Montgomery Place was established as a nursery and farm following the American Revolution. Between 1828 its owners transformed it into a pleasure garden, tracking the emergence of a new aesthetic understanding of the American landscape. The estate served as an exemplar for theorists and landscape architects, who cited Montgomery Place in their works to illustrate key terms and design principles, and praised its successful adaptation of European picturesque design principles for American landscapes.
Alternate Names: Chateau de Montgomery
Site Dates: 1802-present
Site Owner(s): Janet Livingston Montgomery (1802-1828), Edward Livingston (1828-1836), Louise Davezac Livingston (1836-1860), Cora Livingston Barton (1860-1873), Louise Livingston Hunt (1873-1914) and her brother Carleton Hunt (1873-1921), John Ross Delafield (1921-1964), John White Delafield (1964-1985), J. Dennis Delafield (1985-1986), Sleepy Hollow Restorations/Historic Hudson Valley (1986-2016), Bard College (2016-present)
Associated People: Frederick Catherwood (architect), Andrew Jackson Downing, Alexander Jackson Davis (architect), Philip Dederick (farmer), Hans Jacob Ehlers, John George (gardener), Alexander Gilson (gardener), James McWilliams (nurseryman), Jacques-Gérard Milbert, John Hare Otton (architect)
Location: Dutchess County, NY
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In 1802, Janet Livingston Montgomery (1743–1828) purchased a 242-acre farm on the bank of the Hudson River from John Van Benthuysen [Fig. 1]. Janet, the widow of General Richard Montgomery (1738-1775) who died in the American Revolutionary War, constructed a federal-style house on the property with the assistance of her nephew, William Jones (-1822), which she named “Chateau de Montgomery.” Janet partnered with James McWilliams to establish a commercial nursery on her property in 1804 (view text), on which they planted 50 varieties of apple trees that her brother Robert shipped from France in 1805. Although the management of this nursery would change hands, first in 1815, to a gardener and nurseryman named John George hired by Janet as an employee rather than a business partner (view text), it remained in operation until sometime before her death in 1828. Janet and her partners planned to sell seeds to nurseries in New York, as well as to the nursery of Gordon, Dermer, & Co. in London, where American varieties were considered desirable curiosities. In addition to revenue from the nursery, Janet also made money by renting out her farmland to tenants, some of whom were responsible for managing her own livestock. According to one contract, she paid Philip Dederick one hundred and fifty dollars, along with housing, firewood, and the right to keep some farm animals in exchange for his labor managing her farmland and livestock. The 1820 census also documents twelve slaves who worked in Janet’s house and estate, whom she was eventually forced to free in 1827 when New York State abolished slavery.
Although Janet planned to leave her estate to her nephew William, his early death in 1822 preceded her own, and she willed the property to her youngest brother Edward Livingston (1764–1836) and his wife Louise d’Avezac Livingston (1781–1860). It was they who renamed it Montgomery Place. Edward and Louise occupied the estate seasonally, but they continued to rely on the kitchen garden and orchards, planting apricot, nectarine, cherry, peach, and pear trees. Drawing on their experiences in Europe, where Edward had served as United States Minister to France from 1833 to 1835, they brought a new approach to the design of the estate that emphasized visual beauty over agriculture and commerce. The new attitudes towards the landscape that emerged at estates like Hyde Park and Montgomery Place as they shed many of their earlier economic functions would spread along the Hudson River, which took on new importance as a shipping and transportation route following the completion of the Erie Canal in 1835. In 1829, Edward and Louise began laying out and building what would eventually grow to five miles of walking paths throughout the estate. His unexpected death in 1836 brought a temporary halt to these projects, and left the estate in the hands of Louise and their only child, Coralie “Cora” Livingston Barton (1806–1873), wife of Thomas Pennant Barton (1803-1869).
Louise and Cora continued to develop their property with additions and renovations. In 1839, Louise commissioned Frederick Catherwood to design a large private conservatory for the property, in which she could grow exotic plants [Fig. 2]. When John C. Cruger, who owned part of the Sawkill ravine that formed the northern border of the estate, attempted to sell it to industrial developers, Louise and her neighbor Robert Donaldson, owner of the adjacent Blithewood estate, joined together to purchase the land in 1841. Historians Johnson and Vetare have suggested that the legal agreement between them could be considered among the first scenic preservation covenants in the United States. Louise would continue to assert her control over the property and its viewshed in the coming years. She had warning signs printed and posted in 1845 to curtail recreational shooting on the land, and petitioned New York State for control of a rock in the Hudson River off the shore of her property, which, to her annoyance and moral consternation, was a popular swimming spot.
