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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Summer 2001 > Cycles of Change and Renewal

Cycles of Change and Renewal

A dramatic arch echoes the architecture of the house, accentuates the garden's main axis, and frames the view.


The remains of a pier still survive along the river. This site is marked in an 1856 map as "Goodwins' Landing," and it's likely that Colonel Hamilton's wharves were situated here as well.


The Tysons loved the view from the upper windows looking across the garden to the cottage. Seen from above, the garden's formal layout is easier to discern.

Over the centuries, the rhythmic tidal energy of the Salmon Falls River in South Berwick, Maine, has been paralleled by an ebb and flow of human endeavor ashore. Around 1785, when merchant and shipowner Colonel Jonathan Hamilton acquired his property at Pipe Stave Point, the site held the town landing. Grist- and sawmills operated just upstream, and the river was busy with the to and fro of ocean-going vessels and smaller craft. Hamilton erected a mansion, outbuildings, and warehouses, raised food and cut wood, and very likely created a garden between the house and the river.

But the nineteenth century gradually brought a period of economic decline for the entire region. Trade faltered first; then, after the Civil War, agriculture suffered as cheaper produce from the Midwest became available. The new owners of Hamilton House, the Goodwin family, struggled unsuccessfully to make a profit raising sheep, enclosing pastures, building a barn, and planting an orchard. Toward the end of the century, the economy changed again as the railroad opened the Maine coast to tourism. In 1898, Bostonians Emily and Elise Tyson purchased the by now dilapidated mansion as a summer home and set out to restore both house and land to reflect their vision of the colonial past. They moved the barn to make way for formal gardens beside the house, and allowed a tenant farmer to continue working the land.

Colonial revival landscapes, of which the Tysons’ garden is an example, are typically architectural. Not only do they incorporate structures and enclosures, they are also symmetrical, with intersecting axes and views as part of their form. The primary garden axis at Hamilton House runs east to west, perpendicular to the route of the river. Secondary garden axes parallel the water and offer glimpses through arches, gates, or foliage into adjacent fields or down the river. Colonial revival elements abound—a fountain, statuary, sundials, and birdbaths, eight columns and twice that number of finials, as well as thirteen millstones set into the paths. Also typical of the era is the use of elevation changes, experienced as one progresses from the main house through the gardens to the cottage, itself a period icon. The hedges, walls, lattice, and pergola combine to create intimate garden rooms. Emphasizing this indoor/outdoor nexus, murals inside the house depict classical architecture, gardens, and a river, analogous to the Salmon Falls sweeping by just outside.

Beginning in 1997, SPNEA embarked upon a multi-year project to restore the Tysons’ vision of the landscape. Work began with the removal of overgrown hedges and volunteer trees. The structural layout of the upper garden has been reconfigured following the evidence in historic photographs, with stone walls and a brick path rebuilt and beds for cut flowers reestablished. Sixteen disease-resistant elms have been planted to replace dead or dying trees. Last summer, SPNEA reconstructed the garden arch and recreated the cottage garden with gravel paths and brick-edged beds of flowers and herbs. The restoration included repairing the hundred-year-old water pipe and burying phone and power lines. Fortunately, the Tysons’ brick cistern is sound and will continue to supply gravity-fed water from the hillside well. This season, SPNEA plans to rebuild both the cutting garden columns with their pineapple finials and the cottage arbor. Rebuilding the pergola and other garden structures will follow.

This river and its shores have, throughout the centuries, served human needs, both utilitarian and aesthetic. The mutter of the tractor mowing hay, the croaking of the heron on the tide flats, and the consciously hushed conversations of garden visitors all form a satisfying congruity. In an article published in the Century Magazine in 1910, writer Hildegarde Hawthorne expressed this sense of the place when she wrote, “It is all one harmony, house and grounds and human spirit.”

—Gary Wetzel, Landscape Manager

Cycles of Change and Renewal