Betsy Hewlett, a former employee of the Preserve who now helps to curate our archives collection
The Preserve archive holds documents and photos, including personal correspondence, which provide insights into the friendship of Beatrix Farrand (1873-1959), American landscape architect, and Mount Desert Island resident Charles K. Savage (1903-1979) during the momentous time period in which Reef Point, Mrs. Farrand’s Bar Harbor property, was abandoned and the two public gardens, Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden, were realized. These archival materials speak to the cordial relationship between the renowned landscape architect and the thirty-year younger self-taught local landscape artist.
Each of the three public gardens of the Preserve bears the legacy of Mrs. Farrand. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden is one of her best-known estate garden designs. Commissioned by John D. Jr and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in 1926, it was and continues to be an embodiment of Mrs. Farrand’s signature and style.
Mrs. Farrand’s hand in the plant collections of both the Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden is less known but of great consequence. Although these two gardens were created by Mr. Savage, their styles were supported by his kinship with Mrs. Farrand, her Bar Harbor estate, and resources he found in her personal library. Fortuitously, each garden was urged into being by Mr. Savage’s hasty acquisition of her entire Reef Point plant collection in 1956.
Mrs. Farrand and Mr. Savage maintained a respectful friendship from the late 1940s through Mrs. Farrand’s final years. After the death of her husband Max in 1945, Mrs. Farrand established a non-profit foundation to carry forward the couple’s ambitious plan for an educational center at Reef Point. She populated the board of directors with her society friends and professional colleagues who were generally among a small group inherited through her New York society family and its elite institutions. There were two exceptions: Robert W. Patterson and Charles K. Savage.
Robert Patterson was a Harvard educated landscape architect and Farrand collaborator who resided in Somesville. Mr. Savage was known to her as the gracious and artistic promoter of the beauty of Mount Desert Island. His entrée into her circle was through mutual friends who knew him from his ownership and personal management of the Asticou Inn. His involvement in various civic projects and village improvement organizations also brought him to Mrs. Farrand’s attention as she actively promoted the Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association, Bar Harbor Garden Club, and her Reef Point vision.
Correspondence between the two is addressed with the formal “Dear Mr. or Mrs.” never using familiar first names Charles or Beatrix. On May 16, 1955, Mrs. Farrand handwrote to Mr. Savage from her winter base in Santa Barbara, California, breaking the news to him that the educational center was to be closed forever.
Will you kindly read the typed sheets [reporting the closing of Reef Point], before finishing reading this [handwritten] note – Then, may I ask that you keep your own counsel and not discuss this matter, except with your fellow directors or members.
The letter has been written after many hours of thought and study, by Mr. Patterson and me and we believe the suggestion made in the typed letter is on the whole a wise move although a very difficult one for me to propose.
Your interest and ever willing help have never been counted on in vain, and I trust this will aid you in reaching the decision Mr. Patterson and I have arrived at.
Yours very sincerely,
Mr. Savage returns her note on May 18 to express his shock and to question her proposal.
...I have read and re-read both your letter and the typed sheet, several times. The thought...comes as a considerable surprise, and I want to add, a painful one. The idea of such a change is a melancholy one. I wonder if your conclusion is the only practical one. May not a better and more helpful outcome be found?
Mrs. Farrand writes back on May 22 to affirm her decision and firmly curtail any further pleading from Mr. Savage.
...Your letter of May 18 came yesterday and before replying to it, thought has been given as to how to explain the decision made regarding Reef Point without inflicting a long “sermon” upon you. You of course realize perhaps better than anyone how difficult the question has been, and with what pain and distress of mind the apparently wise and inevitable solution was reached. Please talk to Mr. Patterson and Mrs. Garland....I am so grateful to you for understanding.
