Today is the birthday of Henry Winthrop Sargent, who was born on this day in 1810.
Henry Winthrop was born into American royalty. The Sargent family was fabulously wealthy, and Henry's dad was the Boston artist Henry Sargent. Like most of the men in his family, Henry Winthrop went to Harvard, where he studied law.
Before he turned 30, he married Caroline Olmsted of New York, and shortly after that, Henry Winthrop retired to pursue his true calling: a country life.
A little over a year after marrying Caroline, Henry Winthrop bought a twenty-acre estate that overlooked the Hudson River. He christened it Wodenethe - a marriage of two old Saxon terms Woden (pronounced Woe-den) and ethe, which stands for woody promontory ( promontory is a point of high land that juts out into the sea or a large lake; a headland.) Almost two decades later, the unusual name caused one newspaper reporter to write that it was a beautiful property with a wretched bad name.
Wodenethe was a massive undertaking for Henry. He had unsightly buildings neighboring his property that he needed to hide, and he needed to learn what would grow in the extremes of the Northeast. Although Henry traveled to many different European gardens, his most considerable influence was much closer to home: Andrew Jackson Downing. In fact, one history of the area said,
"Had there been no Downing there would have been no Wodeneth."
Downing was a renowned landscape designer, horticulturist, and writer, and his botanic garden was just across the river from Wodenethe.
Downing and Henry Winthrop formed an immediate friendship.
And, even though Downing's work and writings played a significant role in his approach, Henry Winthrop ultimately took matters into his own hands as he designed the Landscape at Wodenethe. Henry Winthrop clearly had vision and courage - two characteristics that are often found in master Landscape Designers. One of his first acts at Wodenethe was to remove trees and foliage that obstructed scenic vistas. As a lover of trees, Henry Winthrop was strategic and exacting when it came to framing a vista. This skill in framing a scene was Henry Winthrop's superpower, and he even created windows for his home that were shaped to maximize the view to the outside.
One story about Henry Winthrop's exceptional ability to create a view involves his son, Winthrop. One time a woman visited the Sargents, and when she looked out the window, she noticed little Winthrop out on the lawn. Henry Winthrop had created the view to look like the lawn extended out to the Hudson, creating a sense that there was a sharp dropoff - almost like the lawn ran out to the edge of a cliff.
Concerned for Winthrop, the lady visitor commented something to the effect of how SHE wouldn't let her own children play so close to that dropoff. Well, after that visit, Henry Winthrop would often have little Winthrop go out to the lawn with a fishing pole and pretend to fish off the edge. In reality, he was sitting a good mile away from the water's edge - quite safe on the flat earth. But, Henry Winthrop's masterful vista created an artful and beautiful illusion.
Henry Winthrop's major life accomplishment, aside from Wodenethe, was taking Downing's book simply called Landscape Gardening and revising it for the fourth edition. This extensive re-write included details on the creation of Wodenethe in detail in addition to the Italian garden of Horatio Hollis Hunnewell in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Hunnewell had married Henry Winthrop's cousin, Isabelle.
And, keep in mind that Henry Winthrop's father was a painter when you listen to his words on Landscape Gardening:
“Landscape Gardening is just as much a picture, though a living one, made by trees, as a painted landscape is made by the pencil or brush; both require long years of study, artistic perceptions, and a knowledge of how to handle the tools.”
One of the most charming quotes I found about Henry Winthrop is regarding his early days at Wodenethe. After forty years of work, he reflected:
"For the ten years [I] did everything wrong, and for the next five,[my] time was occupied in correcting [my] mistake[s]."
The epilogue for Wodenethe is unfortunate. Henry Winthrop died there. He and Caroline were buried there. Wodenethe was serially passed along to children and surviving spouses until in 1921 when Dr. Clarence Slocum opened a sanatorium at Wodenethe making it America’s first privately licensed psychiatric hospital. In fact, some of the Wodenethe patients ended up living in Henry Winthrop's Wodenethe mansion. After Dr. Slocum died, his son sold the property to a developer, and the first thing they did was to carry out a controlled burn that destroyed the mansion and the entire garden. The place once called “The most artistic twenty-acre place in America” was gone. A year later, in 1955, the land turned into a housing development mainly for employees of Texaco.
And there is yet one more little known and sad footnote to the Wodenethe story. The sanatorium gatehouse at Wodenethe was turned into a one-bedroom, one-bath cottage for a particular patient who occupied it pretty much in solitary confinement all through the 1940s: Rosemary Kennedy, JFK's disabled sister. Their father, Joseph Kennedy, made the arrangements for Rosemary to live at Wodenethe without ever sharing the location with the rest of the family. Consequently, she never had any visitors.
Today, Wodenethe is memorialized by the street name Wodenethe Drive which intersects with Sargent Avenue in Beacon, New York.