Amy Cogswell hired as landscape architect in 1921
Soon after the Connecticut Society of Colonial Dames acquired the Webb House in 1919, they began planning improvements. One of their first major undertakings was to install an “old fashioned” garden behind the house. Financial backing was secured from Colonial Dame Annie Burr Jennings, and in 1921 Amy Cogswell was hired as the landscape architect in charge of the project.
In the early 20th century professionally-designed gardens were uncommon and female landscape architects even more so in a field that had traditionally been dominated by men. Ms. Cogswell graduated from the first American institution for women studying this field, Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women in Groton, Massachusetts. She graduated in 1916 and served as headmistress from 1916 – 1923. Little else is known about her.
In contrast to true colonial-era gardens, Colonial Revival gardens dating from the 1920s were intended to be purely decorative. The Webb House garden was a prototypical example of the genre, containing classical elements, quaint arbors, and a wide assortment of “old fashioned” flowers. Ms. Cogswell specified mainly hardy perennials, such as roses, with a few brightly-colored annuals to bring the garden to life throughout the summer and fall months. Her plan called for 99 different plants, including hollyhocks, larkspur, pinks, foxglove, peonies, and phlox. Some of these plants actually date to the colonial period, while others simply seem old fashioned.
From 1921 to about 1940, the Webb House Garden was carefully maintained. But the advent of World War II brought fewer visitors to the Museum and the Colonial Dames had to change to lower maintenance plants with more continuous bloom. Renovations and additions to the facilities in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in major alterations to the garden. By the 1970s, little remained of Amy Cogswell’s original design.
In mid 1990’s, Colonial Dames revive Cogswell’s original garden plan
Amy Cogswell’s original garden plans, which were recorded as having disappeared in 1945, were rediscovered in the archives in 1996. By this time there was a greater interest among historians and preservationists in the early 20th century. Starting in April 1999, the Colonial Dames decided to rejuvenate the Colonial Revival Garden based on Ms. Cogswell’s plans, which are now considered to be historically important in their own right.
While not an exact replica, the restored garden displays many of the same flowers that were originally selected by the landscape architect and enjoyed by visitors in the 1920s. In cases where the antique variety of a plant is no longer available, contemporary examples with equivalent color and bloom time have been substituted. Modern techniques such as irrigation and mulch have also been introduced to aid in the maintenance.
The Webb House Colonial Revival Garden is open during regular museum hours year-around. Today the garden is maintained by volunteer “Garden Angels” who meet monthly on Saturday mornings during the blooming season. For more information, click Garden Angels on this web site.