Weir Farm National Historic Site, The Gardens

Audio Available:

OVERVIEW: About this audio-described brochure

This is the audio-only described version of the Weir Farm National Historic Site gardens brochure. The brochure is two-sided, with descriptions of the historic gardens, four black and white historic photographs, and two color photographs. 

The front of the brochure features a section on the Sunken Garden in text and images. The back of the brochure features sections on the Terraced Gardens, the Secret Garden, and the Secret Garden Restoration Project.

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OVERVIEW: Weir Farm National Historic Site

Weir Farm National Historic Site, located in south-western Connecticut, is the only national park dedicated to American painting. Set amid more than 60 acres of picturesque woods, fields, and streams, Weir described his home as the "Great Good Place." Come walk in the footsteps of generations of world class artists, and visit the home and studio of American Impressionist, J. Alden Weir.

To find out more about what resources might be available, or to contact the park directly, visit the "Accessibility" and "More Information" sections at the end of this audio-described brochure.

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OVERVIEW: Front of the brochure

The front of the gardens brochure features a black and white historic photo of the Secret Garden and a color photo of the Sunken Garden. The text introduces the historic gardens at Weir Farm National Historic Site and discusses the Sunken Garden.

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TEXT: The Gardens

For many affluent New Yorkers of the 1880s, there was a strong desire for a tranquil retreat away from the noise and heat of the city. J. Alden Weir was no exception. He acquired his Branchville property in 1882, and soon developed a deep affection for the landscape of his new country home. Over the years, the gardens became a significant and endearing part of this rural landscape. 

Late 19th century landscape architects sought to create something uniquely American that would also express a distinct personal style. They drew inspiration from the native countryside and vegetation, while blending emerging European and Japanese aesthetic traditions with American colonial ideals inspired by the nation's 1876 Centennial. By the early 1900's, the simple Cottage Garden, or Grandmother's Garden, style had been fondly embraced by professional, as well as amateur, gardeners.

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IMAGE: A woman in the Secret Garden

This black and white photo depicts the Secret Garden at Weir Farm National Historic Site. In the left half of the photo, a woman in a white dress and sun hat stands looking down at a waist-high sun dial. In the background, the foliage of the trees outside the garden is visible. The middle ground is a wall made from the flowering bushes which surround and grow over the garden fence. In the foreground, a yucca plant, daffodil leaves, and day lilies grow in groups around a grassy lawn within the garden fence. 


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TEXT: The Sunken Garden

In 1907, J. Alden Weir purchased the Webb Farm, which lay just across Pelham Lane from his summer home at Weir Farm. After his death in 1919, the property fell into disrepair. When Cora Weir Burlingham, his youngest daughter, took possession of the farm in 1931, she found it to be a "shambles," and immediately initiated ambitious renovations and additions to the house, and had several new gardens designed and installed. 

Work was begun on the Sunken Garden in 1932, and was completed in 1940. Although no drawings of the plan have survived, the garden was fashioned in the popular Colonial Revival style. The small, intimate space, defined by stone retaining walls on all four sides, was laid out with curving flowerbeds backed by tall arborvitae and edged with dwarf boxwood, a characteristic feature of colonial-style gardens.

Cora also had a stone terrace, potting shed and small greenhouse built on the south side of the Burlingham House. During construction, she added many simple highlights, including the pink thyme still growing between the patio stones. The open terrace, linked by two sets of stone stairs, flows naturally down into the enclosed space of the sunken garden and nicely compliments the surrounding structures. Unfortunately, after Cora's death, maintenance of the garden ceased and the area once again became overgrown. 

The National Park Service at Weir Farm National Historic Site preserves this significant cultural landscape due to its direct link with the development of American Impressionism. The site is being preserved and restored to appear today just as it did to Weir and the other artists who made the farm their home. In 1995, a project was begun to inventory, map, and photograph the existing plants in the Sunken Garden. The rehabilitation project, carried out with the help of the Wilton Garden Club, was based upon the site's Cultural Landscape Report, as well as the many historic photographs that documented the garden during Cora's tenure.

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IMAGE: The Sunken Garden

This color photo shows the Sunken Garden at Weir Farm National Historic Site. The central grassy lawn, bordered by serpentine boxwood hedges dominates the image. At the back of the garden, ferns and a white planter full of greens sit at the apex of the serpentine border. Behind the boxwood border, on both sides of the garden, are a mix of purple flowers, green hydrangea bushes, the leaves of daffodils, and five tall dark green arborvitae plants. The trunk of a tree is visible in the back right corner, with more showing from behind the stone wall at the back of the garden. The outside stone wall on the right edge of the garden is visible in this photo, with a green lawn and hydrangea bushes directly behind.


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OVERVIEW: Back of the brochure

The back of the gardens brochure features three black and white historic photos of the Terraced and Secret Gardens and a color photo of the Secret Garden. The text discusses the Terraced Gardens, the Sunken Garden, and the Sunken Garden Restoration Project at Weir Farm National Historic Site.

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TEXT: The Terraced Gardens

The landscape of Weir Farm features several terraced lawns which were once the site of numerous vegetable gardens. During World War II, Cora maintained a large Victory Garden north of the Burlingham House where she grew a wide variety of produce. In the years following the war, this garden was phased out, and she had the terraced gardens south of the house constructed. This area was used primarily for growing raspberries, strawberries, and rhubarb, some of Cora's favorites. Remnants of a wire trellis system used to support raspberry plants are still visible. The small meadow surrounding the terraces held plantings of asparagus, a grape trellis, and pear trees. It is likely that turf covered most of the area, and plantings were restricted to the edges. Near the Weir House, Dorothy Weir Young maintained an apple orchard and also several vegetable gardens where parsnips, corn, and other produce was grown.

