Published: June 20, 2006
When George Schoellkopf, a noted dealer in American folk art, closed his Madison Avenue shop and resigned from the Winter Antiques Show, where he first exhibited in 1975, it was to pursue a grander vision: that of creating a sprawling garden on 26 tilted acres outside Washington, the small but fashionable Litchfield County town two hours north of Manhattan.
A gatherer of portraits and quilts, weathervanes and game boards, Schoellkopf became a hunter of plants and stone and arresting outdoor ornament. Over the past 28 years, he has installed dozens of uncommon varieties of perennials, shrubs and trees in an series of outdoor rooms whose architectural rigor, like the whalebone stays of a corset, restrains a voluptuous excess of leaf and bud.
Having developed Hollister House Garden, Schoellkopf, who is 63, decided to donate his country estate, an incremental process that began last year. A project of The Garden Conservancy – the Cold Spring, N.Y.-based nonprofit organization founded in 1989 to preserve exceptional American gardens – Hollister House Garden recently opened two days a month from May to September and to groups at other times by appointment, having long been part of the Conservancy’s Open Days program. Schoellkopf retains lifetime use of the house, which, along with its contents, will one day also be permanently on view.
“I needed something to do,” Schoellkopf says with the wry, ready laugh that is his trademark. The Yale graduate, who earned a master’s degree in art history from Columbia, opened his first antiques shop in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. By the 1970s, he had moved uptown, and upmarket, to Madison Avenue and 81st Street. A Russell Carrell dealer, he exhibited at the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Kent shows, among others.
“George always had impeccable taste and was charmingcompany,” Stonington, Conn., dealer Marguerite Riordan says of herformer Winter Antiques Show colleague. In the midst of the 1970squilt revival, New York Timescolumnist Rita Reif declaredthat Schoellkopf, who mounted the first exhibition of Amish quiltsin his gallery in 1973, “continues to have the best eye in thebusiness for Amish quilts,” whose dusky tones, as the dealer putit, appeared “made by the light of the moon.” Their palette ofplum, mauve, teal and maroon now plays across the larger canvas ofhis garden.
It was to Litchfield dealer Jeffrey Tillou’s mother, then an apprentice realtor, that Schoellkopf turned when he fancied a look at Hollister House, the circa 1760 Saltbox that he bought in 1978. Erected by Gideon Hollister II just before the Revolution, the dwelling perches alongside Nettleton Hollow Road, five miles from Washington’s center.
A plummy brown with slate-colored shutters, the original center-chimney structure has been only slightly altered over the years. Though most of the windows and glass are original, a few were changed in the 1820s. Gables were added upstairs, off the back of the house, in the 1850s. A decade ago, Schoellkopf and his partner, French photographer Gerald Incandela, whose work is in the collections of the Getty Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, among others, moved a barn from across town to make a comfortable new wing with melting views of the garden. The main sitting room is fitted with early Eighteenth Century paneling and a mantel from Farmington, Conn. To support the raftered ceiling, Schoellkopf appropriated an antique beam that lay unused in another large, freestanding barn on his property, where Incandela now stables his horses.
“The best thing about gardening in Connecticut is that it’s not Texas, where I grew up and you can’t grow anything,” notes Schoellkopf, still very much the Southern gentleman. “The worst thing about gardening in Connecticut is that it’s not England, though with all the new plant introductions, I’m no longer as jealous as I once was.”
Schoellkopf picked up his shovel months after buying the property. As horticultural writer Tovah Martin has observed, he “preferred not to follow the well-trod Colonial Revival route, but he also didn’t want to upstage the house.” Partly at the suggestion of Gregory Long, now president of the New York Botanical Garden, the antiquarian looked to the brilliant geometries of Sissinghurst, developed by Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West between 1930 and 1967, and to other English prototypes such as Hidcote Manner, an Arts and Crafts Cotswolds masterpiece designed by the American Lawrence Johnston; Great Dixter; and Snowshill Manor. Like Hollister House Garden, both Sissinghurst and Hidcote were conceived as a series of garden rooms; Showshill Manor was built on levels.
Art, in essence, represents the solution of a problem. The bigger the problem, if successfully resolved, the better the art. A dramatic piece of property but an unwieldy one, Schoellkopf’s acreage tumbles down the side of a ravine to peaceful Sprain Brook, then climbs again to an upper field that, in contrast to the rigorously manipulated landscape it faces, is streaked with a calligraphic dash of old split rail fence and weathered stone wall.
As a designer, Schoellkopf had two choices: garden on a slope or create a series of terraces that step zigguratlike down from the stream at the top of his property to the brook below. He chose the latter.
“Walls, rooms, hedges, divisions and paths that meet at right angles. Straight lines. The whole impact of this garden is its tightly formal framework, across which you see the landscape. You look out from the manmade into nature, and then back again. Your eye is always drawn on. It’s the transition from one space to the next that I find exciting,” he says.
