Over seventeen years, between 1902 and 1919, Mary Clark Thompson, the owner of the Sonnenberg estate, reshaped the grounds into a collection of garden rooms. Monumental stairs, colonnades and arbors play the roles of doors and hallways and boxed hedges, fences and water features replace the walls. The functions of these outdoor rooms are undefined, but they read like a diffuse expansion of the building they surround.
The Old Fashioned Garden
Neatly manicured parterres filled with a mix of old cottage garden favorites, annual and perennial.
Right outside the mansion is the Italian Garden, a formal square whose axis of symmetry ends in a monumental fountain adorned with sculptures. To the north, a grand colonnade leads to the rose garden and a secret nook hidden inside a small labyrinth of boxed hedges.
Past a gate and to the west of the classical square is the White and Blue garden. Nestled in the armpit of the house, this charming retreat looks more like a room than any of the others with its stone benches, pergolas, fountains and statuary. Its size reinforces the feeling that it is a room, as does its close proximity to the house.
Behind it is the Pansy garden, an homage to the late owner's favorite flower, and right next to it, the Moonlit garden, a collection of white blooms and silver foliage best admired at night.
The Old Fashioned garden was named so because of the kind of plants grown in it and not because of its configuration. It has a somewhat unusual design, an elongated four square sliced by a vine covered arbor along its long axis, in a way that completely disallows its unity. The old cottage favorites of this garden room are placed in austere box hedge containers, a vivid contrast for their care free randomness.
To the east of the classical square is the little peaceful gem of a Japanese Garden, complete with a tea house and inspired by the one at Golden Gate Park. Last and farthest from the house is the rock garden with a waterfall and a pond, designed to allow a smooth transition to the unaffected beauty of the wilderness.
I left out the greenhouse complex on purpose, because I don't know whether to call it architecture or landscaping. For all intents and purposes the Palm Conservatory is the real entrance to the mansion, you actually have to walk through it to find the path to the front door.
The conservatory complex is one of the few remaining Lord and Burnham greenhouses in the United States still in use today, and it's filled to the brim with large tropical trees and desert succulents that grew a lot over the century of its existence.
I felt like a child again, lost in this glass maze, discovering doors and surprising passageways, moving from one fanciful space to the next, guided without even knowing it by the unseen legacy of the designer's intent.
For reasons unknown the intricate structure inspires a keen interest and makes you pay attention to its understated details. Of course there should be a low brick wall at the bottom, to keep the water and the frost out, of course the hot water pipes run around the perimeter, to provide a warm air barrier next to the glass, of course there are louvers in the glazed roof, so the hot air can easily escape, of course the individual greenhouses are placed in an enfilade pattern, to encourage natural ventilation, of course the width of the glasshouse is not random, but guided with precision by the efficiency of arm's reach and comfortable pathway widths.
The genius of good design is not that it humbles you with its brilliance, but that it fascinates you with its modestly unapparent intentionality. The result of it is a straightforward configuration you don't second guess because it seems to have came together naturally.
With the quiet, loving hand of a parent who puts away the toys after the children have gone to sleep the greenhouse designer gently touched the landscape a hundred years ago and a little corner of the world was since transformed.
He or she decided to place the greenhouses right next to the entrance, surrounding a sampler garden that displays the wonders in store. Of course the greenhouse is at the entrance, where else would it be?