One of the finest and most magnificent Gilded Age mansions in Newport, Rhode Island is The Elms, which was built in 1898-1901 for the coal baron Edward J. Berwind. The Berwinds used the mansion as a summer home. This extravagant residence was designed by architect Horace Trumbauer who based the design on that of the Château d'Asnières in Asnières-sur-Seine in France. An elaborate landscape plan was executed between 1907 and 1920 with a collaborative effort between the architect Horace Trumbauer and the Berwind's gardener Bruce Butterton. The landscape includes terraces displaying marble and bronze sculptures, a park of fine specimen trees and a lavish lower garden featuring marble pavilions, fountains, and a sunken garden which was recently restored by landscape architect Thomas J. Elmore.
The restoration of the Sunken Garden at The Elms began in 1998 after extensive and scholarly research was undertaken and a detailed site assessment was completed. A set of construction drawings were prepared to restore this National Historic Landmark by EDC Principal Thomas Elmore while with another firm. Mr. Elmore established Elmore Design Collaborative, Inc. and oversaw the garden's restoration, which was completed in 2001, in time for the centennial celebration.
Elmore explains, "The Preservation Society of Newport County wanted to start working on the landscape by bringing it up to par with the building, so they hired me to do the complete restoration of the sunken garden and I could not have done the project without them."
The first step was to study the original landscape design and try to stay true to it. Elmore explains, "We really did due diligence to try to uncover as much material as we could to help us document the historical changes in current traditions up through 1998, which was when the restoration began. The Preservation Society had some archives and we went to the Smithsonian and other local archives in Newport. It requires a lot of detailed scholarship to do work like this."
"I think it's important that clients understand what they have, and also that they understand that after restoration or preservation, the landscape needs to be maintained, otherwise it will revert back to a deteriorated state. Nature grows and changes and it needs to be maintained."
Although Elmore stayed true to the original design, a few changes were made after taking into consideration the future maintenance of the garden. He explains, "We modified some of the plantings, but not all of them. Instead of a high maintenance boxwood, we used an arborvitae. So we still had a dark evergreen plant, but one that needed less maintenance. Another change was that the historic landscape had big leaf linden trees but we could not find any in the United States and to bring them in from Germany was very expensive. What we did instead was to use a big leaf variety of a Littleleaf Linden. We also updated all of the mechanicals and all of the drainage."
Elmore's specialty as a landscape architect is historic preservation, as he has a passion for heritage landscapes and an understanding of their intrinsic value to their aesthetic and emotional importance to the community and the country. He explains, "I think the best part is restoring these significant landscapes for future generations to see because we've lost a lot of them. People don't understand the value of them, their aesthetic, physical and visual value until they're gone."
The Preservation Society of Newport County purchased The Elms in 1962 for $116,000, just weeks before it was scheduled to be demolished. The price included the property along with adjacent guest houses. On June 19, 1996, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. The Elms and its landscape are a rare example of how architects and garden designers used historic traditions to create a new American garden style at the dawn of the 20th century.
Tom Elmore was awarded the Annual Preservation Award by the Newport Historical Society in 2001 and the Preservation Merit Award in Landscape Preservation by Preserve Rhode Island in 2002.
The Elms is open to the public for tours. For more information contact the Preservation Society of Newport County: http://www.newportmansions.org/explore/the-elms