New Jersey is known for its diversity of cultures and landscapes from the mountains to the sea. Writer Caroline Seebohm and photographer Peter Cook, both New Jersey residents, set out to discover its gardens and architecture, designed and created by its diverse residents, and built from the land itself.
They traveled from Cape May to Sussex County, edging their way into private gardens and houses that are usually hidden from the public eye. The result of their two-year trek across "The Great Garden State" is their new book, "Great Houses and Gardens of New Jersey," a sleek practical book of ideas and dreams.
Seebohm and Cook will introduce and sign copies of "Great Houses and Gardens of New Jersey," just out from Rutgers University Press, at the Princeton University Store on Wednesday, November 12, at 7 p.m.
The book opens to a frontispiece of exuberant flowers in a garden enjoyed. The lilies, foxgloves, and delphinium flash color against a Colonial white picket fence. The garden is obviously loved, as are all the thriving gardens and well-kept houses represented here.
The author’s preface is an ode to New Jersey that should be mandatory reading for every resident. It’s a quick, rich history of this old state and its citizenry; it tells why and how these grand homes and perfect gardens came into existence.
Caroline Seebohm, a former staffer at House & Garden magazine, is a widely published freelance writer. Her many books on architecture, gardens, and design include "Boca Rococo: How Addison Mizner Invented Florida’s Gold Coast," "Under Live Oaks: The Last Great Houses of the Old South," "Private Landscapes: Creating Form, Vistas, and Mystery in the Garden," and "English Country: Living in England’s Private Houses."
When Rutgers University Press approached her with the concept for this latest book, she says her only concern was whether the right gardens and homes existed.
"Initially I was sort of doubtful because I wasn’t sure what there was in New Jersey," she said in an interview from her home in Titusville. "I’ve only done very high quality publishing and I was anxious that a university press might not be able to produce the kind of book I’d like to create. But then I thought `This would be a fun project’ — so I said yes, and I was right."
The book profiles 10 gardens and 15 houses. To be included in the book, a house had to be "inimitably of its time and place in this most culturally diverse of states," says Seebohm. And the gardens had to be privately owned and not open to the public.
"There were a few gardens I knew already and knew were wonderful," says the author. "The rest was by word of mouth."
"I can’t tell you how exciting it was to find these places," she says, noting the added challenge of finding private gardens of a standard suitable for a lavish picture book. "The choice of private gardens just came up because that’s exciting to the reader. There’s a kind of voyeuristic quality or appeal," she adds.
This "Show and Tell" book depicts gardens on 40 country acres, mansions along the shoreline, palaces and plantations, old mills and cabins on rivers, gardens on mountainsides and farms, in woods and on suburban streets, and some gardens so sweet they could be timeless visions of Paradise.
Each mini-chapter is devoted to either a house or a garden, with the story told in pictures and words. Seebohm weaves each area’s history throughout the book. She even tells of a 1766 real estate ad, published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, promoting Cape May as a "Resort for Health and Bathing in the Water."
Seebohm and Cook wanted to make sure they covered it all, from pre-Revolution cottages to homes designed by the great architects of the 20th and 21st centuries. The book provides a representative selection of most styles of homes found across the country.
Seebohm says the most modest house represented is the Abraham Van Campen House near the Delaware River Water Gap. "It looks like a little Cornish cottage in England," says the author. A native of that country, she has also written on and featured English homes and gardens. "There’s a very exciting house in Loveladies. It’s kind of an eccentric box in the middle of a conventional street of Cape Cod houses on the beach. It’s fun and strange and interesting."
The houses come in every style — Palladian, Arts and Crafts, country manor, and stark contemporary — all are unusual. "My personal favorite is Blairsden," says photographer Peter Cook. A specialist in architectural photography, Cook studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and has been working professionally for more than 20 years.
