 30!
By the mid 50s, the Club’s attention was again turned to the Old State House, when, in 1954, Mr. Piester of the State Park Board asked for GCH’s help in enhancing the State House grounds. Mr. Tunnard, civic planner and professor at Yale, was hired by the Club to make landscape plans and by 1955, a five-year plan was in place. The plan’s cost was $5,500, and with assistance from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the Club moved forward. By 1958, members were planting, watering and maintaining beds and 30 elms and 10 dogwoods had been planted, their maintenance handled by the city.
As a result of work of the Conservation Committee, in 1957, two youth achievement citations were awarded in Hartford schools by the Garden Club of America: one to the Audubon Club of West Middle School for their Science Museum and another to members of a social studies class at Weaver for their fish brush shelter (an interwoven pile of brush; when anchored 8-12 feet down in a lake it provides both habitat and food for fish – and a convenient place to settle in for the catch).
The Swinging Sixties
By 1960, the Club had completed the re-landscaping of the Old State House grounds (1954-1959), and garden club members were searching for another major civic project. That spring, Club member Mrs. Robert Huntington proposed that the Club consider the former Seaverns estate grounds at the Hartford College for Women for its next civic project.
Mrs. Charles Seaverns had been a beloved GCH member (member-at-large, 1926; member 1929-1947). The Club’s annual report for 1962 noted that “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Seaverns left this beautiful estate to Hartford College. It is most fitting that our club is active in helping to maintain the lovely grounds, as Mrs. Seaverns was a member of this club and both Mr. and Mrs. Seaverns were members of the Garden Club of America.”
The Hartford Courant reported that the Seaverns estate “was once renowned for its rare shrubs, beautiful trees and native wild flowers.” The Garden Club’s aim was the “preservation of a heritage at the Seaverns estate…a woodland paradise in the heart of Hartford.”
Club member and professional landscaper Mary Edwards wrote the master plan. The college and the club identified such needs as the repair of the 1/4 mile hedge bordering the street, called “shaggy and toothless” by the college president, planting additional azaleas on the east bank (Mrs. Seaverns had collected azaleas) and transplanting pachysandra.
The Club hired Mr. Ludwig Hoffman to prune straggling specimens, but it was a while before real improvement was seen. Program Committee chairman Helen Waterman wrote that “Some viewers think Hartford College looks a little worse, if that is possible, for the tender care lavished on it by the Garden Club.” The Committee had removed so much dead wood from the hedge that there were a “couple of ‘telegraph poles’ where formerly stood wistful holly trees. But NEXT year things will be different.” By 1965, the Club declared the project finished to its and the College’s satisfaction.
In the Fall of 2005, Club members Margah Lips and Nora Howard visited the College grounds. Larry Jesse, groundskeeper for 32 years, showed the visitors around. They found that most of the Club’s work was no longer there. As times changed, security issues had taken precedence over lush landscaping and extensive upkeep wasn’t possible. Mr. Jesse acknowledged the changes. “It had its day,” he said. Such is the ephemeral nature of gardens.
The Seventies, The Feel Good Decade
In 1970, several GCH members completed the project of furnishing the Mark Twain House Memorial Conservatory with plant material authentic to the time of Samuel Clemens. By 1973, the Club had grander plans for the Mark Twain House, voting unanimously to approve the restoration “to its original” of the grounds in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the house. The membership approved a request for $2,000 to restore the grounds to its late 19th century state. The project was completed in 1974.
Next on the agenda was the first of the Club’s projects in Bushnell Park, a landmark in the history of public spaces. In 1854, the people of Hartford, under the leadership of the Rev. Horace Bushnell, voted to create this public park, making “City Park,” as it was called until Bushnell’s death, the first in the world to be voted for and financed through popular referendum. It was also the first public park planned as a graceful landscaped setting rather than a formal European garden or a traditional New England square. The Swiss-born artist and draftsman Jacob Weidenmann designed and oversaw landscaping for the new park.
One of the first projects for the Park undertaken by GCH involved naming and labeling its trees. According to the club’s May 1975 annual report by the Civic Projects Committee, the following took place:
“During the fall, Nina Stanley and Nancy Percy, both of this Committee, met several times with Sarah Seymour of the Connecticut Valley Garden Club and with Victor Jarm and Jerry Allen of the City Parks and Recreation Department to plan our joint project for placing tree identification markers in Bushnell Park. Approximately thirty-five trees will be identified in the area between Jewell Street and Elm Street…. $125 was voted for this project by our Club last December….This Committee feels that much more planting could be done in Bushnell Park. Should the Club wish to expand the Bushnell Park project in the future, I believe that a good working relationship has been established with both Connecticut Valley and the Park Department.”
