WATERING DESIGNS: The garden vision of Fletcher Steele



The garden vision of Fletcher Steele

By Rev. Dr. Lawrence Jay, Rolling Ridge Executive Director

As Rolling Ridge celebrates 75 years of ministry in 2023, we continue a monthly series on the second Tuesday of the month to share our history.  In 1899, Ethan Allen purchased the 38 acres that are today Rolling Ridge.  In 1915, he entrusted the design of the property to a young upstart landscape architect named Fletcher Steele.   It was a risk that paid off.


It was a different world in 1899 when the 38 acres along the shore of Lake Cochichewick were a blank canvas for Ethan Allen (1862-1932) as he envisioned a summer home for his family.  It was the beginning of the “High Country Place Era,” a gilded age as the US was rising to prominence as an industrial, commercial, and military world power.  Millionaires were building elaborate homes and summer mansions, with Ethan Allen, as a successful wool merchant from New York, trying to keep up with colleagues who were traveling the world on luxury cruise ships like the Titanic.  While we do not know all the motivations that went into Allen’s decisions, the results speak for themselves as Rolling Ridge is recognized today as North Andover’s “last great country seat” with “the most sophisticated landscape plans.”

Though the boat house is gone, burned down in 1980, Rolling Ridge is built in the style of a “country place,” setback from the road, on a large tract of land, isolated in the center of property with a loggia to take advantage of the surrounding landscape and lake.   Today, it is a seamless blending of the house and the landscape, yet it took decades of planning and the right architect to get us there.

In 1906, Claude Bragdon was hired as the original architect of Rolling Ridge but his shingle style house was eventually rejected.  It took Ethan Allen nearly a decade to decide on the new visionaries to develop his summer home on Lake Cochichewick.  By 1915, Allen hired Fletcher Steele (1885-1971) as landscape architect and prominent architect, Guy Lowell (1870-1921) and his associate Andrew Hepburn (1880-1967) to collaborate on building his country home.

Fletcher Steele, who was just 30 years old at the time, was given the monumental task of designing Allen’s peninsula estate.  While Steele would go on and become one of the greatest landscape architects of the 20th century, Rolling Ridge was his first independent project. In some ways, Allen who was 53 at the time took a big risk on this young upstart, but Steele did begin with solid recommendations and mentors.  

Federick Law Olmstead Jr. (1870-1957) was the premiere landscape architect during the Country Place Era.  The intent was to design an estate with ornamental parklands and “outdoor apartments” while taking advantage of the trees and views of the natural forest and lake.  One of Olmstead’s associates was Warren Manning (1860–1938) who opened his own office in 1896.  In 1908, Fletcher Steele left the master’s program in landscape architecture at Harvard to apprentice with Manning.  He wrote to his mother, “Today was the first day and I learned more about landscape proper than I did all last winter.”  

So began a six-year apprenticeship with “one of the best in the business.”  In 1909, Steele became Manning’s private traveling secretary and in 1913, Manning financed a 4 month tour for his protege through Europe where Steele visited many private gardens, botanic gardens, and public parks in Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, England and North Africa.

This trip through Europe was formative for Steele.  It shaped his opinions of designs and gardens.  It impressed on his style the beauty of simplicity and structure over ornateness.  It opened him to create garden pathways inviting further investigation.  It impressed on him the value of gardens with terraces, axial designs, uniform planting, and views.  It emphasized the relationship of house and landscape, design over plants, the importance of sensations and movement, and integrated composition through the gardens.  All these elements are seen in his plans for Rolling Ridge as Steele's style would come to be known as “American” with a mix of European influences with a celebration of place.  

Ultimately, Steele’s landscape aesthetic was a design that shaped space as art. And in 1914, when Steele left Manning to begin his own company, Ethan Allen gave this budding artist a blank canvas of 38 acres to create.  And beginning in 1915, he did.  Steele’s biographer, Robin Karson, refers to the Rolling Ridge site plan (below) as “one of his best.”

In describing his design for Rolling Ridge, Steele wrote, “Lawns, house, gardens, and garage should all be properly disposed on the plan before the house is definitely located.  Each one must be properly related to the others, as, if wrong, any detail of the place, such as the house, will hurt everything else.”  From the very beginning, Rolling Ridge was designed to “properly relate” to everything else with natural beauty and human construction complimenting each other, blending one into the other.

Inspired by his European tour, Steele wanted to bring the “Old World” into the new.  For Rolling Ridge, this meant bringing in mature, natural features of the landscape into the new design, allowing the home to feel like it had been there all along.  In describing his plans, Steele wrote, “To make up for lack of age, it is necessary to use already existing trees and forest as part of design.”  Two large (30-inch diameter) pines, which have since been cut down, were preserved to establish the end of the drive and entry into the courtyard.  Because this was also on the highest ridge, this became the ideal place for the house with views down to the lake from the living room (now Tyson Hall).

One of the celebrated elements in Steele’s design of the Ridge is the area off of the loggia or what we now call the Tyson patio.  Today, the area has open views as the trees and forest have changed over the past 100 years.  The original design plans by Steele, however, were intended to create the ultimate Country Place experience with ornamental parklands, “outdoor apartments,” and pathways, inviting further investigation, as the trees grew to maturity. 

