Photo credit: Jim Demarest
Gardens, Grounds & Trails
Whether touring the museum or just passing by, visitors are always welcome to enjoy the grounds of the Mansion House. Our historic property is a perfect watchable wildlife destination, featuring beautifully landscaped gardens, grounds, and trails.
The first photograph of the 1862 "New" Mansion House (center right), Children's House (left), and "Old" Mansion House (far left) surrounded by newly landscaped walking paths and grounds.
There were a number of talented gardeners and horticulturalists in the Oneida Community, such as Charles Ellis, Henry Thayer, Henry Thacker, and Alfred Barron, among others. As with most of the Community’s undertakings, the development and landscaping of the grounds around the Mansion House were communal projects, led by this group of amateur enthusiasts.
When the “New” Mansion House was constructed in 1862, the Community’s newsletter, The Circular, reported on March 13th that a "plan for laying out and planting the grounds about our house, was presented and explained.” Alfred Barron later presented a lecture to the whole Community on the history and art of Landscape Gardening, to help contextualize the design concepts in the plan.
This plan was inspired by the work and writings of renown Victorian architect Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing believed that architecture and landscape gardening were an art. His design philosophy was that country residences should fit into the surrounding landscape and blend with their natural habitat (though his “habitats” were usually highly engineered to conform to specific ideals). He published books and journals which aimed to educate (and influence) his readers on refined tastes regarding architecture, landscape design, and even various moral issues.
Following this philosophy, the grounds around the Mansion House were laid out with hedges and formal gardens, small stands of trees and shaded walking paths, an avenue of elms, and a decorative summer house. This design drew specific inspiration from Downing’s iconic works A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America (1841) and Fruits and Fruit Trees of America (1845), books which can still be found in the Community’s Library at the Mansion House (see Hamilton’s College’s Annotated Catalogue of the Library of the Oneida Community).
Engraving of the Villa of Theodore Lyman, Esq. near Boston from Andrew Jackson Downing’s “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America” (p. 90). The setting and design of this Italianate villa, with its winding drive above a gently sloping lawn dotted with stands of trees, show a clear inspiration for the aesthetic design of the Mansion House building and grounds.
Over the past century and a half the grounds have matured. A Black Walnut and Tulip Tree, planted by Henry Thacker and others in 1850-1851, have become state champions - the largest known specimens of their species in New York.
The grounds have flourished too, thanks to the diligent care of generations. For over 150 years, the geometric beds of the Victorian Knot Garden have been a riot of color and fragrant blooms in summer. And the shaded walking paths and trails offer a tranquil retreat in idyllic surroundings.
The walking paths and Knot Garden (shown left and below) are still laid out as originally designed. Who knows if the Community members had any idea, when they planted this black walnut (above) back in 1850, that it would grow to be well over 100 feet tall and a state champion! (Photo credit: Jim Demarest)
Other original features have had to adapt to survive. The “Rustic Summer House” was designed and built in 1864, by Charles Ellis. Rustic arbors with thatched roofs were a popular feature in Downing’s works and Ellis translated these designs with impeccable skill and style.
This photograph from 1865 shows John Humphrey Noyes (seated, center) surrounded by female members of the Oneida Community in front of the newly completed Rustic Summer House.
An expert formal gardener and carpenter, Ellis was familiar with thatching from his childhood years in Kent. Unfortunately, thatched roofs require regular upkeep and by the early 1900s it had fallen into an advanced state of disrepair. Eventually, the thatched roof was replaced with durable tiles, which still retain the rustic charm and character of the original.
Sketch of a “rustic arbour” built around a tree from Andrew Jackson Downing’s “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America” (p. 426).
Early-1900s photo showing extensive deterioration of the thatched roof.
Contemporary photograph (2020) of the Summer House with its clay tile roof. Photo Credit: Jim Demarest.
Picturesque Sunset Lake, the Larches and nearby Oneida Creek are good locations for birding. Birds observed throughout the area include great blue heron, cedar waxwing, belted kingfisher, Baltimore oriole, chimney swifts, great white egret, bobolinks, rose crested grosbeaks, spotted sandpiper, and a variety of woodpeckers, hawks, bald eagles and migratory songbirds. Turkey vultures nest in the Silver Maple on the south lawn every spring.
Our site is a National Historic Landmark and protected according to the National Historic Preservation Act and other statutes. Disturbing the buildings or grounds is prohibited - including digging and sub-surface detecting (e.g. metal detecting) - and violators will be prosecuted.
Should you visit the grounds with your pet animal, please keep it leashed and collect any leavings. Pets must not interfere with other visitors or harass wildlife. Pets are not allowed in the buildings.