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A Feminist Plot

I used to think of these neoclassical gardens as being spiffy but shallow, lacking the soul that their owners had tried so hard to create.

Coffin helped me change that notion. She in particular created outdoor spaces that blended exquisite design and proportion with superb craftsmanship to yield gardens of distinctive character.

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Gibraltar is the earliest of the three, begun in 1915, and though the smallest, it is the most lavish in some respects. Sharp seemed the sort of debonair client who would demand something especially stylish.

Enter the iron gate to the Formal Flower Garden and you find yourself in a large, walled garden where the paths are of broken slabs of white Italian marble, laid randomly. The flower beds are broad and colorful, filled in roses of yellow, pink, peach, with tall bearded irises, blue delphiniums, phlox, black-eyed Susans and so forth through the season.

I stopped to chat with Colleen Scheutz, the horticulturist. She explained that Coffin was a disciple of Gertrude Jekyll, the English garden designer who popularized the use of large plantings of perennials in thoughtful color schemes. These herbaceous borders seem so well married to the garden architecture, to the carved limestone benches, urns and statuary.

The formal garden leads to an avenue of bald cypress trees ending in an open, classical pavilion where, in the age before air conditioning, the Sharps would lay ornamental rugs, bring out the potted plants and retreat for cool, Sybaritic relief.

Today, you hear the sound of cars and trucks on busy Route 52, and yet the traffic cannot break the spell of the pavilion, with its marble columns, vaulted ceiling and small fountain, and its view back through the columns of cypress. With a few props you could easily imagine being in Tuscany, even Marrakesh.

Returning to the formal garden along the fringes of this cypress avenue, you find yourself in a serpentine path through the woods -- back in the northern world now, striding in mid-spring through a sea of bluebells.

You are vaguely aware of a large house on a hill overlooking these gardens, but it is not until you climb twisting marble stairs that you realize you have entered the garden (by necessity) from the bottom, not, as Coffin had intended, from the top. The public entrance to the garden is through the lower gate.

The steps lead you past a swimming pool terrace (now converted to ornamental use), and then to another, more intimate terrace of evergreens, and finally upward to the peak of the six-acre parcel where the now-tatty Victorian mansion sits.

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