Thanking the volunteers who conceived of the plan and vowed to fund it—and despite opposition from some professional landscape architects—New Canaan’s legislative body on Wednesday night voted in favor of a redesign of a prominent garden at Waveny.
The Town Council—New Canaan’s land use authority—at its special meeting voted 7-3 in favor of what some have called a “substantial redesign” of the parterre or “upper garden” at the beloved town park, though a national organization and prominent local landscape architect cautioned against a hasty approval.
During an emotionally charged meeting at Town Hall, councilmen expressed regret that the two parties holding different opinions on what is best for the garden—the New Canaan Garden Club on one side with the redesign, and Keith Simpson Associates and a Washington, D.C.-based coalition on the other, advocating for a historic restoration—could not find a middle ground.
Councilman Joe Paladino said he would like to see an “expanded dialogue” between the two sides—calling the Garden Club “an agency with decades and decades” of service to the town, and Simpson himself “an individual with hundreds and hundreds of hours that have benefitted our town.”
Yet a respectful exchange of ideas did not appear to be forthcoming, and the Town Council after some discussion approved the Garden Club’s plan. Those voting in favor included Chairman John Engel, Vice Chairmen Sven Englund and Rich Townsend, Steve Karl, Christa Kenin, Cristina A. Ross and Liz Donovan. Those opposed were Paladino, Penny Young and Tom Butterworth. Councilmen Ken Campbell and Jim Kucharczyk were absent.
During the meeting, Waveny Park Conservancy Board of Directors Chairman Bob Seelert and Parks & Recreation Commission Chair Sally Campbell spoke in favor of the Garden Club’s plan, noting that it was delivered in a timely fashion and calling it “magnificent” while noting that its estimated $40,000 cost would be privately funded with the Club itself assuming responsibility for maintenance through the first three years (plans call for completion of the redesign next spring).
Though Engel floated the idea of delay in order to give the two sides time to forge a mutually acceptable plan, Seelert called that notion “preposterous,” saying he “would not invest 10 cents of my own money or 10 seconds of my own time” believing that a renewed collaboration would be productive.
He added that input from leaders of a national organization dedicated to the legacy of the nation’s foremost landscape architect and the successor firm operated by his sons—expressed in a letter Wednesday, urging New Canaan officials to pause before approving the Garden Club’s plan—should be dismissed. Specifically, Seelert—and Campbell—both said the cautionary words from the National Association for Olmsted Parks—calling the garden “an important feature of the Lewis Lapham estate designed by the nationally significant Olmsted Brothers firm”—resulted from Simpson’s own prompting.
They also said the association’s Dec. 12 letter appeared to come in at the last minute and that they’d never heard from the group before. (Simpson and his associate had made reference to the organization’s opposition a full month ago.)
The Garden Club’s plan calls for new boxwoods in existing beds, addition of benches and plantings in the garden itself as well as trees and shrubs above its “north wall.”
Asked at the meeting what he would change in the Club’s plan, Simpson said his only interest was in restoring the original Olmsted Brothers firm’s vision for the area. He said that the Conservancy had promoted itself and conducted fundraising on the strength of promises to restore the original gardens to the Olmsteds’ 1914 plan. Simpson added that he essentially had been cut off by Parks & Rec in expressing his point of view at the commission’s November meeting, and that the idea that he had “walked away” from the Garden Club regarding a plan for the parterre garden was false.
The Town Council’s vote appears to close an unusually divisive chapter in New Canaan, pitting members of a venerable, diligent and widely celebrated nonprofit organization against a highly respected, knowledgeable local professional who has also given generously to the community.
In a letter to Engel and distributed to the full Council, the association’s co-chairs said they’re “most concerned” by Parks & Rec’s recent approval of the Club’s redesign of the garden.
Co-Chairs Arleyn Levee and Lucy Lawliss said that the decision “was made against the advice of the longstanding and knowledgeable landscape planners for this property,” and “without critical information that will be forthcoming from the National Register nomination study currently in preparation.”
“Without the research, evaluation and preservation treatment recommendations to be determined through this open and informed federal process, the Upper Garden and other original features may be lost or altered, affecting the historic integrity of this property, thus compromising the public’s ability to understand and enjoy the Olmsted Brothers design for this signature garden,” said the letter, obtained by NewCanaanite.com.
