3.19.2010

Jens Jensen and Skylands

Occasionally I receive an email from a reader that just blows my mind and sends me reeling into the throes of excitement. One such email came from Michael Fus, the preservation architect for the Chicago Park District. In 2005, Michael had the good fortune of visiting the grounds at Skylands as part of a group tour for landscape architects. The focus of the tour was the work of Danish landscape designer Jens Jensen, who designed the grounds of this marvelous Maine property for Edsel and Eleanor Ford, a property currently owned by Martha Stewart.

In Michael's email was an offer to send me a disc of his personal photographs from his walk through the Skylands acreage as well as an academic thesis on the history of the Skylands property written by Jane Roy Brown - a marvelous study of Jensen's work with Edsel and Eleanor Ford, who commissioned Jensen in the 1920s to landscape the property. The thesis, entitled "Skylands - A Jens Jensen Landscape in Maine" is fascinating, compelling and revealing. Brown was able to attain original plans, documents and letters written between Jensen and the Fords, tracing the formative ideas behind this great property, to write a splendid independent project on the early development of Skylands.

Michael and I agreed to share these photographs and some of the more interesting points of the thesis with the Martha Moments audience. The landscape is too beautiful, too alluring and too fascinating to keep it all to ourselves. It must be shared and experienced. Thank you, Michael, for this opportunity. We hope you enjoy the photographs and the information.


This sign on the property was likely put up by the second owners of the house, the Leedes. According to Brown's thesis, the origin of the name "Skylands" is a mystery. Nowhere in any of the original documents obtained by Brown is the property referred to as Skylands, nor in any of the letters she was able to research. The name Skylands does appear on some of the postcards from the area from the 1950s, however. Jensen's landscape at Skylands is unique for several reasons. First, it is the only maritime landscape project he ever undertook, making it all the more special for the region and for the history of American prairie landscape design. Jensen was initially taken aback by the rugged wildness of the property. He was used to midwestern landscapes of flat expanses of terrain, deciduous forests, grasses, prairie flowers and gently flowing streams. The crashing waves of Seal Harbor, the dense coniferous forests of pine, spruce and hemlock, the proliferation of rocky outcrops and promentories presented quite a challenge to Jensen's philosophies. In his book, Siftings, Jensen writes this about the Skylands property:

"It is far from the prairies of the west to the rocky coast of Maine, to a different landscape with its different beauty - a new world for the prairie mind to understand and to learn to love. The general tone of Maine's landscape is rather dark in comparison to the sunny openness of the prairies. In Maine, spruce predominates on the granite bluffs, and granite appears like black loam of the plains. There was much about these hard, rocky precipices that fascinated. Plants strange to me clung to the bold rocks, and beyond was the sea with its changing colors and vast horizons."


Among his main concerns for the design of the property was the great swaths of coniferous trees. In some of his letters to Ford, he referred to non-deciduous forests as 'drepressing.' Prefering the seasonal evidence of trees whose leaves change colour in the fall, and that disappear in winter, Jensen called for the planting of numerous decidious trees on the property, including sugar maples, red maples, lilacs and ash. Above is a photograph of shad (Amalanchier), planted on the property to provide ornamental contrast to the predominance of spruce, pine and hemlock. The moss, which grows naturally on the forest floor was encouraged and kept clean of debris to create a carpet of green underfoot.

The architecture of the residence, designed by Duncan Candler (a darling of Seal Harbor's elite communities during the 20s) is Italian Renaissance in style. Built of pink granite quarried on site, the facade of the home is imposing. A slate roof with wide oak beams and rectilinear windows of leaded glass give the home a geometric solidity against its rugged backdrop of undulating hillsides and deep forests.
Flanking the front door of the house, Martha has planted two beautiful copper planters with enormous fiddle-leaf ferns and native mosses, creating a planted microcosm of the Skylands forest.
One of the enormous fronds is about to unfurl.Martha has also planted hostas, one of her favourite shade-loving plants, along the front of the home. Several varieites are in evidence.In the center of the circular driveway in front of the house is a field of ferns. In Jensen's original plan, he had called for asters and prairie flowers but Martha prefers the feathery monochrome of these lush ferns, punctuated here and there by strategic boulders.
Pink granite is everywhere in evidence on the property. Meandering, pine-needle-covered pathways that hug their rugged edges highlight the beauty of their forms. (To me, they almost look like barnacle-covered whales, an allusion to the sea just beyond the trees.)

