Frelinghuysen Arboretum – NJ

On same day I visited Willowwood Arboretum, I also stopped at nearby Frelinghuysen Arboretum to tour the grounds and study the Colonial Revival home and gardens. This property is the headquarters of the Morris County Parks Commission. Like many arboretums, the property began as a working farm and over the years amassed a horticulture excellence that begged to be preserved by a higher authority other than the family. In this case, the arboretum was dedicated as an arboretum to the public in 1971. Whippany Farm itself was established by George Griswold Frelinghuysen (1851-1936), and his wife Sara Ballantine of the Ballantine Brewing Company family.

Okay, so another farm-turned-arboretum that’s now a valuable asset to the community for open space, events, and education. I think context and site history is very important in understanding how we’re supposed to experience these spaces and find meaning, so I pulled up to the site hoping for answers and a wonderful story. Earlier that day, I had toured Willowwood and found many similarities between the site’s Tubb brothers with that of the Painter brothers from Tyler Arboretum in Media, PA. It was a fun connection to make, and I hope this site also offered some sort of magic.

Here are my most salient “20 minute” thoughts, insights, and observations:

  1. The approach. After spending a few years in the UK taking advantage of a National Trust membership, I came to appreciate the European model of how owners of means sought to transform their property to a private oasis through the creation of a large buffer and ominous approach from the main road to the home, or estate grounds. The park-style estates like Clandon and Hatchlands come to mind, but the most similar would be Bateman, the country home of Rudyard Kipling, which was also part of a farm at one time. I remember the approach consisting of a nice, long country lane style driveway leading right to the main home, with fields on either side of the drive offering a stark contrast between the impending formality of the house and surrounding formal grounds. The slight difference with Frelinghuysen is that the driveway is a not a straight shot, and is not directly on axis with the home, but has a slight bending approach. What a nice way to admire the property from a several angles and take advantage of surrounding views which might better help frame first impressions. Above all, its a lovely approach to the house with a large pastoral lawn in the front of the property anchored by mature trees in the foreground which slightly obstructs the incoming visitor’s view of the home and further delays the revealing of the building in totally until at the terminus of the drive 10 feet in front of the Colonial Revival building.
  2. Great opportunity to learn about Colonial Revival style and gardens. From the parking lot to the gardens all visitors first pass by the 1891 home design by Rotch and Tilden of Boston, and it offers sufficient interpretation display for explaining the Colonial Revival home and gardens. Sara B planted roses as part of this historic plan, and the rose beds were laid out between the spokes of a Chippendale style brick wall set in a basket weave pattern. I’ve done consulting, research, and applied restoration for historic gardens in the past and the formal grounds and historical context reminds me of a planting plan restoration I did over 10 years ago for Federal style home and garden in Paris Hill, Maine.
  3. The healthy ecology of the woodland. I walked the woodland path loop behind the home in the lower elevation of the property and enjoyed not seeing many of the invasives and plants associated by disturbances that i routinely see in greater Philadelphia. I loved the huge stand of leucothoe on a mesic understory as well as the Basswood [Tilia] and dicentra-family woodland flower patch.
  4. Great fern garden. If you’re interested in ferns, there’s a great garden here to see many species in one place for quick compare and contrast.
  5. ADA accessibility. As a public property run by the county I think those in wheelchairs can have a comparable experience to those on foot. All the main paths were paved, however the woodland paths were packed earth. However, I was most impressed with the Braille garden, which provides associated signage explaining the plants and sensory elements of a space that is specifically designed for blind people. It features textural plants and materials that can be touched and other elements that are successful for teaching.
  6. Memory labyrinth. I’ll be frank here and confess that I do not really like labyrinths. I think they are seldomly used for their intended purpose by the public and also take up a ton of space. However, they can be visually attractive and are very successful at filling large voids of spaces that are framed  by vertical elements such as hedges of forest edges. Greys Court in England has a successful example of filling a void, and the labyrinth at the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University offers great educational signage for the purpose of such spaces. The great twist i liked at this example specifically is the community ownership element where visitors are free to write the names of loved ones on the rocks to help make the visit for personal, reflective and commemorative for them. It was powerful to see these names and see a labyrinth being recreated as a crowdsourced memorial.

Also check out the alpine gardens, visitor center, cafe, and community garden. The community has a done a great job in making this property a valuable asset!

Check out my site photos here


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