The Codman Estate Garden and House Tour

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When I visit historic houses, there’s always a sense of stepping back in time. This is especially so when the surrounding landscape has been preserved as well. Such is the case with the Codman House in Lincoln, Massachusetts as you walk up the dirt road lined with majestic trees to the house. Lincoln for the most part has managed through foresight and ample means to maintain its rural, bucolic character. So even before you reach the Codman House, you have a sense of what life was like before the 20th century.
When I visited on May 7th for the garden and house tour event, the forsythias and quince were in full bloom while the lilacs, which are very large and lush, were just starting to bloom. Besides daffodils, tulips, and phlox there wasn’t much else in the way of flowers – a bit too early yet. However, the spring allows the visitor to see the design of the gardens more clearly. It certainly will be well worth a return visit to see these gardens at their peak.

The Codman House was built in 1741 by Chambers Russell; the property originally included over 700 acres. His descendant, John Codman, a gentleman merchant, expanded the house to three floors in 1799. Inspired by trips to England, he established parterres and a meadow with a pond. He also added a “ha-ha” wall, which is an invisible retaining wall that prevented cows from leaping out. When the grass grows high enough to reach the top of the wall, the eye has the illusion of an uninterrupted landscape.
Much of the land was parceled off and sold by his son Charles Russell Codman. After being out of the family for many years, his son Ogden Codman, Sr. and wife Sarah bought back the estate in 1862. They devoted their lives to restoring the property to the original grandeur of John Codman’s time. They also added a carriage barn as well as plumbing and heating to the house.
Their eldest son Ogden, Jr. became a successful architect and designer who co-authored The Decoration of Houses with Edith Wharton. It is thought that she derived much of her inspiration for her novels from her visits to Codman House as well as other homes of wealthy friends in Massachusetts. Ogden Jr. worked on decorating the house, emphasizing classicism and the Colonial Revival style.

With design help from her son Ogden, Jr., Sarah installed a walled Italian garden in 1899 complete with a reflecting pool, fountains, statuary, and pergolas. The Greek columns supporting one of the pergolas were salvaged from the Codman home on Exchange Street in Boston that burned down in the late 1800’s. The garden was restored in 1979 after a foot of mud was dug out! It now looks much as it did in 1914. Today, it is the venue for weddings throughout the summer.

In 1930, Ogden and Sarah’s youngest child, Dorothy, designed a cottage garden on the east side of the house. ”Dorothy’s garden” contains over 280 plants including peonies, roses, herbs, and many flowering plants and bulbs. It is being restored to include the original varieties planted by Dorothy in the 1930’s. Fortunately, Dorothy and her mother kept meticulous notes on their gardens making the job of restoration easier and more accurate.
Historic New England is also restoring the overall landscape to its original appearance. Trees, including elms, oaks, yews, and silver maples, are being replanted. The ha-ha wall has also been rebuilt.

Historic New England
Ogden and Sarah’s five children never had children of their own. Dorothy was last inhabitant of the house; she died in 1968. The house and property was bequeathed to Historic New England as originally set in place by Ogden, Jr. in 1920. The house is much as Dorothy left it, complete with many paintings and furnishings acquired over the years by the Codman’s on their trips to Europe.
Through a preservation fund, Historic New England received a three million dollar grant with the agreement that they match the amount through fundraising. This grant supports restoration and maintenance of 36 properties throughout New England. It may sound like a lot of money, but spread out over 36 properties it’s a challenging endeavor for the organization. The Historic New England gardener, Ellen Mackay, who led the garden tour on Saturday, is also the gardener for eight other Historic New England properties; I don’t know how she does it!
The restoration effort for the past three years has focused on the Codman House and property, but the limited funds prevent them from doing all that needs to be done. So I encourage you to support their efforts by visiting the Codman House and the other historic properties, and telling your friends about it. If you’re into history or gardens, I guarantee a wonderful time!
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