Here is a great view of the house from the mountain meadow. Architect Duncan Candler had originally called for an enormous terrace in this location, but Jensen had it removed to allow for more sunny openness on the property. To the left of the photograph you will see the dining room windows. Candler did a beautiful job designing a room with windows on three sides to capture all of the available views: the sea, the forest, and the 'cracked ice' terrace on the other side.The 'cracked ice' terrace is a massive outdoor space designed for large-scale entertaining. This small portion of it, shown above, showcases Martha's numerous potted plants and two terra-cotta sphinx sculptures by artist Emile Muller.Above the terrace and the entrance to the Great Hall is a vertical sun dial, surrounded by prolific kiwi vines.Majestic granite staircases lead visitors to all the various terraces and sections of the landscape that immediately surround the property.The stone railings of the pergola off the living room look almost Mayan in scale.Perennial kiwi vines (Actinidia) and dark purple elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) soften the edges of a granite wall and staircase.One of the few flowering plants Jensen called for in the landscape was lilies. Here they feel quite at home in planting niches that line one of the stairways connecting the terraces to the grounds.A painterly use of plants on this stairway leading up to the south terrace. Pathways of pine needles (cleaned of any debris) connect the various sections of the property. Jensen was a great proponent of 'circulation systems' outdoors that guided the explorer gently and easily through the landscape.
Jensen designed the landscape to be emblematic of the Maine coast itself: rugged and lush. Martha installed a subtle lighting system to help illuminate the pathways for treaders at dawn and dusk.
The playhouse on the property is one of several outbuildings. Designed by Candler, it features a massive stone fireplace and squash courts.
Water features are key to almost every Jensen landscape. Skylands was no exception. Jensen believed the sound that water makes as it trickles over stone has inexplicable healing powers for the human soul. As such, he designed several natural pools, ponds and fountains on the property. One of Jensen's signature elements is the intersection of flowing water and a main pathway. This feature is found at several other properties designed by Jensen for the Fords, including Fair Lane, in Dearborn, Michigan. The philosophy behind such a design is to interrupt the walker and cause him to pause and reflect, to be aware of his surroundings and the inherent beauty. A cliff at the edge of the mountain meadow is topped by a crenellation of large boulders, similar to the "Rockefeller teeth" that line the property's crushed-granite driveway and the routes leading to Acadia National Park. A large pond plays centerpiece to the meadow's curves and hillsides.
Reflecting pools along the edges of pathways catch raindrops and form miniature ecosystems. A beautiful wooden gate, left unstained and gorgeously aged by the elements, opens to the service entrance. Crushed pink granite covers the driveways of the property. Each fall it is collected, cleaned and stored and for the following year.
Originally designed to be used only by the staff and servants, the service area of the house is actually a favourite of Martha's. She frequently uses the expansive outdoor space for entertaining and is often where she enters and exits the home. Not far from the service entrance is the council circle. Originally in Jensen's plans, but not constructed by the Fords, it is another feature much loved by Jensen. When Martha purchased the property in 1997, she had the council circle built. Its circular shape encourages conversation and a feeling of equality among its visitors. At its center is a fire pit for warmth and the inspiration of imagination. Along the granite benches is a firebird motif, also in the original plans. Jensen explained the design to the Fords in one of his letters:

"The story is of the firebirds going into the sun for the fire for the hearth. You will notice two birds flying towards the sun; the smaller dots are the stars. It is the humanity that dances around the hearth rejoicing for the fire, the first symbol of civilization brought there by the fire birds. I think it is a lovely story for the children and it does not hurt us either. The more imagination, the sweeter life."

The stables on the property, also designed by Candler. A vegetable and cutting garden on the property, adjacent to the stables.
This portion of the property was adjacent to the location of a tenant cottage for Eleanor Ford's mother, which is where she stayed when the main residence was being built. After the completion of the home, however, the cottage was razed and only the foundation remains. This portion of the property is located at the edge of an extremely steep cliff overlooking the ocean. Eleanor had asked Jensen to plan an elaborate cutting garden here with benches for seating, shown above. Today, the gardens are gone but you can see a glimpse of the plans below, formal in its layout and designSources:
Jane Roy Brown's thesis: "Skylands: A Jens Jensen Landscape In Maine,"
Photos by TJD&A and Michael Fus, Preservation Architect Chicago Park District

7 comments:

Ailsa said...

Wow, what a treat Andrew! Thanks for sharing those.
Those photos really show a side to the property that I hadn't felt before and never would have imagined: really intimate and a landscape that lovingly embraces the house. Really, really appealing and personal views. And especially lovely when the post-winter pre-spring world is so grey right now.
So when are you going? ;c)

lisa said...

Andrew ~ Thanks so much for sharing these breathtaking photos.

Kevin said...

Absolutely stunning. Thanks for sharing these photos, Andrew!

Kevin

Sarah in WA said...

I would love to visit Skylands some day...

The house holds so much history and I know Martha has mentioned before that the house even came with original linens and other original furnishings.

She is very lucky to own this property and we all know she will take great care of it.

Anonymous said...

I know it has been a long time dream of your to visit Skylands, Andrew. Maybe in the not-too-distant future your dream will come true! Perhaps if Martha/MSLO holds an event there one of these summers, you'll get an invite. Then you can finally write your name in the big guest book. Wouldn't that be something?

ANDREW RITCHIE said...

An absolute dream come true!!

barbara said...

I wish I had those woods behind my house,(Jealous)!