In 1961, Natalie Hays Hammond opened her “Oriental Stroll Garden” to the public. As she described, this was modeled on a 17th century Edo stroll garden and had a variety of outdoor rooms. These included a Zen garden and a dry waterfall, as well as a pool upon which floated a Hong Kong style boat and a fruit garden with strawberries grown as in Shizuoka, on a rock wall. As incongruous as these elements may seem now, visitors to Ms. Hammond’s garden in the 1960s appreciated a complete sense of “Oriental” serenity. In 2020, the Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden was awarded a Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership grant to revitalize our garden. The delays caused by Covid-19 will likely mean that the work will take place exactly in the garden’s 60th year, 2021. In planning our revitalization, our task will be to achieve a balance between preserving Ms. Hammond’s eclectic garden, and making changes that allow a 21st century visitor to continue to experience the peaceful retreat from suburban New York that has been a hallmark of the Hammond.
When Natalie Hammond (1904 – 1985) purchased her North Salem, NY property in 1956, she had enjoyed decades of travel and involvement in the arts. Natalie Hammond was the daughter of John Hays Hammond, who gained great wealth as a mining engineer and later was involved in American diplomacy. A frequently shown, yet undated, photograph of Natalie Hammond shows her descending a ship’s gangplank at her father’s side. Could this be Natalie at 17, accompanying her father on his first trip to Japan in 1921? While more research into the Hammonds’ itineraries is required, newspaper reports describe Natalie Hammond as having visited Japan prior to World War II, kept an apartment in London, and collected artifacts ranging from Georgian-period hair jewelry to early American quilts to Japanese sword hilts. Natalie Hammond’s fascination with the world’s crafts echoed her career as an artist. She designed theatre sets and costumes, published books such as Anthology of Patterns (1949), and later created thousands of needlepoints.
The Hammond Museum’s “Oriental Stroll Garden” was one more medium of expression for its artistic founder. “I laid out every bloody plant,” Natalie Hammond said in her emphatic way.1 In the spring of the garden’s opening in 1961, Natalie Hammond described “truing up the vertical rocks that symbolize cliffs in our dry waterfall.”2 Reports on the new garden do mention collaborators, however. Clinton Wood of Pound Ridge, NY was her head gardener, while Mrs. Prescott Bigelow, evidently a relative of Natalie, designed the Zen garden. Ms. Hammond did not choose a Japan-trained expert to work on her Westchester estate, in contrast to her neighbors Nelson Rockefeller and his sister-in-law, Blanchette Rockefeller. In 1960, the pair asked David Engel, who had studied under the Japanese garden master Tansai Sano, to renovate the Japanese garden within Kykuit.3 Cost probably played a part in Natalie Hammond’s choice, because by the 1960s this heiress had limited money for her ambitious home and Hammond Museum. But equally importantly, her stroll garden belonged to a broad ranging “Museum of the Humanities and their Historic Background,” where Natalie Hammond showcased the objects and scenes she had accumulated worldwide. Expressing more a fantasy of distant times and places, and less a strict sense of authenticity, Natalie Hammond said: “In my travels, I’ve always collected things that I thought went together in a way that made it possible to imagine what it had been like to be alive in the time and place from which they came. … You wouldn’t expect a Chinese river boat to look at home on a Westchester hilltop, but I hope it does.”4
On opening day in May 1961, the Chinese boat floated on the central pond of Natalie Hammond’s Stroll Garden, a landscape style that she understood to have climaxed in Edo Japan. Fourteen “outdoor rooms” flowed from one to another, encouraging visitors to “view the broader landscape or review one’s thoughts”.5 The “Mountain Walk” offered views of the Berkshires, while in the “Dry Waterfall” white alyssum cascaded through blue lava stones and Ms. Hammond’s lovingly placed vertical “cliffs.” In the true “Waterfall Garden,” a stream bordered by iris and shaded by pines flowed into the pond, enlivened by the small “Island of Bodhisattva” that is still a beloved spot at the Hammond today. In the north corner of the garden, Mrs. Bigelow’s “Zen Garden” featured stones representing Man, Earth, and Heaven, and gravel raked in a Cloud Pattern. This “outdoor room” dates the Hammond Garden, as few Japanese gardens in the United States had a kare-sansui before they became popular representations of Zen philosophy in the post-war era.6 The “Fruit Garden” offered a lively contrast, with its Shizuoka-style strawberries, dwarf apple trees, and a hedge of highbush blueberries.
