Garden Visit: The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor has been on my bucket list of Maine gardens to visit for several years, but I always seemed to miss the chance at winning a spot on their limited calendar. The garden, designed by the legendary landscape architect Beatrix Farrand for John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in the 1920’s, is open only for private tours on Thursdays from late July to mid September. So this year I felt like I won the lottery, because not only did I get a reservation, I was granted a visit on the year the U.S. National Park Service and nearby Acadia National Park were to celebrate their official centennial.
The Rockefellers have summered in Maine for more than a hundred years, and their ties to Acadia and national parks around the country are well documented. According to the park service, the family has donated land and money to help form and maintain more than 20 parks across the country including Grand Teton, Shenandoah, and Smokey Mountain national parks. In the early 20th century, the philanthropic Rockefeller family financed the design and construction of 50 miles of carriage roads, bridges and lodges in Acadia National Park. Incidentally, the cut granite boulders you see along the Cadillac Summit and other roads in the park are sometimes referred to as “Rockefeller’s Teeth.”
A hundred years later, the Rockefellers are the givers that keep on giving. In honor of the 100th birthday of the current owner of the Seal Harbor estate, Rockefeller’s only surviving child David, the Rockefellers donated 1,000 acres of prime land in Seal Harbor and nearby Northeast Harbor in 2015 to the Desert Garden and Land Preserve, overseen by his daughter Neva Rockefeller Goodwin. The public preserve now includes the Asticou Azalea Garden and the Thuya Garden and Lodge, and the eventual plan is to make public the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, neatly tying the three gardens together in a vast stretch of land.
Perhaps as a way to fend off uninvited guests, the garden is discreetly marked with just a small flag, so hidden that I passed it twice before stopping in at a local inn and getting precise directions (My Google Maps failed me). And I’m glad I didn’t give up, because it was well worth the extra effort to take a walk through this exquisite secret garden with the small group there that day.
According to a hand-out, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden was designed as a classic English garden bed, rectangular in shape, with Asian structures and statuary. The garden is enclosed by a high pink stucco wall capped with orange tiles that were imported long ago from China. To one end is a circular opening beyond which rests a large bronze Buddha tinged blue-green with patina. To the other end is a small koi pond and shade garden of white flowers and hosta. The garden interior is a perfectly manicured lawn, surrounded by pink granite pebble paths and immaculately kept beds of bright bold dahlias, lisianthus, sunflowers, sweet smelling verbena and salvia, gladioli and dozens more. As the day’s visitors lingered among the blooms, the small crew of gardeners fluttered around like butterflies, continuing the never ending task of deadheading.
Inside and outside the beautifully worn walls, paths are lined with priceless Asian statuary: a Chinese pagoda from the Tang dynasty (618-907), Korean civil officials from the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), a seated monk from Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868), and of course the four foot Chinese Budda Sakyamuni from the late Ming or early Qing dynasty (1644-1911) that sits watch over the entire garden. To name just a few.
As previously mentioned, when the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden does finally get turned over to the land and garden preserve and is placed in the public’s hands, it will tie three gardens into one contiguous area. The three gardens already have a common link: Farrand (1872-1959), the landscape architect who created or influenced the design of many gardens and parks around the country, including the White House’s Rose Garden. Both the Asticou Azalea and Thuya gardens were built with plants from Beatrix Farrand’s personal collection.
If you’re a garden lover and planning a trip to Acadia or Bar Harbor, stops at all three gardens are well worth the extra effort. For the Rockefeller garden, peak bloom time is mid to late August, and remember that you must make an appointment via the garden’s website. Fair warning: they fill up quickly.