Archival documents preserve the names of a number of gardeners who worked on the estate, of whom the most significant was Alexander Gilson (1823-1889). From around 1840 to 1860, Louise and Cora employed Gilson as the head gardener of the estate. He was the child of Janet Montgomery’s African American housekeeper Sarah (Sally) and butler John, both of whom may have started working for the Livingston family as slaves. In the 1860s, Gilson cultivated a new variety of Achyranthes that was named in his honor, made known to the larger horticultural community by a notice published in the American Horticultural Annual of 1869 (view text).
Cora and Thomas Barton became friends with the noted landscape gardener and theorist Andrew Jackson Downing, who visited the estate periodically, commented on their plans for additions and renovations, and sold them plants (view text). Cora commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design a series of structures for the grounds, and designed her own garden furnishings. Thomas began work on an arboretum in 1846, eventually hiring Hans Jacob Ehlers, a German landscape architect, to design the grounds after an unknown designer recommended by Downing had failed to complete the project (view text) [Fig. 3]. A dispute between Thomas and Ehlers gives some idea of the expense involved in the project, for which the designer asked one hundred dollars (view text). In 1857, John Jay Smith praised the arboretum for its breadth and pioneering approach, but criticized the crowded planting of the different specimens, “which, in progress of time, must be seriously injured by their too close proximity” (view text).
A number of published images and descriptions established the natural beauty of Montgomery Place within the broader public imagination. A print of the lower falls of the Sawkill [Fig. 4] appeared in an 1828 travelogue by Jacques-Gérard Milbert, who traveled the United States collecting specimens for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. His publication offered European readers a glimpse of the property. A vivid narrative of an autumnal visit to the estate published in an 1840 issue of the New-York Mirror helped establish its reputation closer to home (view text). Downing’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, first published in 1841, included a short description of Montgomery Place. Holding up many of its individual feature as exemplars for imitation or inspiration, this text, more than any other, shaped the reception of the estate.
The longest description of Montgomery Place was published in 1847, when Downing devoted an entire editorial to it in the Horticulturist (view text), illustrated with prints based on sketches by Davis [Fig. 5]. In Downing’s description, the estate exemplifies the rugged and romantic natural beauty of the Hudson River Valley tempered with elements of a modern garden in the picturesque style. The most notable features included a path along the shore of the Hudson, a trail at the wilderness and lake along the Sawkill creek, a conservatory and flower garden near the main house, and a scenic drive suitable for “exercise in the carriage, or on horseback” that wound through the property. Small bridges, a “pavilion,” and an octagonal “rustic temple,” emphasized the scale of the forty-foot waterfalls of the Sawkill, the lake, the woods, and the silhouettes of the Catskills hovering on the horizon across the river [Fig. 6]. The conservatory and arboretum provided not only “scenic effect,” but also controlled environments in which the owners and visitors could systematically analyze and compare individual species. Flower gardens nearby, laid out in a parterre described as a “rich oriental pattern of carpet or embroidery,” and a carriage drive through the wooded area in the southern part of the property offered yet other ways to experience the property.
With the exception of the main house, the architectural elements described by Downing no longer survive. Watercolor sketches and architectural drawings by Davis, however, give a sense of their varied styles and plans. Close to the house, neo-classical elements prevailed [Fig. 7], while rustic and neo-gothic structures dotted the periphery of the estate [Fig. 8-9]. The “temple” and other buildings were characterized by triangular, square, or octagonal plans, and situated with views of the river, the waterfalls, and the lake. Another architectural rendering by the Philadelphia furniture-maker and architect John Hare Otton depicts a fantastical, four-tiered garden pagoda [Fig. 10], which he designed for the estate c. 1839-47. Visitors especially remarked on the exceptional beauty of Otton’s arbors, although no drawings of them survive (view text). Robert Toole has connected these little buildings to French developments in the use of built landmarks known as fabrique, which the Livingstons may have experienced firsthand during their travels in France.