If you’ve ever been to the Ridge, you may have noticed that the ceiling of the Loggia (or Tyson patio) is blue with arches framing the view of the lawns.  The blue has been a feature of the house from the beginning as it echoes of the sky, with the arches shadowing the curves of the Excedra (the rounded benches on the left) and the historic fountain (on the right).  These design features invite guests to step out onto the lawn.  

Originally the lawns were designed to be “outdoor apartments” with the trees being walls that create an enclosed feel with windows open to the woods.  Ornamental features of these enclosed parklands include pedestals originally featuring a bronze birdcage (designed by Steele) and an eighteenth century lead Diana the huntress statue from Europe, both now missing. Unfortunately, no one knows when or how these two historic aspects of Steele’s design were removed.  (We believe they were stolen in the 1990s.)  We do know however that when North Andover changed its water policies in 1986, the fountain was cut off from Lake Cochichewick to protect the town’s drinking water quality.

Today, original sculptures by Mico Kaufman (1924-2016) stand on the pedestals.  “Rising” with its similar rounded shape has taken the place of the birdcage, and the “Walking Man” stands where Diana once served as the hinge between the Excedra and the Bowling Green, with his glance now connecting the two views of these “outdoor apartments.”  In 2022, the Rolling Ridge staff was able to secure an alternate water source for the fountain so that it can be turned on for special occasions (like for our 75th anniversary on September 24th).  Though the water flow is not as full as the original fountain, the sound of the current spout does create a peaceful ambiance as we wait for the finances to install an appropriate pump. 

In Fletcher Steele’s design, the sound of water from the fountain was the invitation to experience the Rolling Ridge gardens.  From the blue loggia of the house, guests would step outside onto the grass to experience the blue sky, and upon hearing and seeing the fountain, they would be drawn to move, to investigate, to explore.  They would walk down the rhododendron-lined Bowling Green (from the French “boulingrin”meaning “sunken garden”) and be entranced by the fountain, with its shallow pool and huge spout of water which could reach up to 20 feet high, inspired by the Dragon Fountain at Villa d'Este.  

It would initially appear that the fountain is the destination of the garden, but it is really only the beginning.  Hidden side entrances to the right and left invite mystery and exploration on this journey.  Following the sound of water would lead down side stairs and bring you behind the upper fountain and introduce guests to another set of cascading fountains, leading to the lake.  

To highlight Steele’s desire to create an “Old World” aesthetic into his new design, he intentionally built stairs around the existing shagbark hickory tree to give the impression that the fountain was older than it really is.  This is a wonderful aesthetic until root growth decades later upended the stairs requiring a major repair in 2018.  This project was funded thanks to an anonymous matching donor gift and a grant from the Methuen Festival of Trees.

Embedded in the wall of the base of the upper fountain, a fountain head that mimics grotto stalactites allows water from above to rush down through three cascading pools, surrounded by more descending flagstone stairs and mature hemlock trees. 

This cascading three-tiered fountain first designed by Steele for the Ridge appears in a mature version in his 1938 design of the three-tiered Blue Steps at Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Naumkeag, now owned by the Trustees of the Reservation, is where Fletcher Steele’s landscape legacy is best preserved today.

Although Rolling Ridge has not been able to maintain upkeep of the water features in Fletcher Steele’s design, we do continue to tell the story of the water journey his garden experience embodies.  

Once upon a time, the water from the upper fountain would invite guests out of the house to explore.  As they would follow the sound of the cascades down and behind, the water would disappear into the lower pool, and reappear in 6 small clam shell fountains lining the wooded path to the boat house.  The sound of water at the Ridge would lead out of the house, on a journey, culminating with tea on the lake.  

The revelation of the majestic beauty of Lake Cochichewick at the Boat House, which is now called Lakeside Landing, is the garden's fulfillment – the answer to a promise announced by a big fountain spout, remembered in cascades and shell fountains.  Water leading to water, artifice to nature, intimacy to panorama, this was Fletcher Steele’s vision for the gardens at Rolling Ridge.  An ambitious vision fulfilled by an aspiring landscape architect.  

Following Rolling Ridge, Fletcher Steele would go on to design over 500 gardens, 50 are still extant, with his work in Naumkeag the best preserved.  A prolific writer, Steele would continue to work on the Rolling Ridge gardens through the 1920s when Allen sold the property to Russell Tyson in 1928.  In 1930, the gardens were featured in the magazines, House Beautiful and Architectural Record. In 1935, the gardens were awarded the Mass Horticultural Society HH Hunnewell Medal.  It is unclear when Steele completed his time on the Rolling Ridge gardens but it was before the Methodists purchased the property in 1948.

For Fletcher Steele, it all began at Rolling Ridge.  Recorded in books and magazines, our gardens are part of his legacy, and today, we are privileged to continue to tell his story and to invite people to explore the garden pathways that lead to the water.  Through our ministry, we bring people on a journey to experience the Divine flow of Spirit, and we continue Steele’s vision to help people experience the mystery of water and to plant seeds in their garden.  Space is art at Rolling Ridge as we inspire creativity today, thanks to the initial vision of a young landscape architect over a century ago named Fletcher Steele. 



Rolling Ridge Retreat & Conference Center
660 Great Pond Road, North Andover, MA 01845
978-682-8815 thestaff@Rollingridge.org