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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Summer 2002 > A Landscape Made to Last

A Landscape Made to Last

From a bordering bed of pinks, roses swarm up the pillars of the arched pergola that canopies the path from back door to garden.

FromThis 1812 survey by J.G. Hale makes clear how Rundlet angled paths and beds to fit his grid plan to the irregular lot.


The view from the roof reveals the close resemblance between the garden in Rundlet's day and in ours. A corner of the stableyard is visible at lower right.


Among the beloved family pets laid to rest in the garden's little burying ground was Mary Ann's canary, which Ralph May said "suddenly burst into song at her funeral. It was quite lovely."


When this photograph was taken in the late nineteenth century, the land across Middle Street still lay undeveloped.


Plants and tastes change but a garden's design endures at Rundlet-May House

In 1794, James Rundlet, a twenty-two-year-old farmer's son, was building his fortune as a merchant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Twelve years later, "He built for of the best and largest houses in the place, finely situated, imposing in appearance and an object of envy to many who predicted with wise nods that so much pride must have a fall and concluded that he had built his house too high-but they happened to be mistaken." His 1852 obituary went on to call him a "thorough man who did not have to do his work twice." Its assessment has proven correct. Today, the house and its home grounds remain in essence as he designed them. No letters or diaries describing their creation appear to have survived, but documents in the SPNEA archives provide some clues. His finely executed geometry and trigonometry copybooks show a talent for mathematics and design; a scattering of account books, ledgers, and memoranda tell of purchases made and services paid for.

Taking advantage of a small hill, Rundlet constructed, using additional stonework and topsoil, a terrace eight feet above Middle Street as a podium for his mansion. Placing it on high ground had several advantages, not the least of them an extensive view or "prospect," a sign of status. By the time his mansion was finished he had acquired enough property so that all the fields, farms, and forests he could see from it belonged to him, a very satisfying prospect, indeed. And a very good investment for him and his heirs.

On the two-acre parcel he reserved for home grounds, the carriage house, stables, and outbuildings formed a service court east of the house. On the other side he laid out a grid of plant beds and gravel walks on two levels, with an orchard beyond. But his lot was not a true rectangle, so he skillfully adjusted the grid to its boundaries.

Rundlet's ledgers for 1807-10 document purchases of gravel, stone, and lumber for fencing; of rose bushes and grapevines; of poplar, pear, peach, fruit, and just plain "trees." A memorandum book for 1833-34 accounting for time spent by workmen adds some details: manuring asparagus, planting potatoes, picking apples, making a "railing round the currant bushes" and ladders for honeysuckle. The men graveled and rolled paths, built steps, turfed borders in the garden, and cut hay in the orchard. Rundlet's house was in the new federal style and fitted with the latest technology; his garden was traditional, looking back to the real colonial garden's mixture of fruit, flowers, and vegetables.

His plan adapted easily to changes. Rundlet's animal-loving grandson, Dr. James Rundlet May, turned one of the beds into a graveyard for family pets upon the death of Flora, an abandoned dog he had found on a James River plantation during the Civil War and brought home to Portsmouth. His wife, Mary Ann Morison May, a passionate gardener, filled the garden with flowers during the years of her stewardship, 1881 to 1936. That she chose to respect James Rundlet's layout rather than remake the garden in the fashionable carpet-bedding style may have been more than just loyalty to family tradition. She was a devoted member of the Colonial Dames, a powerful force in the colonial revival movement.

Today's turf-edged flower beds and borders are less luxuriantly planted than hers would have been-a matter of money for maintenance-but they reflect the style and many of the plants-tiger lilies, peonies, pinks, and roses-of her day. During the tenure of her son, Ralph, and his wife, Gladys, shade trees replaced much of the orchard, either gradually as fruit trees succumbed to old age and volunteers moved in, or as a result of deliberate planting by the Mays to gain some privacy as the town closed in around the garden.

-Denise Otis

Denise Otis is the author of Grounds for Pleasure: Four Centuries of the American Garden, to be published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. this fall.

A Landscape Made to Last