A Hartford native who also is interred in the Connecticut state capital, Olmsted himself helped design Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. His sons’ successor firm, Olmsted Brothers, laid out the grounds of Waveny for Texaco founder Lewis Lapham after he acquired the 300-acre property (Waveny House itself was built in 1912). New Canaan acquired the property in 1967 from Ruth Lapham Lloyd, daughter of Lewis Lapham and mother of the actor Christopher Lloyd, who grew up there and has been a supporter of the Conservancy. (Officials represented during the Council’s meeting that Lloyd also supports the Garden Club’s plan.)
The parterre garden is located just east of the wide balcony out back of the main house, down toward the walled garden and sledding hill. Part of what informed the Garden Club’s design, officials have said, is making the parterre garden more attractive as a destination rather than a pass-through area.
Garden Club members in presenting to Parks & Rec in October and November noted that Lapham Lloyd herself had been a founding member of their organization.
Yet according to the association, Lapham Lloyd in that capacity “had a long and cordial relationship with principals in the Olmsted firm over a nearly 40-year period.”
“The work on this property began in 1907 with John Charles Olmsted and continued under Olmsted partners, Percival Gallagher and Edward Clark Whiting,” the association’s co-chairs wrote in their letter. “As the lengthy correspondence indicates, Mrs. Lapham relied upon the Olmsted advice, both in planning and in horticulture, as they together forged the aesthetic for this property, particularly concerning this Upper Garden.”
“Therefore, altering this feature without a better study of the Olmsted/Lapham collaboration would precipitate an unfortunate and unnecessary loss to integral character-defining elements of this property,” the letter said. “Pursuing such alterations to accommodate a singular event for a special interest group does not seem in the best interests of the municipality.”
It continues: “New Canaan is fortunate to have acquired this heritage Olmsted-designed property to include as a significant asset for its citizens’ open space needs and enjoyment. Waveny is a property that also allows the community to celebrate and share in a regional, state and national legacy of Olmsted designed landscapes. Waveny should be studied and preserved according to nationally determined preservation treatment standards so as to not compromise its historic values. We support a process where preservation goals are given all necessary consideration, while working to accommodate the needs of the community and not manipulated to meet unique requests.”
In November, Simpson and his associate, Bill Pollack, had urged the commission to hit pause on the Garden Club’s plans, for many of the same reasons cited by Levee and Lawliss. Garden Club representatives at that meeting also said they had been expecting a plan from Simpson himself for more than two years, and that after none materialized, produced their own.
Parks & Rec voted unanimously in support of the Garden Club’s plan at its Dec. 6 meeting.
On Tuesday night, the Board of Finance followed suit during its regular meeting, unanimously supporting the Garden Cub’s redesign. (Those voting included Garden Club member Judy Neville, a finance board member who disclosed her involvement with the organization during the meeting.)
Garden Club member Tori Bonebrake—who has identified herself at past public meetings as Tori Frazer—told the finance board during a presentation that the organization had five major objectives in its plan. They include consistency with the Conservancy’s mission, a “timeless and classic” design that engages park visitors and also is low-maintenance and deer-proof, works within the scope of the Club’s budget and allows for “hard-scaping” work to be done on a separate timeline.
Asked by Board of Finance Vice Chairman Bob Spangler whether the Club had looked to the “original design for the site at all” in its research, Bonebrake responded: “There has been research done by a number of bodies.”
“We know what it looked like originally in the early-1900s when the Laphams were living there,” she said. “This is a very formal planting plan. It is not the exact design and it was never intended to be a full restoration. That garden was taken care of, as you probably know, by eight full-time gardeners, and it had many, many types of planting material. And we think it’s impractical, quite honestly, to have an exact replication for a property that is now a public park.”
At both the Board of Finance and Town Council meetings, members of those appointed and elected bodies told the Garden Club that its work was deeply appreciated.
Butterworth, a newly elected councilman, voiced his gratitude and added that after removing all personal feelings from the disagreement over the parterre garden’s future, he hoped that more time could be given the two sides to find a mutually agreeable solution.
Young agreed, saying New Canaan was owed a discussion about preserving the historic heritage of the garden at Waveny.
There appeared to be no pressing need, as a matter of timing, to approve the Garden Club’s plan just now—though Seelert said the organization itself may pull out of the process entirely out of frustration.
On the other side, Kenin noted that it’s important to get the Garden Club’s work started so that the area—site of many warm-weather weddings booked at Waveny—is cleared and presentable to serve as such.
Echoing an assertion that the Garden Club has made, Councilman Cristina A. Ross said it was important to remember that Waveny has undergone a transition in changing from a private property owned by the Laphams to a public park enjoyed by all. Just as Central Park had to adjust to make way for traffic, she said, “we also have to make accommodations” in order to improve Waveny.