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From the Preserve Archives: Charles Savage’s artistic vision for the gardens

Charles K. Savage, creator and original designer of both the Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden, was a visual artist in addition to having self-taught landscape architecture talents. Savage was the mastermind who saved unique horticultural specimens from Reef Point, Beatrix Farrand’s Bar Harbor estate, to initiate the two iconic Northeast Harbor gardens in 1956. The Land & Garden Preserve archival holdings include several of Savage’s garden design sketchbooks created in the mid-1950s during the development of the gardens. These sketchpads were given to the Preserve in 2009 by the late Ken Savage, son of Charles and longtime member of the Preserve board and garden committees.

Among the elements that Savage employed as a signature design element in his gardens were wooden fences, all of them conceived and designed to surround and architecturally structure an existing landscape. Included among the many pencil sketches are 35 of fences or fence detail envisioned for both the Azalea and Thuya Gardens. In addition, there are several fencing concept designs for the Asticou Inn which was owned by the Savage family from its inception in the late 1880s until 1964. Some of the drawings foreshadowed fences that were built and stand today. Others were conceptual drawings and details that Savage did not incorporate into his projects before his death in 1979. The sketchbooks are a rich trove of Savage’s artistic thoughts, drawings, and visions that provide a window into his talents and eclectic dreams for his beloved nature-driven landscapes.

Of special interest are several drawings that preceded construction of Thuya Garden. These drawings are not dated in the sketchbooks but thought to be from 1956. The critical design of the garden was focused not on the living specimens such as rhodora and horticultural specimens from Reef Point or elaborate border plantings. Rather, Savage saw a perspective that included vistas, topography, and man-made wood structures.

We often think of Thuya Garden as bloom, grassy swaths, and English style border gardens. However, Savage’s designs placed man-made elements on an existing naturally occurring acreage first and foremost with no conceptions for horticultural specimens other than the backdrop of trees that were found on the hillside.These sampling of six drawings of the area near the upper pavilion provide evidence that Thuya Garden was indeed envisioned as enhancing a hillside and very much in the “secret garden” and in the Asian tradition of an enclosed space of repose and quiet with a highly stylized and surrounding carved fence.

Betsy Hewlett is a former employee of the Preserve and now helps to curate our archives collection.

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