1960s reporters emphasized: “The garden at the Hammond is not … an exact recreation of its Japanese counterpart …. It is rather a ‘borrowing’ using indigenous planting to capture the feeling of the Japanese original.”7 Embellished with a Chinese boat and fruiting plants, her garden did not match modernist ideas of an authentic Japanese garden, nor our current expectations of aesthetic restraint and a certain muting of Japan’s international connections. Yet Ms. Hammond’s garden was not an Orientalist fantasy with no relation to its referent. As Marc Keane described, Edo stroll gardens recreated famous geographic and literary sites in both China and Japan and sometimes incorporated local orchards and religious sites.8 The Daimyo and imperial family members entertained in their parks and opened them to the public on specific festival days. As much as Ms. Hammond described her garden as “encouraging tranquility”, she also meant it as a place for sophisticated fun.9 Social events at the Hammond included the annual Interfaith Blessing of the Animals and the Land in May and Moon Viewing Concert in August, with a variety of cocktail receptions, concerts, and moon-lit garden strolls in between.
Our revitalization task is to bring out the layers within the garden’s deceptively simple name: the Hammond Museum Japanese Stroll Garden. These pages in the garden’s history include the Edo stroll garden; the gardens popular during Ms. Hammond’s young adult years, such as Japanese garden at Kykuit in its original 1908 iteration; the Zen gardens that were all the rage post-war; and the harmonious, meticulously crafted spaces that afficionados of Japanese gardens now expect. Practically speaking, the revitalization will also take place in stages. The design, by Charles Sadler of King Garden, will suggest improvements such as strategic pruning that can be made in 2021, as well as long term changes that will require additional fundraising. Our wish list includes a tea house at the underused south end of our garden and negotiating with our neighbors to restore some of the vistas that Hammond Garden visitors once enjoyed. The contrast between expansive views and intimate spaces cannot be fully experienced now, as post-agricultural forests have grown up on surrounding properties. Our Revitalization Project will be presented at a public symposium, now scheduled for fall 2021, featuring Lara Netting speaking on the garden’s history, Charles Sadler on his design for its renovation, and Yann Giguere, founder of Mokuchi Woodworking, demonstrating traditional Japanese carpentry. We welcome all NAJGA members at the symposium, and before then, to offer advice and comments on our revitalization project.
Please contact Lara Netting, Hammond Trustee and Project Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. “Green Thumbs Work an Oriental Garden” New York Times May 6, 1973.
2. “The Talk of the Town” New Yorker July 29, 1961.
3. Cynthia Bronson Altman “The Japanese Garden at Pocantico,” Orientations May 2006.
4. “The Talk of the Town” New Yorker July 29, 1961.
5. “The Stroll Gardens” New Haven Journal-Courier” October 3, 1964.
6. Christian Tagsold, Spaces in Translation (2017), 103.
7. “Japanese Garden in North Salem” Patent Trader, Mount Kisco, NY July 30, 1961.
8. Marc Keane, Japanese Garden Design (1996), 104, 109.
9. “An Oasis of Culture in a Rural Setting” New York Times September 3, 1967.
About the author
Lara Netting is an adjunct professor at the City College of New York and UBC Okanagan, with a specialty in modern East Asian history. She has a longstanding interest in Japanese gardens, having worked alongside her father at his British Columbia nursery and lived for two years in Japan. She joined the Board of the Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden in 2019, with a goal of revitalizing this garden and making it a NAJGA hub in the Northeast.