Yours very sincerely,
In the two years following this exchange, Reef Point was indeed dismantled and most of the books, prints, and documents sent to University of California at Berkeley and a few other elite institutions. Some of her possessions were sold in private sales to friends. Mr. Savage boldly offered to purchase the entire Reef Point shrub, tree, and plant collection from the subsequent buyer of the Reef Point property. A contract for this purchase was executed on April 27, 1956, less than a year after Mrs. Farrand’s announcement to close and dismantle the property. Subsequently funded by a personal donation from John D. Rockefeller, Jr, Mr. Savage arranged to dig up and transport hundreds of the beautiful specimens to Asticou. Some were stored for several years behind Thuya Lodge, awaiting the garden bed preparations. Others (i.e., the extensive azalea collection) were soon planted out in what is now the Asticou Azalea Garden, created from a swamp across the street from the Asticou Inn.
The archive correspondence illuminates this transfer. In a handwritten note of November 23, 1957, Mrs. Farrand says,
...Don’t neglect to take the R.P. Clethra acuminata, at the s.e. end of the garden. Very rare...If after you take all the Osmunda regalis that you care for, will there be any scraps next spring [for me]. Thank you for the Solomon’s Seal.
In May 1956, at the onset of this frenetic plant transfer from Bar Harbor to Asticou, Mr. Savage became concerned that his purchase agreement was not being honored by Mrs. Farrand and her staff. He says in a letter to Amy Garland, Mrs. Farrand’s head gardener,
This is to say that my contract...provides for my purchase as of April 27, 1956, of all of the trees, shrubs and other plants of any kind, wherever situated on the premises, excepting only the plant material located on that part of the property as had been tagged and reserved, either by Mr. Patterson or by you for Mrs. Farrand, as of April 27. Such material as has been tagged since that date – and it includes far more than had been reserved prior thereto – I must regard as being in legal violation of my contract...
I am sure you will realize that I have every desire to co-operate in every way to the end that Mrs. Farrand may enjoy some of the plant material, even if and beyond the amount which had been retained by her prior to my purchase...However, I notice that as the days have progressed, more and more reservation labels have appeared...which has very materially reduced the value of the whole.
After several paragraphs of polite explanation of his intentions, Mr. Savage pointedly concludes the letter.
With the exceptions noted above, all of the tree, shrub and plant material became my legal property on April 27. I do not wish anything to be removed which has been tagged since that date, without my specific permission.
It took the better part of three years for the Savage crew to prepare the gardens in Northeast Harbor and establish the hundreds of transplants into the ground. By spring, 1959, the bulk of Mrs. Farrand’s plants were in their new homes in the natural landscapes at the Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden.
Mr. Savage doggedly pursued his singular vision for the two gardens with no design collaboration from Mrs. Farrand (or anyone else for that matter). Mrs. Farrand was in declining health and immersed in donating her books, professional papers, and herbarium to several institutions. Further, she was relocating to her new apartment at Garland Farm in Bar Harbor and establishing a small pleasure garden there. Although she maintained a quiet summer residency in Bar Harbor until 1959, she only occasionally kept social engagements or made visits around the island in her final years. All the while Mr. Savage stayed close to Asticou, managing the inn, and industriously opening the new gardens to widespread public approval and acclaim.
Any differences of understanding between Mrs. Farrand and Mr. Savage were apparently overcome. Mrs. Farrand asks if the Beatrix Farrand forsythia that she had sent to Mr. Savage had been received and noted that she had ordered dianthus Beatrix to be sent to him from a nursery. In a note from September 1957, she wrote to Mr. Savage,
Everyone speaks to me of your public spirit, your taste and your achievement in your new plantations so happily replaced on this lovely island...The use of water, the splendid stones and the art with which the plants have been placed are each and all appreciated and you have given great pleasure. Nothing adds more peace to these somewhat difficult days than the beauty of outdoor art.
With congratulations and gratitude, I am,
Yours very sincerely,
In a 1956 report to the board of Reef Point updating them on “drawing down the curtain on what was Reef Point Gardens,” Mrs. Farrand expressed her relief and surprise that the plants from Reef Point were going to be saved and maintained as a collection. She says,
...another [Director] has bought the plants which neither the former [Mrs. Farrand] or the present owner required for their use. This is a solution more to their liking than any other [I] could have imagined. The plants will stay on the Island, will be in good hands and will give pleasure in the future to garden lovers as they have in the past.