The Grounds at Skylands

Martha's insatiable lust for flowers is nowhere in evidence on the grounds at Skylands, her summer home on Mt. Desert Island in Seal Harbor, Maine. Moss, leafy vines, towering conifers and ferns create a verdant tapestry around the estate, leaving little room for fussy florals. And this is entirely by design.

Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860 - 1951) designed the grounds at Skylands for the home's original owner, Edsel Ford, in 1926. Jensen, who moved to the United States in 1884, once worked for the West Park Commission in Chicago as a designer and gardener and was an avid promulgator of the Prairie school of thought, shared by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright. He began to take on private commissions from America's burgeoning industrialists and soon became a well-known name in residential landscape architecutre.

The prairie philosophy is one of sparsity, clarity and unpretentious fixtures, meant to highlight nature's original plan with careful, well-considered tweaking to enhance and refine it - never to outshine it. Prairie landscape philosophy meant plenty of open space, meandering pathways through wooded patches, mass plantings of one particular garden specimen and the repeated use of stone to create foundational structure.

At Skylands, Jensen was at his best. The house, designed by Duncan Candler, is rustic Italian revival and stands in perfect contrast to the hilly landscape with its solid square shapes and long, rectilinear angles. The grounds are undulating with rocky outcrops, strategically highlighted and shaped to create a feeling of discovered natural beauty. Throughout the 63 acre property, which straddles Ox Hill, overlooking the harbor, pathways lead wanderers to hidden treasures like beautiful reflecting pools in the forests, a Georgian guest house, an old chapel, a counsel circle with a fire pit, a greenhouse and restful vistas in the woods where glimpses of the sea can be enjoyed in the sun-dappled shade.

The large terrace at Skylands can comfortably accommodate 300 people. An adjacent pergola is ideal for more intimate outdoor gatherings. Kiwi vines climb the pink granite of the home's facade in summertime.
This plan of the grounds at Skylands highlights some of the original features, including the many pathways, the multi-level terraces, a mountain meadow, kept intentionally bare of trees to allow sunlight through, a fountain and a counsil ring.
The driveway at Skylands is layered with crushed pink granite and lined with a feature known as Rockefeller teeth - those large stones in the background flanking the driveway. These rocks, officially called coping stones, were a feature of many carriage roads in Acadia National Park, which were a gift from Mt. Desert resident John D. Rockefeller. Cut roughly and spaced irregularly, the large slabs of granite create a rustic feel and act as a safety barrier.
The driveway curves graciously where it meets the front entrance of the house. In the center island, Jensen had originally intended mass plantings of asters. Today, the island is made up principally of fern species. The pink granite on the driveway is gathered up each winter, washed and stored for the following spring.
Another view of the driveway reveals the height of the fern island and the rocky wall that lines the entrance. The 1958 Edsel station wagon was a gift to Martha from her daughter, Alexis.
An outdoor table at Skylands is set beautifully with a sunken centerpiece of succulents. Jens Jensen had specified in his original plans that nearly all of the potted vegetation on the terraces should be tropical: palms, cycads and ferns. Martha has kept that tradition alive.
Deep in the woods surrounding the house, the moss and fern tradition continues.
Closer to home, Martha planted these antique cement goat troughs with varieties of moss from the adjacent forest.
Pathways on the property are carefully lined with fallen pine needles from the swaying hemlocks and pines overhead. This creates a visual cue for explorers. This reflecting pool, above, is located just outside the dining room window.
A pair of glazed terra cotta sphinxes, designed by Emile Muller, stand guard at the entrance to the living room.
This sculpture by Aristide Maillol, called La Riviere, rests on a luxuriant terrace that Martha converted into a moss garden.
In fall, the kiwi vines become a golden hue.
The landscape at Skylands is incredibly steep. The photograph above looks like an ancient Mayan ruin, but it is, in fact, the foundation wall of the Skylands residence. To minimize upkeep on these steep and sunken regions of the property, the grounds are heavily planted with ferns.
Martha encourages moss growth anywhere she can. It looks almost primordial on this granite staircase leading from the terrace above.


Trellis Smith said...

This feature is enchanting. I hope Martha does a video segment on the house so we can see some living pictures.

Kevin said...

Andrew, thank you for another stunning virtual tour of Skylands. It's my favorite of Martha's homes, also.


Pru said...

I like Skylands, but I prefer Cantinoe Corners. This house always seems very dark (and a bit spooky!

Thanks for the beautiful blog though, the photos that you choose are always wonderful and the descriptions and history are very well written.

As always, I am in awe.

Bill Makela said...

What a delightful read. I enjoy reading your works on Martha's homes. I can not wait for the Turkey Hill addition. Keep up the great work!!!


Skylands is definitely my favourite of her homes. There's something celluloid about it, like it's out of an old Hitchcock film or something. It's rustic elegance at its finest. If I had my pick of Martha's homes, this would be my top choice. I'm so glad you all enjoy these posts!

Anonymous said...

Do we still include Turkey Hill as one of Martha's homes? It was always my favorite, but now it may not qualify since it has been sold. Andrew, we are looking to you for guidance on this important question!

Anonymous said...

Landscape architect Jens Jensen was Danish, not Dutch. Also the correct name for the landscape feature he popularized is "council ring", not "counsel circle" or "counsel's circle".

Beverley said...

Just saw the video segment on tv. Magnificent. Are the grounds ever open for public tour?

Larry said...

What is under the pink granite stone?