John Muir, the famous naturalist, once said, “Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” Philanthropist Chauncey D. Stillman could have said the same about a swath of Hudson Valley he fell in love with during a ride in the storied Millbrook Hunt. In 1937, Stillman, whose grandfather founded the bank that would become Citigroup, purchased two adjacent farms, giving him 1,000 acres with sweeping views of the Berkshires, Catskills, and Taconic Mountains. He named the property Wethersfield in honor of the Connecticut town where his ancestors had arrived in 1705.
For the next 50 years, Stillman oversaw the evolution of the estate. He built a handsome Georgian home to house an extensive art collection, but his main focus was on the land. The 10 acres surrounding the home became beautiful formal gardens in the Italian Classical style of the 17th century (a novelty for that time, when few gardens were embracing the tenets of classicism).
Landscape designer Bryan Lynch began the design, but in 1947, Evelyn Poehler came on board and remained Stillman’s collaborator for the next 25 years. In the classical tradition, the gardens are oriented on a strong axis stemming from the house and moving north, south, east, and west. Yews clipped in cones and balls mimic the rolling hills; reflective ponds mirror the sky; an allée of towering arborvitae anchors and allures; and charming statuary heightens the meditative experience.
The rest of the property became dedicated farmland and what Stillman referred to as The Wilderness, a wooded area with 20 miles of riding trails. While his life had many of the trappings of extreme wealth, Stillman was passionate about conservation and showed a surprising streak of thriftiness in his approach at Wethersfield. Before many had heard of the concepts, he was embracing crop rotation, contour strip cropping, biodynamic farming, reforestation, and innovative drainage.
“He was also a conservationist when it came to materials,” says Toshi Yano, head of horticulture at Wethersfield. “The bluestone here is recycled from New York City bluestone sidewalks. Whenever Mr. Stillman saw a sidewalk or street being torn up, he would call for a truck.”
For all its grandeur, Wethersfield has an element of humble restraint. Though the home Stillman built is handsome and comfortable, it is by no means a Newport-sized mansion. “The gardens here are human-sized as well,” says Yano. “It doesn’t feel like Versailles. It’s intimately scaled. It’s a garden you want to be in with just one other person or even by yourself. There are hedges, tunnels, and enclosures that make you feel like you’re in a child’s storybook exploring a secret garden.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic last summer, the staff waived the admission fee, opening the garden to the public. “It was really special for a lot of people,” says Yano. “We probably saw our attendance triple. Nature has been such a balm for people who’ve been stuck inside. These gardens have been a balm for me personally, just as they were a spiritual balm for Mr. Stillman.”
The gardens and trails at Wethersfield are currently closed for the season and will open June 4. wethersfield.org