The 80s, The Me Decade (But Not for Us)
And, in fact, GCH did endorse more planting in the park. In May 1983, the club voted to raise $25,000 to fund tree planting, including soil preparation and labor, of pond area in Bushnell Park. This was part of an overall restoration plan for the Park prepared by Peter Rothschild of the landscaping firm Quennell Rothschild Associates and under the direction of Sandy Parisky of the Bushnell Park Foundation, Inc. The plan called for 26 flowering cherry trees to be planted in groups around the pond. Trees were planted by the spring of 1985 so they would flower for the 350th birthday of the city of Hartford in 1986. The trees eventually chosen were 21 Sargent cherries, which have light pink blossoms, turn vivid red in the fall, have interesting tactile bark and are proven good “street” trees in terms of city pollution. There were also 5 Shirhofugen cherry trees with blossoms that open pink and tum white.
Not resting on their laurels, in the winter of 1985, GCH voted on a joint project to raise $50,000 with the Connecticut Valley Garden Club to restore the Sunken Garden at Hill-Stead Museum.
Hill-Stead was built as a country house in 1901 for Mr. & Mrs. Alfred Atmore Pope. Plans for the home were the product of efforts by their daughter, Theodate, one of America’s first women architects, who worked with the New York firm of McKim, Mead and White to design a clapboard house in the Colonial Revival style. Its main garden, the walled Sunken Garden, had been grassed over in the 1940’s when it became impossible to maintain due to World War II and labor shortages. The garden clubs, with the Hill-Stead Board of Governors, made the decision to restore the garden to the era of 1910 – 1930. The Board of Governors hired Shauvan Towers of Peter Roland Associates to be the landscape architect. The clubs worked with her to research the types of plants that would have been used in that time, hiring Diana Balmori as an historical consultant.
Shauvan Towers used old photographs from 1910 and documents from the museum archives to create a layout like that of the original garden. Using the 1901 Summerhouse as the center, the intent was to duplicate the character of the old garden, which had been designed to follow the geometry of the eight-sided Summerhouse.
In the spring of 1986, Jared Edwards, husband of GCH member Clare Edwards, saw the catalog for a traveling exhibit showcasing the work of Beatrix Farrand. Among the 11 practitioners who founded the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899, Farrand had been the only woman. In the catalogue appendix was a list of undated commissions, including one for Mrs. J.W. Riddle, which was Theodate’s married name.
Farrand’s drawings were located at the University of California’s Department of Landscape Architecture and were sent to Hill-Stead. Shauvan Towers’ plans proved to be quite similar to those of Farrand; the garden committee, however, decided to follow the Farrand plan as much as possible for historical accuracy in both layout and planting material.
Fundraising for this effort proved quite extensive. First, a plant and garden sale called May Market was held in 1986 at the museum highlighting vendors such as Oliver’s Nursery and J&L Orchids. The sale also featured perennials from members’ gardens, trough gardens made by members, and unusual annuals for sale. (May Market continues to this day, and its proceeds still benefit Hill-Stead and its Sunken Garden.)
A second fund raising effort was a trip to England from May 17 – 31. The trip was sold out and $150 from every ticket was donated to the project. The group visited the Chelsea Flower Show, had lunch with Sheila McQueen and also visited country gardens.
The final event was a gala event held at Renbrook School. The black tie event, with an Edwardian theme, was a great success. Tickets cost $250 per couple and $500 for patron couples and the evening also featured a brief auction.
The opening of the restored Sunken Garden was held on June 21, 1988. The museum Board of Governors has since maintained the garden with staff and a group of dedicated volunteers. Today, the garden continues to give pleasure to museum visitors, and thousands enjoy the atmosphere on summer evenings during the Sunken Garden Poetry Festivals.