The National Park Service has not restored these gardens, but rather worked to maintain and recapture the effect of the gardens in a manner compatible with the overall historic character of the site. Cora's family photos were used to identify plant types and locations. New plantings incorporated existing plant remnants, such as peony, yucca, spring and summer bulbs, and other hardy herbs. 

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IMAGE: Cora in the Terraced Gardens

CAPTION: Cora Weir Burlingham in her terraced gardens in 1952.

DESCRIPTION: This black and white photograph depicts Cora Weir Burlingham sitting on the steps between two levels of the Terraced Gardens. The levels are edged by stone walls, with a small stone staircase in the middle leading from one level to the next. Cora is partially hidden by a large planter, sitting slightly in front and to the right of her, on the corner of the stone wall next to the staircase. A matching planter sits on the stone wall across the steps. Behind Cora are raspberry bushes growing on four rows of wire trellises. At the left edge of the photo, next to the planter which partially obscures Cora, a garden hose is coiled and hanging from a standing water spigot.


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TEXT: The Secret Garden

It is likely that the current location of the Secret Garden had been some sort of farm garden prior to Weir's arrival. It is also probable that Anna Baker Weir chose this spot for her first flower garden. In 1905, Weir executed a series of four paintings or sketches depicting a small simple flower garden on this spot north of his studio. Photos of the same garden taken in 1915, showed an enlarged area with new structures and plantings of perennials, vines, and hedges. A fountain, sundial, and two rustic gates, which were sometimes covered with chicken wire, also appeared in the photos.

Most of the construction during Weir's time was of a more Adirondack style, in keeping with his disregarded plans to build a hunting lodge in the Adirondacks of northern New York. The formal garden was unlike anything previously built on the farm. The arrangement, more formally laid out on the eastern end and less structured on the western end, was typical of a Grandmother's Garden. Weir's three daughters may have been influential in the design and choice of plants, and surely helped with its upkeep. In her reminiscences Lest We Forget, Caroline Weir Ely later wrote: "My first garden twenty years ago at my father's is still full of the plants I put in..."

Photos and drawings created during the 1930s and 1940s, while Dorothy Weir Young and sculptor Mahonri Young were living here, indicate that the garden had become very overgrown, and it was probably during this time that it became known as the "Secret Garden." This may have been a reference to Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's story of the same name, or to the fact that the garden was hidden by vegetation.

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IMAGE: A woman and dog in the Secret Garden

CAPTION: A woman enjoys the company of her dog next to the fountain in the Secret Garden, circa 1915.

DESCRIPTION: This black and white photo depicts a dark-haired woman in a white dress standing on the grassy inner lawn of the Secret Garden beside a bed of flowers. She is looking down at her dog, who is standing up on hind legs and reaching for her outstretched hand with its front paws. In the foreground, the stone fountain of the Secret Garden dominates the photograph. Its still waters reflect the woman's body and the dog's head. A dense row of flowers and the vine-covered garden fence provide a backdrop, beyond which the tops of the surrounding trees stand out against a white sky.


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TEXT: The Secret Garden Restoration Project

When Weir Farm became a National Historic Site in 1990, the Secret Garden was completely overgrown with trees and weeds. Only the degraded sundial and fountain, and some stone edging around the beds, remained. The boxwood hedge, though five feet high, was still in place, and a few perennials could be found as well. In 1992, investigations for restoration of the Weir Garden commenced. Photos taken in 1915 were used to identify plant materials and establish the general layout and character of the garden. At the same time, archaeologists dug pits to located the placement of fence posts and gates, and to determine how the fountain worked. Based on this research, members of the Olmstead Center for Landscape Preservation produced construction drawings for the restoration of the garden. 

During the summer of 1995, with assistance from the Ridgefield Garden Club, the restoration project was begun. A new fountain and sundial, as well as fencing and plantings, were installed, and 23 non-historic trees were removed. Whenever possible the same heirloom varieties of flowers and plants were used, but in certain cases, as with the phlox, new varieties were chosen because they were more resistant to disease.

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IMAGE: Comparison photos of the Secret Garden

Two photographs appear side-by-side. A black and white photo of the Secret Garden, circa 1915, and a color photo of the Secret Garden dated 2006. Both images depict the same view, looking into the Secret Garden from the north garden gate, showing a view of the garden's interior, with the south gate and Weir Studio in the background. The  north garden gate is nearly identical in both images and both photos show the same general interior structure of the Secret Garden. A large decorative boulder and yucca plant in the foreground, flower beds along the edges of the garden, and a sundial in the far middle ground. The yucca plant, flowers and hydrangea bushes are larger and more luxuriant in the 2006 color photo. The south garden gate is also nearly the same in both images, with one difference. In the 2006 color photograph, vines overgrow the peaked roof above the gate. In the background of this same photo, a large maple tree beyond the garden wall partially obstructs the Weir Studio windows. This tree is not present in the circa 1915 photograph.


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OVERVIEW: Accessibility

We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For more information about our services, please ask a ranger, call, or check on our website.

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OVERVIEW: More Information


Weir Farm National Historic Site, 735 Nod Hill Road, Wilton, CT 06897 


(203) 834-1896 


www dot n p s dot gov slash wefa 

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