Putting out a floral welcome mat, the Trustees are opening 10 historic homes across Massachusetts on Saturday, May 19, for free tours of landmark gardens and grounds where writers, artists and the movers and shakers of their day once sought inspiration and serenity.
Throughout the fifth annual “Home Sweet Home Open House Day,” visitors can ramble through sites in Concord and Harvard where Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott nurtured the seeds of classic novels or grand estates in Ipswich and Stockbridge where titans of the Gilded Age relaxed in manicured splendor.
Or they can take the opportunity to visit lovely but lesser-known sites like the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton or Stevens-Coolidge Place in North Andover and discover hidden treasures in their own backyards,
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Trustees, a nonprofit that manages 116 properties across the Bay State, will offer self-guided tours, family activities, gardening workshops and more at the sites, a few of which are not regularly open to the public.
Trustees president and CEO Barbara Erickson said “Art of the Garden” gives the public “an opportunity to celebrate gardens and the gardening season … at some of the most aesthetically rich and horticulturally diverse gardens and designed landscapes at our premier cultural sites.”
While each site offers different features, Cindy Brockway, Trustees’ director of cultural resources, stressed all provide revealing windows into distinct moments of Massachusetts history.
At Fruitlands Museum, visitors can walk the 210-acre grounds where educator Bronson Alcott founded a short-lived Utopian commune based on transcendental ideals then blossoming in Concord.
Brockway said Alcott and 11 followers attempted in 1843 to “live off only the natural produce of the fields like living in the Garden of Eden,” seeking to personally communicate with the divine powers, without clerical intermediaries, in an idealistic though impractical effort that lasted only seven months because they could not raise enough food to survive the winter.
Fruitlands offers encounters with diverse aspects of New England history through three museums specializing in Native American culture, 19th century regional art and Shaker life and crafts.
Brockway urged visitors to the Alcott farm house not to miss the “evocative” family artifacts, rooms and attic where the 10-year-old author-to-be Louisa May Alcott lived, growing into the precocious child who would later write “Transcendental Wild Oats” about the failed commune and her beloved novel, “Little Women.”
At the historic Old Manse visitors can walk through a vegetable garden originally planted by Henry David Thoreau as a wedding gift to Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne who were renting the now National Historic Landmark, built in 1770 by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather.
Brockway described the house as a focal point of American political and literary history, just a short walk from the Old North Bridge spanning the Concord River where Minutemen fired the “shot heard ’round the world” and later the home and gathering place for several of New England’s greatest authors.
It is a site of remarkable literary confluences where Emerson wrote the first draft of his seminal essay “Nature,” Hawthorne wrote 20 sketches and tales and Thoreau was preparing to set out for Walden Pond.
“The Old Manse is really the heartbeat of the Transcendental movement because, for the writers that lived there, it became a sort of muse for thinking about the relationship between the landscape and nature,” she said.
The Italian Renaissance garden and Georgian mansion of the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate in Canton provides visitors with stunning views of the turn-of-the-century elegance enjoyed by the leisured class.
Visitors to the 90-acre site can explore three miles of walking trails through meadows and woods on paths lined by wildflowers that lead to a formal garden of symmetrical plant beds and the estate’s centerpiece, a latticed wall garden with classical-era sculptures.
Brockway said the landscaped grounds and gardens, designed in the early 1900s by prolific architect Charles Platt, reflect the notion of “landscape as theater” and a “stage for memories, reflection and inspiration.”
Though less known than sites famous for their historical and literary ambience, the Bradley Estate transports visitors to a more genteel era of lawn parties and gracious living.
Where else can visitors buy vegetables at a working farm and then relax, watching sheep and lamas grazing in a nearby field.
A guided tour of the house will be given at 2 p.m. and staffers will lead woodland walks during the day.
Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich offers natural splendor and architectural grandeur at a windswept site that has passed over the centuries from Native Americans to gentlemen farmers and on to prosperous industrialists.
Visitors can tour the ornate 59-room mansion, walk the scenic Grand Allee, a half-mile, 100-foot wide stretch of turf bordered by two lines of trees that leads to a cliff overlooking Crane’s Beach, or visit nearby wildlife refuges.
“This is just a remarkable site with the restored rose garden, English manor house in an Italianate landscape and huge, iconic vistas,” said Brockway.
A modest 18th century farm transformed over time into an elegant agricultural estate, Stevens-Coolidge Place in North Andover provides visitors with a gorgeous example of an estate designed in what came to be known as the “Country Place” style.
They can view the tasteful Colonial Revival home with a dramatic staircase and ballroom furnished with furniture and art from the owners’ world travels. Or they can visit a walled rose garden, greenhouse, French kitchen garden with a brick serpentine wall and more, including an orchard and nearby woodlands.
Further west, other Trustees sites will also participate in “Art of the Garden,” including Naumkeag and the Mission House in Stockbridge, the Ashley House in Sheffield, the Folly at Field Farm in Williamstown and the William Cullen Bryant homestead in Cummington.