Well into the 1860s, Montgomery Place continued to occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of American landscape design. Descriptions and depictions of the estate circulated both within America, and internationally in publications like London’s Art-Journal in 1860 [Fig. 11] (view text). Following the death of Cora Barton in 1873, the estate passed to sister and brother Louise Livingston Hunt (1873-1914) and Carleton Hunt (1873-1921)), who decided to scale back the cost and effort necessary for the maintenance of the estate. They demolished the grand conservatory and elaborate flower beds that formed the centerpiece of Louise and Cora’s garden, replacing them with “a simple but well-framed lawn” in the decades following the Civil War. The current condition of the gardens, lawns, and greenhouse primarily reflect the additions and renovations of Violetta Delafield (1875-1949), who transformed the landscape of the estate c. 1920-1940 based on her preferences for the smaller garden rooms characteristic of the Arts and Crafts style. The Sleepy Hollow Restorations preservation society, known today as Historic Hudson Valley, acquired the estate from the Delafield family in 1986. In 2016 they sold it to Bard College, located on the neighboring Blithewood property.
- Downing, Andrew Jackson, October 1847, describing Montgomery Place, country home of Mrs. Edward (Louise) Livingston, Dutchess County, NY (1847: 154–160)
- "About four hundred acres comprise the estate called Montgomery Place, a very large part of which is devoted to pleasure grounds and ornamental purposes. The every varied surface affords the finest scope for the numerous roads, drives and walks, with which it abounds. Even its natural boundaries are admirable. On the west is the Hudson, broken by islands into an outline unusually varied and picturesque. On the north, it is separated from Blithewood, the adjoining seat, by a wooded valley, in the depths of which runs a broad stream, rich in waterfalls. On the south is a rich oak wood, in the centre of which is a private drive. On the east it touches the post road. Here is the entrance gate, and from it leads a long and stately avenue of trees, like the approach to an old French chateau. Halfway up its length, the lines of planted trees give place to a tall wood, and this again is succeeded by the lawn, which opens in all its stately dignity, with increased effect, after the deeper shadows of this vestibule-like wood. . . .
- "Without going into any details of the interior, we may call attention to the unique effect of the pavilion, thirty feet wide, which forms the north wing of this house. It opens from the library and drawing-room by low windows. Its ribbed roof is supported by a tasteful series of columns and arches, in the style of an Italian arcade. As it is on the north side of the dwelling, its position is always cool in summer; and this coolness is still farther increased by the abundant shade of tall old trees, whose heads cast a pleasant gloom, while their tall trunks allow the eye to feast on the rich landscape spread around it. . . . [Fig. 1]
- "THE MORNING WALK.
- "Leaving the terrace on the western front, the steps of the visitor, exploring Montgomery Place, are naturally directed towards the river bank. A path on the left of the broad lawn leads one to the fanciful rustic-gabled seat, among a growth of locusts at the bottom of the slope. Here commences a long walk, which is the favorite morning ramble of guests. . . . Half-way along this morning ramble, a rustic seat, placed on a bold little plateau, at the base of a large tree, eighty feet above the water and fenced with a rustic barrier, invites you to linger and gaze at the fascinating river landscape here presented. . . .
- "A little farther on, we reach a flight of rocky steps, leading up to the border of the lawn. At the top of these is a rustic seat with a thatched canopy, curiously built round the trunk of an aged pine. . . . [Fig. 2]
- "THE WILDERNESS.
- "Leaving the morning walk, we enter at once into 'The Wilderness.' This is a large and long wooded valley. . . . It is covered with the native growth of trees, thick, dark, and shadowy, so that once plunged in its recesses, you can easily imagine yourself in the depths of an old forest, far away from the haunts of civilization. . . .
- "But the Wilderness is by no means savage in the aspect of its beauty; on the contrary, here as elsewhere in this demesne, are evidences, in every improvement, of a fine appreciation of the natural charms of the locality. The whole of this richly wooded valley is threaded with walks, ingeniously and naturally conducted so as to penetrate to all the most interesting points; while a great variety of rustic seats, formed beneath the threes, in deep secluded thickets , by the side of the swift rushing stream, or on some inviting eminence, enables one fully to enjoy them. . . .
