Skip to content

Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Fall 2002 > A Classical Dream Recaptured

A Classical Dream Recaptured


Photographs by David Carmack.
ABOVE Looking toward the reconstructed Exchange end. The Codmans combined rustic stone walls with salvaged columns, urns, and statues to create a uniquely New England version of an Italian garden.
BELOW Mask fountain, part of the water circulation system.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

ABOVE Statue of Bacchus.

An illustrated essay on the Codman House grounds by landscape historian Alan Emmet appears in SPNEA's publication on the Codman Estate. The book is available for $5 including tax and shipping. Please send a check to SPNEA, 141 Cambridge St., Boston, MA 02114 or email your order to

In the first of several steps in the planned rehabilitation of the hundred-year-old Italian garden at Codman House, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a long-lost landscape feature-the marble-columned pergola known as the "Exchange" end of the garden-has been restored. In 1790, when John Codman first took control of the property, he immediately began making improvements to the buildings and the landscape with the aim of creating a country estate in the English manner. The estate was sold after his death, but in 1862 his grandson, Ogden, and his bride, Sarah, bought it back. Ogden set about making his own mark, repairing features from his grandfather's day, adding improvements, and planting exotic specimens and trees.

The great Boston fire of 1872 inflicted severe losses on the family's investments in real estate and insurance. The family was obliged to lease out the mansion and move to rural France, where from 1874 to 1884 they lived a more frugal life. Although they returned to America on and off thereafter, their unstable finances forced them at times to lease out the mansion or live in Europe again for several years. Nonetheless, the estate held a strong grip on their imaginations, and in 1897 they were finally able to return to the place they considered the family seat.

In 1899, Ogden's wife, Sarah, who was increasingly taking over management of the place with guidance from her architect son, Ogden, Jr., began construction of what she called "the garden." For the better part of three years workmen cleared a low marshy area northwest of the house, excavated a pool, enclosed the garden with fieldstone walls, and erected columned pergolas at each end. At the east end, a pergola of concrete columns made by Sarah's son Tom was assembled, with rustic poles above to hold vines of clematis, wisteria, and honeysuckle. In the shade below were urns with potted trees, benches, a statue, and a fountain with a cherub and dolphins. A more formal pergola was erected at the west end, featuring marble columns reputedly salvaged from a burned building the Codmans owned at Exchange Place in Boston. Squared and finished timbers capped this pergola, which was also covered with vines and featured a mask fountain, a statue, and additional urns.

ABOVE The garden is wider at the east end, near the house.
The resulting forced perspective, a French technique,
exaggerates the garden's length.

The key elements of an Italian garden are all present: water features, symmetrical placement of beds, paths, and furniture, a sense of enclosure created by the stone walls, surrounding trees, and a depressed site. A strong axial plan and a liberal use of classical ornament reinforce the theme. One can only speculate about the authorship of the sophisticated design, as no documentation has been found among the family's extensive papers. Surely the family's prolonged stays abroad, not to mention their awareness of the newly fashionable taste for Italian gardens, had a significant influence.

Sarah herself selected and planted the flowers, reworking beds from year to year depending on the success of previous trials. She worked in her garden until, in 1911 at the age of sixty-nine, knee problems kept her from the daily toil, and her daughter Dorothy, also an avid gardener, took over. Sarah died in 1922, and by the end of the 1920s, the garden so lovingly created and tended was in decline. The great hurricane of 1938 toppled trees onto the Exchange end of the garden, destroying the pergola and shattering the marble columns.

In the mid 1970s, after the Codman estate became the property of SPNEA, staff worked with volunteers to uncover the Italian garden, excavating the pool and resetting its stone lining, restoring the east end, and reestablishing beds along the stone walls. The task of reconstructing the Exchange end was too daunting, however, and the marble columns and their capitals were left among the vines and poison ivy behind the stone wall.

Now, with the aid of the Massachusetts Historic Preservation Projects Fund, the Felicia Fund, and the Ogden Codman Trust, the Exchange end, the garden's focal point, has been restored following a cultural landscape report by landscape architects Mohr & Seredin of Portland, Maine. Vines have been planted to climb the restored columns, the pots and urns have been returned to their seasonal locations, and annuals and perennials fill the "long" and "wild" beds once again. The desire of John Codman to create an elegant country estate was continued by each generation of descendants to live there. More than two hundred years later, this is a legacy that SPNEA strives to preserve.

-Michael Lynch
Vice President for Properties & Preservation

A Classical Dream Recaptured