Bill Noble, who, as director of the Garden Conservancy’s Preservation Projects Program, works with properties as diverse as Alcatraz in San Francisco and the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge in Newbury, N.H., saw Schoellkopf’s garden for the first time in the early 1990s and was inspired.
Hollister House Garden, says Noble, “is a highly orchestrated but relaxed combination of interesting and beautiful plants. The design principles are English but the garden responds to New England topography and climate. George’s challenge was to make a satisfactory arrangement of garden rooms that flowed from one to another in an almost precipitous site. The view’s the ‘wow’ factor.”
Creating the architectural underpinnings was Schoellkopf’s first task. At the heart of his design is a fragmentary, eight-foot-tall red brick wall that, like a crumbling ancient ruin, supplies both romance and mystery.
As a design device, it also delineates planting beds, creates a backdrop for perennials and supports vines and a climbing rose, a flower Schoellkopf loves but with which he has had uneven success. The gardener used the same brick to finish the 1990s addition to his house, which, in a manner reminiscent of Sissinghurst, rises two stories from a grass court beneath a fieldstone wall.
In Schoellkopf’s most striking garden room, brick wall and clipped yew hedges, which took 15 years to mature, enclose a 28-foot-long reflecting pool ringed with flagstone and perennial borders. Arched openings lead to other enclosures. One, with a pebbled terrace, fronts a small pavilion where Schoellkopf entertains dinner guests on summer nights. An allee, which runs up the hill from the pool enclosure, is more poetic than practical. As Schoellkopf says, “It doesn’t go anywhere.”
“I’m very big on having tightly packed, very planned, very structured, condensed planting that I try to keep looking good all year long,” says the gardener, identifying a new purple-leaved spurge, a variegated Kiwi vine that’s “a keeper,” and a favorite Cercis canadensis with small, heart-shaped golden leaves.
There are few colors Schoellkopf detests – taxicab yellow and magenta is the only combination that comes to mind – but his palette is disciplined. He uses borders for experimenting with limited ranges of hues, typically subtle in the garden’s foreground and bold in distance, where they must carry to be seen.
On the day we visit, Tessa Izenour, a trained horticulturalist who is the 2006 recipient of the Marco Polo Stufano Garden Conservancy Fellowship, is revamping the “Yellow Border,” which extends along a gravel terrace to Sprain Brook. She will be adding a grove of blueberries, planted in an architectural arrangement. In addition to providing technical support, Izenour, who also has degrees in fine art, plans to document Hollister House Garden’s design, history and future.
Alternating between stone, brick, cobbles and gravel, an interlacing sequence of steps and paths unites the whole, urging the eye onward and creating a mesmerizing pattern from above. Verticality gives Hollister House Garden the dramatic scale that is one of its most striking qualities.
Completing the scheme, Schoellkopf has added a few pieces of historically inspired garden furniture, mostly from Munder-Skiles in New York, along with terra cotta urns, pots and antique sculpture.
Remarkably, Schoellkopf has never employed a professional designer, though he welcomes advice from his frequent visitors, amateur and professional gardeners alike. Says Noble, “One of the distinctive things about The Garden Conservancy is that we work with individual garden creators. I can’t think of one of our properties that was created by a landscape designer.”
Hollister House, like all gardens, is a work in progress.
“I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew when the garden was half this size,” says Schoellkopf, now “gearing up” to make a new terrace and add new beds on either side of the brook.
In the garden’s transition from private to nonprofit, much remains to be done. Says Noble, “We provide leadership and technical assistance, and help forward a strategy for preserving the garden, which is a supporting organization of The Garden Conservancy. We are legally linked but we don’t own any of our properties. Each garden is self-funding. Its best chance of succeeding is as an organization dedicated wholly to its own preservation.”
To ensure Hollister House’s future, Schoellkopf has pledged a substantial endowment. That endowment will be supplemented by funds raised in other ways, such as through admissions fees, programs, events and membership. On Saturday, August 26, Schoellkopf is hosting cocktails and dinner in his garden to raise funds for its support. Those interested in attending to should write to him at 300 Nettleton Hollow Road, Washington CT 06793.
“What I’ve done is to create a permanent framework in which all kinds of things can happen. The structure is here to work with for those who will follow me,” says Schoellkopf.
From a collector of antiques to an artist whose canvas is landscape, George Schoellkopf has come full circle, wedding innovation with preservation to create his enduring Hollister House Garden.
Hollister House Garden is open through September without appointment on the first and third Saturdays of each month, 8 am to 10 am and 3 pm to 6 pm. It is closed from 10 am to 3 pm. A $2 donation is requested for the Permanent Endowment Fund. For more information, visit .
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