- "THE CATARACT.
- "But the stranger who enters the depths of this dusky wood by this route, is not long inclined to remain here. His imagination is excited by the not very distant sound of waterfalls.
- 'Above, below, aerial murmurs swell,
- From hanging wood, brown heath and bushy dell;
- A thousand gushing rells that shun the light,
- Stealing like music on the ear of night.'
- "He takes another path, passes by an airy looking rustic bridge, and plunging for a moment into the thicket, emerges again in full view of the first cataract. Coming from the solemn depths of the woods, he is astonished at the noise and volume of the stream, which here rushes in wild foam and confusion over the rocky fall, forty feet in depth. Ascending a flight of steps made in the precipitous banks of the stream, we have another view, which is scarcely less spirited and picturesque.
- "This waterfall, beautiful at all seasons, would alone be considered a sufficient attraction to give notoriety to a rural locality in most country neighborhoods. But as if nature had intended to lavish her gifts here, she has, in the course of this valley, given two other cataracts. These are all striking enough to be worthy of the pencil of the artist, and they make this valley a feast of wonders to the lovers of the picturesque. . . .
- "THE LAKE
- ". . . . The peninsula, on the north of the lake, is carpeted with the dry leaves of the thick cedars that cover it, and form so umbragous a resting place that the sky over it seems absolutely dusky at noon day. On its northern bank is a rude sofa, formed entirely of stone. Here you linger again, to wonder afresh at the novelty and beauty of the second cascade. The stream here emerges from a dark thicket, falls about twenty feet, and then rushes away on the side of the peninsula opposite the lake. . . . [Fig. 3]
- "Winding along the sides of the valley, and stretching for a good distance across its broadest part, all the while so deeply immersed however, in its umbrageous shelter, as scarcely to see the sun, or indeed to feel very certain of our whereabouts, we emerge in the neighborhood of the CONSERVATORY.
- "This a large, isolated, glazed structure, designed by MR. CATHERWOOD, to add to the scenic effect of the pleasure grounds. On its northern side are, in summer, arranged the more delicate green-house plants; and in front are groups of large Oranges, Lemons, Citrons, Cape Jasmines, Eugenias, etc., in tubs—plants remarkable for their size and beauty. Passing under neat and tasteful archways of wirework, covered with rare climbers, we enter what is properly [Fig. 4]
- "THE FLOWER GARDEN.
- "How different a scene from the deep sequestered shadows of the Wilderness! Here all is gay and smiling. Bright parterres of brilliant flowers bask in the full daylight, and rich masses of colour seem to revel in the sunshine. The walks are fancifully laid out, so as to form a tasteful whole; the beds are surrounded by low edgings of turf or box, and the whole looks like some rich oriental pattern of carpet or embroidery. In the centre of the garden stands a large vase of the Warwick pattern; others occupy the centres of parterres in the midst of its two main divisions, and at either end is a fanciful light summer-house, or pavilion, of Moresque character. The whole garden is surrounded and shut out from the lawn, by a belt of shrubbery, and above and behind this, rises, like a noble framework, the background of trees of the lawn and the Wilderness. If there is any prettier flower garden scene than this ensemble in the country, we have not yet had the good fortune to behold it. . . .
- "THE DRIVE
- "On the southern boundary is an oak wood of about fifty acres. It is totally different in character from the Wilderness on the north, and is a nearly level or slightly undulating surface, well covered with fine Oak, Chestnut, and other timber trees. Though it is laid out the DRIVE; a sylvan route as agreeable for exercise in the carriage, or on horseback, as the 'Wilderness,' or the 'Morning Walk,' is for a ramble on foot. . . .
- "Though Montgomery Place itself is old, yet a spirit ever new directs the improvements carried on within it. Among those more worthy of note, we gladly mention an arboretum, just commenced on a fine site in the pleasure grounds, set apart and thoroughly prepared for the purpose. Here a scientific arrangement of all the most beautiful hardy trees and shrubs, will interest the student, who looks upon the vegetable kingdom with a more curious eye than the ordinary observer."
- A. J. Downing, "A Visit to Montgomery Place," Horticulturist 2, no. 4 (October 1847), view on Zotero.