The Networking Nineties
Computers, online access and cell phones made for major changes in communications during the 90s. But 1990 also marked the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, the American Forestry Association’s call for “Global ReLeaf” and President George H.W. Bush’s urging Americans to plant “one billion trees per year for the next ten years.” GCH responded with the sale of Kousa dogwood trees to raise $4,500 for a Knox Parks Foundation effort to train five Hartford teachers in the indoor gardening program, including supplies, equipment and a classroom grow lab.
Throughout the 90s, The Garden Club of Hartford teamed with the Knox Parks Foundation in a variety of ways. We started “the Greenhouse Project” and provided electricity, gas and water services for Knox Parks’ new community greenhouse at the old Whiting Lane greenhouse in West Hartford. We used the greenhouse for planting hundreds of pots for the “Hartford Blooms” citywide project, and Knox Parks landscape training program students planted our gift of 500 daffodil bulbs in Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground. HGC’s commitment to beautification was – and is — still going strong!
The Millenium Projects: The First Ten Years
GCH kicked off the new century with great style. The Garden Club of America’s 200 member clubs are divided into zones: GCH is one of 20 Connecticut and Rhode Island clubs in Zone II, and 2000 was our year to host the Zone II annual meeting. The theme was “Urban Green,” and one focus was the project GCH was then deeply involved in — the revitalization of Pope Park.
Colonel Albert Pope gave the park to the city in 1895 for the use of city residents and his employees who worked at the Pope Manufacturing Company, at that time the world’s largest manufacturer of bicycles and high quality automobiles. Pope’s workers lived in tenements, and he had hopes of improving their living conditions with the creation of the park. The Olmsted brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, designed the park in 1898. Originally 93 acres, the park included among other features a large meadow, a sunken garden, tennis courts and a meandering walk along the Park River.
Time, however, had not treated the park well. The meadow was replaced with sports fields; a new road was cut through the park; Interstate 84 was built along its edge, taking yet more land; and the Park River was buried. Park use dropped and vandalism increased, but the building of the Pope Park Community Center in 1995 reversed this trend. The formation of the Friends of Pope Park to help promote community involvement in Park issues led to the Garden Club of Hartford’s involvement when the Club was invited to join the Friends’ Board and its Beautification Committee.
Staff at the park center, the City of Hartford Parks Department, the Department of Public Works, HART, and committee members from GCH spent two years planning the changes that would give Pope Park a more welcoming face. The work began with plantings around the entrance to the center and digging in 1,000 daffodils in October 2001. The overall master plan, reflecting new uses of the park while preserving and honoring the original Olmsted design, was adopted in the fall of 2002. The Garden Cub of Hartford, along with the Friends of Pope Park, hoped for a park that: fit the needs and desires of the community; was not further compromised; called attention to the fact that Pope Park is historically important; stressed the importance of conserving and restoring city park space; and encouraged future financial support from the corporate and private community. Today, Pope Park is a thriving and beautiful community-gathering place.
Urban Green was also at the heart of the replanting efforts around Bushnell Park’s newly refurbished Corning Fountain in 2003. And to celebrate our 90th anniversary, we vowed to plant 90 Trees for 90 Years throughout the city of Hartford. This was accomplished throughout 2004-2006 working with Knox Parks Foundation.
Another ongoing project for GCH members has been documenting gardens for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens (http://www.gardens.si.edu/collections-research). “The Archives of American Gardens (AAG) offers landscape designers, historians, researchers, and garden enthusiasts access to a collection of over 100,000 photographic images and records documenting historic and contemporary American gardens,” notes the website. Since 2000, GCH has documented 11 gardens, and the effort is ongoing.
Community gardens — creating homegrown food sources in neighborhoods where access to fresh food may be less than ideal – has become the recent focus of a number of GCH projects. In 2010, GCH worked with Knox Parks Foundation again on improvements to the Affleck Street Community Garden in Hartford, adding more raised beds, installing a tool shed and improving the irrigation system. The next gardens were at Earle St. in Hartford’s North end, where we helped prepare beds, build greenhouses and extend water lines to the new beds and the small orchards.
Today, the focus is on Keney Park, as the club, with a grant from the Garden Club of America’s Partners for Plants program, initiates a design competition for the five entrances to Keney Park—with a construction ready plan for the Barbour St. entrance — and the mapping and monitoring of endangered, rare and invasive plant species at Barbour St. And, as always, members continue to have creative and challenging ideas about projects large and small.
As we approach our centennial year in 2016, we are looking forward to a future that continues this legacy of great projects, great learning and great fun.