Wellesley’s treasured — yet underappreciated — topiary

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on October 22, 2015.

Hunnewell topiary on Lake Waban circa 1902 Source: Library of Congress

Hunnewell topiary on Lake Waban circa 1902
Source: Library of Congress

Nod your head if you think the subject of horticulture is boring. Really, it’s okay. There are millions of people who couldn’t care less about the cultivation of flowers, trees, and shrubs.

Horatio Hollis Hunnewell was not one of these individuals. In fact, you could easily argue that Wellesley’s greatest benefactor was a key contributor to the American landscape architecture movement of the 19th Century, not too far removed from the likes of Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Sprague Sargent.

Detailing each and every effort Hunnewell undertook within this field would fill a book. So for this article, why don’t we instead focus on his most well-known contribution: the topiary on the south shore of Lake Waban.

For those non-horticulturalists, ‘topiary’ is just a fancy word for a tree or shrub that has been cut into a formal or geometric shape by repeated shearing. In essence, it is a living sculpture.

How Wellesley became home to what was once the finest topiary in the entire United States requires some backstory. It begins in the early 1840s when Hunnewell, only a few years after settling on the long-held property of his wife’s family (the Welles) on Washington Street near the Natick border, became interested in country life and started transforming the property into a full-fledged country estate.

This was a novel concept at the time. Although there were literally tens of thousands of grand rural estates in England (and many more elsewhere in Europe), members of the American upper class had yet to migrate inland to establish homes. Almost all still resided in seaport communities, not far from the waters that had brought them great wealth, primarily through whaling and commercial trade.

Two general principles governed the design of Horatio Hunnewell’s Wellesley estate. The first can be summed up by the following Hunnewell quote: “We live in two worlds — a world of thought and a world of sight.” Simply put, the estate had to be aesthetically pleasing. Not just in regards to any house or structure built on the property, but also the grounds surrounding it.

Related to this appreciation for all-encompassing beauty, the second principle set out to overcome the dull American tendency to define a clear boundary between the built world and the natural world. In other words, the various components of the estate — the buildings, roads, lawns, gardens, and forests — had to seamlessly harmonize with one another, and in doing so, promote visual interest that would prevent boredom and ennui among residents and visitors alike.

Constructing such an estate was not cheap. Ironically, however, when Hunnewell first began reshaping the property, he didn’t have very much money. Although he had accrued great wealth in the banking industry while working in Europe as a young man, all of it was lost in the financial panic of 1837. Therefore, it wasn’t until the early 1850s — after Hunnewell had recouped these losses, largely through investments in the emerging railroad industry — that the bulk of the estate, including the landmark white mansion set far back from Washington Street, was constructed.

A topiary overlooking Lake Waban was part of this phase of the estate’s development. Inspired by a recent visit to Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire, England — home of the world’s grandest topiary at the time — Hunnewell realized such a garden was the perfect addition to the grounds of his new home.

The first step was to clear what was an unremarkable hill leading down to Lake Waban and carve out a series of terraces. All pretty straightforward.

Everything that followed was not so simple. Unfortunately, the English yew — the tree predominantly used at Elvaston — would never survive the harsh New England climate. Hunnewell therefore had to resort to trial and error to determine what types of conifers could thrive in Wellesley. In the end, after years of experimentation, he found that a combination of different species of spruce, hemlock, pine, juniper, cypress, and cedar was ideal.

The other complication was shaping the trees into their desired form. Just as bonsai trees require severe manipulation in order to take their unique shapes, so do topiary specimens. Such a process takes years, if not decades, of patience. Fortunately, Horatio Hunnewell had plenty of that.

By the late 1860s, the garden had more or less reached its present appearance, complete with parapet, marble staircase, and vase-topped balustrade. Hunnewell had even purchased a gondola to give his topiary overlooking Lake Waban the look of an Italian garden on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy.

It’s difficult to exaggerate how much attention this one-of-a-kind garden received from the public. Thousands of visitors from all over the country came to Wellesley just to see the topiary firsthand. Many more took in its beauty through photographs and engravings published in the most popular periodicals of the time.

To this day — a century and a half later — the Hunnewell topiary is still among the most spectacular sites in the region. And yet one can’t help but feel that many of us take it for granted, few realizing the effort required for its construction and maintenance. After all, interest in horticulture and gardening peaked long, long ago.

So the next time you walk around Lake Waban, stop for a moment at the topiary and try to appreciate the history and beauty of Wellesley’s most famous garden.