"Blairsden has old world architecture," he continues. "It’s European in flavor with terracing of gardens, a reflecting pool, fountains, and sculpture." This lavish home situated in the Somerset hills has rose-colored brick with 33-inch thick walls, 25 fireplaces, and a billiard room with walls covered in Moroccan leather. Blair was known as the "Railroad King of the West" and Blairstown was named after him.
Another of Cook’s favorites is Michael Graves design, a home built around a restored barn just outside Titusville. It’s a barn converted like no other. Dormers top the two silos with a flattish-roofed house placed in the middle. All are painted white and, judging from the photograph, the house looks ready for lift-off.
Cook found shooting one house in Salem to be particularly interesting. Most houses were photographed when the gardens were in bloom, but this house, with its vitrified (burnt) brick pattern, was shot with snow on the ground.
"This was an interesting piece of architecture with the dates and geometric design worked into brick work," says Cook. "The time of year lent itself because of the austerity and nature of the house, and the type of architecture." Vitrifying hearkens back to medieval England but became popular in South Jersey in the 18th century.
Cook enjoyed shooting the gardens from a New Jersey travel point of view. "The great thing about photography is that it takes you to places you ordinarily would not have access to. I discovered aspects of New Jersey I never thought existed," he says. "And it’s a challenge. Each garden has its own set of problems that had to be dealt with on top of getting the composition right and the right camera positions so the subject begins to talk back."
A small garden at an 18th century home in Hunterdon County is described as the "ultimate expression of the landscape designer’s art." The 75-foot-square garden is carved into eight rectangles filled with vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Lavender and boxwood edge each plot and a fence of espaliered apples divides it. All is surrounded by a white picket fence. "It’s a magical little space and blooms twice a year," says Seebohm.
"One of my favorite gardens is in Bergen County. Mrs. Frick has made a garden with the most incredible trellis of roses that are so beautiful you want to faint," says Seebohm. Indeed, the lush greenery with grandiose spreads of pale pink roses, and intense greenery of sculpted formal gardens is stunning. There’s even a woodland garden with a stream.
In Atlantic Highlands at the home of publisher Richard and Elizabeth Scudder, a Monet Bridge crosses a stream in a wild garden with natural old trees the owner has preserved. "It sort of looms out of the forest," says Seebohm. "The trees and azaleas are grown in former swampland. They’re great trees, sweetgum, dogwood. He planted mountain laurel, clethra, highbush blueberries, camellias, and 400 rhododendron."
Seebohm grew up in England. When she first came to America, she wrote about houses and interior design for "House & Garden" magazine in New York. But her love for gardens took hold in 1983 when she was living in Ithaca, New York. "There was this great sense of space and I had the epiphany that said, `Caroline, you’re going to plant a garden.’ I was a journalist and started writing about my gardening life as a novice. Then I grew to learn a lot about gardening." Now Seebohm lives along the Delaware River and admits, "I’m a weekend gardener."
Cook also works in portrait photography. Just as Cook’s photos speak to the reader, Seebohm’s words resonate with humor about the juxtaposition of New Jersey’s congested macadam versus the natural landscape, and with a sensitivity and knowledge about the gardens and houses we build.
Don’t let the pretty pictures fool you. This is a book to look at and learn from. Here the art of seeing, interpreting, designing, and doing are all presented in full color. Voyeurism goes way back. Some gardeners brought back ideas from their European travels to use here — parterres and old-fashioned roses on trellises. Seebohm also describes the homeowners, their professionals and obsessions, their ideas and paths to living in their own personal paradises. This book contains doable, durable garden ideas using plants that can survive New Jersey’s effervescent climate.
Every New Jersey homeowner who likes to garden or wants to learn will want to own this book. But for the armchair gardener, you can also open up "Great Houses and Gardens of New Jersey" and make its private world your own.
Caroline Seebohm & Peter Cook, Princeton U-Store, 36 University Place, 609-921-8500. Wednesday, November 12, at 7 p.m.