Press-Republican

August 1, 2010

Yaddo and Congress Park gardens well worth a visit

By RICHARD FROST, A Day Away
Press-Republican

---- — As August arrives, Saratoga Springs prepares for a tripling of its population in anticipation of another racing season.

Once threatened with cancelation, the thoroughbred meet at Saratoga has become the crown jewel of New York horse racing. Add the concert schedule at Saratoga Performing Arts Center with its offerings of ballet, classical music and rock concerts, and this becomes a wonderful, if sometimes frenetic, place to spend time.

Less well appreciated are some of Saratoga's places for quiet respite and reflection. Our favorite is the garden at Yaddo.

New York City financier Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina, purchased this estate as a summer home in 1881. The site had previously been occupied by a farm, a gristmill and a tavern. After the original farmhouse burned, the Trasks had the current mansion constructed in 1893. Spencer added the adjacent gardens in 1899 as a gift to Katrina, intended to be "a garden inclosed (sic), a garden of delight, a garden of romance."

WEEKEND TOURS

All four Trask children died early in life. (One had conjured the name "Yaddo" for the home and grounds.) The couple decided to leave their property as a nonprofit corporation that would house artists in need of a quiet place for writing, painting and other creative endeavors. John Cheever, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Bernstein, Flannery O'Connor and Truman Capote are merely a handful of the talented individuals who have enjoyed the benefits of this foresighted arrangement.

Privacy for visiting artists has been strictly maintained. However, the gardens have long been open to the public. Volunteers belonging to the Yaddo Garden Association help maintain the gardens. They also provide guided weekend tours during the summer.

Yaddo stands just across from the egress of Exit 14 on the Northway. A narrow dirt road leads to the small parking area. Visitors pass a large fountain then borders of ferns and hostas before reaching the garden gate.

Upon entering, one comes upon the formal Rose Garden. Conceived in traditional Italian style, this features four geometric quadrants set around a central pool and fountain. A border of privet sets off each quadrant.

One need not be a horticulturist to appreciate the splashes of color offered up by the innumerable blooms. Standard roses, hybrid tea roses, floribundas and polyanthas offer up a spectacular mix of pink, yellow, white, orange and deep red blooms.

Along one border of the Rose Garden stand four marble statues, each representing one of the seasons. Just beyond, in a grove of pines, there's the statue of Christalon, a figure with its hand stretched upward. Carved by William Ordway Partridge and dedicated in 1900, this was erected in memory of the four Trask children — Alan, Christina, Spencer Jr. and Katrina.

Marble steps lead the way up to a balcony, terraces and a 180-foot-long columned pergola. More rose bushes climb up the edges of the pergola. This serves as a wonderful viewing platform over the classical gardens below.

The pergola also functions as a boundary between the meticulously patterned rose garden and the more naturalistic rock garden that forms the other section. Here one appreciates the "free, poetic, idyllic" concept of a less-embellished landscape.

Two rock-lined ponds, at different levels, form the nucleus of the design. Unfortunately, these ponds were dry at the time of our visit. However, this didn't detract from our appreciation of such perennials as ligularia, monarda with its red blooms, columbine and delicate blue-violet balloon flowers.

Luxuriant fern growth and a proliferation of rhododendron provide appealing contrast to the flowers. Tall pines and a smattering of cedar border the garden and provide shade.

From the back entrance of the Rock Garden, one can glimpse the stone mansion that houses artists-in-residence. Visitors are expected to respect their privacy.

CONGRESS PARK

Few upstate New York villages invite hours of strolling as much as Saratoga Springs does. Many neighborhoods boast beautiful architecture. South Broadway offers an especially lovely residential area, enhanced by the presence of many private gardens.

During any visit, however, one should stop at Congress Park, a 32-acre enclave just at the edge of downtown. Several of the area's vaunted springs are here, and a bottling plant once stood alongside. The handsome brick building housed a casino during Saratoga's 19th-century heyday.

Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New York's Central Park and the grounds of Shelburne Farm, added design features during the 1870s. A woodland effect was thereby created, with ever-changing views for the stroller. More than 40 types of trees grace the grounds.

Amazingly, the park fell into disarray during the mid-20th century. Upgrading and restoration, beginning in 1976, has returned the area to an oasis for both natives and visitors. The casino has been transformed into a historical museum. There's an operating carousel that attracts children and adults alike.

Outdoor sculpture includes "The Spirit of Life," commissioned by Katrina Trask and created by Daniel Chester French, who also created the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Pavilions have been rebuilt over Columbian and Congress Springs, while Deer Park Spring retains its distinctive 1880 fountain.

One special place within the park is the Italian Garden. Originally designed for Richard Canfield when he owned the adjacent casino, these have been returned to their former beauty. One section features five circular flower beds enclosed within iron fencing. Statues stand at the center of four, a sundial at the other.

Circular and oval plots of bright blooms decorate the other section, which also includes ornamental evergreens and a long reflecting pool. Within the pool are the statues "Spit and Spat," each emitting an arc of water from his mouth.

Both the gardens at Yaddo and Congress Park beckon for lingering. Bring a picnic and perhaps a book to read or a pad for sketching. Time spent at either location will be a treat.

E-mail Richard Frost at: rbforiole@aol.com