Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Babe Paley's Secret Garden

I know little- very little- about gardens and gardening, and perhaps one of these days I'll remedy this situation. However, I suppose that I know enough to be familiar with Russell Page, the esteemed British garden designer. And, of course, the whole world knows who Babe Paley was. So, whether you're a garden aficionado or a novice like me, you might be interested in these photos, which depict the Russell Page-designed garden of Babe and William S. Paley.

Located at their Long Island estate, Kiluna Farm, the garden was designed mostly by Page, with additional input provided by Paley's friends, Henry Francis du Pont and Thomas Church. When the Paleys purchased this property, the garden lacked "mystery", according to Babe,  and felt "too constricted and enclosed," especially considering that dense woods hovered beyond its rose beds.  Paley decided that a new garden was in order, one which would cut into the untamed woods and have a proper focal point.  Mrs. Paley also wanted a "secret garden" feel to the space.

Page and Paley first cleared out a dell that would serve as the garden's focal point, and then planted it with a so-called "punch bowl", which was essentially an oval pond that was surrounded by grass.  The "outer frame" of the punch bowl was planted with various groundcovers and flowering trees and shrubs. (You can see what all of this means in the photo at top.)  Japanese azaleas were preserved from the old garden and replanted along the sides.  In addition to the azaleas, you'll also see rhododendrons, dogwoods, oak trees, and tulip poplars.

If any of you garden-savvy readers wish to add any pertinent information or comments to this post, please do so.  Even after reading the Architectural Digest article from which these photos came, I'm still a little muddled as to the intricacies of the garden's design. (And I'm still a little confused about the secret garden aspect.  Is it that the garden doesn't fully reveal itself upon first glance???)  I'm just hoping that the photos can and will do the talking!

All photos from Architectural Digest, November/December 1975, Richard Champion photographer.


  1. Jennifer,

    Beautiful post for 9-11 - very soothing and serene-


  2. Hi Jennifer,

    I would think that the secret garden aspect refers to the cleared dale in the woods. Long Island is fairly flat, so woods can be intimidating, as one usually cannot get an idea of how extensive or dense they are as one does from viewing a wooded hillside. To walk along a path overshadowed by trees, even if bordered by azaleas, and then break into a light-filled, cultivated area surrounded by a dense dark wall of mature trees would indeed give the whole garden a "secret" quality, as opposed to a more formal parterre garden near the house itself. Great pix, and very emblematic of the wooded gardens of Long Island's North Shore/Gold Coast. A more formal garden in that area would be Old Westbury Gardens ( a stunning house and gardens, often featured in movies, as in the early part of "North By Northwest" That garden has an (almost unbelievable on now overdeveloped Long Island) immensely long allee of mature trees that shoots straight off just outside the garden gate to the far horizon.

  3. P.S. I spy a stone eagle in one of the pictures. That is most likely one of the great eagles rescued from the facade of the destroyed Pennsylvania Station in NYC. Others were sent to Central Park's zoo, and still others to adorn bridges and other municipal plazas in other cities; a very sad comedown from their once commanding position along the cornice of that majestic building, a faithful copy, inside and out, of the Roman Baths of Caracalla. I suppose the eagles can stand the loss of their former perch, knowing that the building's destruction led to the "landmark" Landmarks Law in NYC, which soon took hold across the nation.

  4. Will be interesting to see other comments on this. The planting reminds me of Savill Gardens, Windsor. Sometimes, though, it's hard to get a feel for a garden from photographs alone. You really need to be there. Personally, I'm not convinced by the punch bowl, which I'm assuming is black, black water and nothing else. I toured a friend's garden the other day, and he was terribly proud of his all-black, reflective, modernistic ponds. The gardener had to pour chemicals into it to keep it completely black and weed free. God, I missed the water-lilies, dragonflies, frogs, toads, spawn and the rest. Or give me a formal pond (as at Hidcote) with lead statue and water-lilies.

    Garden design is fascinating. I'm sure you already know about Hidcote, created by an American in the early 20th century- and probably rated as THE greatest English garden, certainly of the last 20th century. I'm a massive fan- can't get enough of it.

    1. Once upon a time, Luke, maybe, but now -
      and the formal pond resembles the great green greasy Limpopo river...

      By the way the 'chemicals' which black up reflecting pools in UK are what you may often eat: food dyes...

  5. Anonymous9:55 AM

    I've only seen a few pictures of the Kiluna Farms interiors, which looked to be rather over-the-top. Does anyone know anything about the current status of house and gardens?

  6. Sadly Kiluna Farm was destroyed by an arson fire in 1990. I don't know anything more than that....and it is certainly sad as it was such a lovey place (especially after Babe had her way with it).

  7. Such a shame that the house was destroyed by fire. It does make me wonder if the gardens have been left to their own devices.

  8. It would be truly wonderful to see what the plantings look like now. There are pictures of gardens in Italy that are a couple of hundred years old. They give one a whole new reference point of consideration. A gardener at an English estate responded about how to get a lawn as beautiful as the one he was tending, "Weed it, fertilize it, roll, it an cut it and keep doing that for 600 years." Right!

  9. Beautiful post—Thank you for the inspiration. I now need to add some mystery to my garden.
    xo, Lissy

  10. I adore seeing these photos + well done.

  11. Beautiful. "Secret Garden" refers to a book I read as a child. The country British garden had walls around it and was locked because of some secret. Children from London meet in the country because of the Blitz. They seek the secret.

  12. Anonymous4:46 PM

    Per a quick trip to Google Earth, it is clear that the setting is ruined. The oval pool is at the center of a large housing development called Stone Hill, surrounded by six large houses. Also see here: