Warner House Features English Garden

Warner House features English garden.

Portsmouth, NH’s  Warner House, built in 1716, is celebrating its 300th Anniversary. Merchant Archibald MacPhaedris built the house in the style of a London townhouse.

The Warner House at 150 Daniel Street is Portsmouth’s earliest Georgian mansion. The house stands today as a testament to the refinements and tastes of merchant shipowners during Portsmouth’s Colonial Period.

The large red brick house sits on a corner city lot. [below]

Behind the house you find the garden. On my recent visit I wondered how the garden took its current form.

Warner House Portsmouth

The Warner House in Portsmouth,NH at the corner of Daniel and Chapel Streets

No record exists of what the garden looked like with earlier owners.

According to Jeff Hopper, the Warner House manager, the landscape area in the back of the house was probably just a yard, an enclosed grassed area. An early owner, like MacPhaedris, probably had a pleasure garden on his land across the street where he and his guests could enjoy a walk through a lawn, shrubs, flowers, and vines in full bloom.

That is somewhat of a conjecture. No plan or illustration exists to illustrate what a garden across the road, in front, or behind the house looked like.

In the early 1930s the Warner House Association bought the property from the heirs rather than have the property demolished to make room for a gas station.

At that time Edith Wendell, the guiding light behind the Association, contacted the prominent landscape architect Fletcher Steele (1885-1971) to suggest improvements to the landscape.

Steele had just finished the design and planting in the Colonial Revival style of the Mission House in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

In 1936 Fletcher Steele proposed a plan to Mrs. Wendell. The plan was discovered in 1995 at the Hamilton House in Berwick, Maine, owned by the non-profit group called SPNEA which now goes by the name Historic New England.

Here is Steele’s plan:

Fletcher Steele plan for the Warner House 1936

Fletcher Steele’s plan for the Warner House 1936 [from the book The Warner House: A Rich and Colorful History, 2006]

That plan never was realized in the landscape as Steele envisioned it.

For several years working as volunteers, members of the Portsmouth Garden Club have planted and maintained the current Warner House garden.

Caroline Fesquet, the head gardener and member of the Portsmouth Garden Club, has continued the perennial borders along the entire perimeter of the property.  She has included many plant varieties but no hybrids or plant introductions after the 1930s.  She regularly amends the soil but with only organic material.

The perennials include daylilies, hosta, phlox, and an edging of lamb’s ears. She says, “I’m putting an English garden look on this garden which is appropriate.”

Caroline has provided a design with inspiration and skill. She wants to complement the period of the house.

When she began four years ago, there was a perennial border along part of the back fence. She extended it to the front.

Today the garden reflects a bit of the Colonial revival Steele design. His proposed borders are there but planted now in perennials rather than lilacs.  You will also see his walkway to Chapel Street. He also suggested a wooden well house, which guided the design of a beautiful shed, built in 2001, used to store garden tools.

The challenge in restoring a period garden demands a sense of what the garden looked like at a particular time.

The history of this house, as a home for the MacPhraidris, Warner, Wentworth, Sherburne, and Penhallow families, stretches from the Colonial Period to the 1930s.  Thus, trying to create a period landscape may require that a garden historian/designer focus on one time period.

Caroline has chosen mainly the English garden design principles from the late nineteenth century, expressed in her beautiful perennial borders.  That was the time when Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, both influential English gardeners, encouraged such planting of colorful perennials rather than carpet beds or bedding out of annuals.

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