A DIFFERENT VISION FOR THE WORLD by Tia Swanson
Updated: Aug 12, 2022
The founder of Greenwood Gardens reflects on – and lives – the maxim that less is more
A new billboard for the Turtle Back Zoo has gone up at the corner of South Orange Avenue and Cherry Lane. Alongside a giant picture of a giraffe (and a smaller photo of Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who has devoted much of his long tenure at the top of county politics to enlarging the zoo and developing the western edge of the Reservation) is a promise: The World In Your Backyard.
Forsake the zoo for another edge of the reservation, however, and a whole different world presents itself; it is – at first glance anyway – less showy, although it is in many ways no less exotic to our modern sensibilities: it is Greenwood Gardens, a generous gift to the public from the man who once called it home, Peter Blanchard III.
As Blanchard put it in his book Greenwood: A Garden Path to Nature and the Past the place offers a walk out our doors and into our past, our collective past. The sprawling 28-acre estate in Short Hills harkens back to a time when Western Essex County was not a series of densely built suburban towns but a mix of farms, small towns, forests and summer houses for the wealthy of Newark and New York.
Blanchard’s own childhood there in the ’50s and ’60s was already anachronistic. His father kept sheep and horses on a vast field that had once been a private golf course and is now Old Short Hills Park. The family had as many as 22 dogs at once, housed in their own kennel. Blanchard’s job was to periodically close off the gate that opened onto Old Short Hills Road so his dad could let the dogs out for a run around the place.
The Blanchard home was surrounded by the spectacular, fantastical gardens that had been created in the decades before the Depression by New York real estate developer Joseph P. Day and uncovered and in some ways reimagined by the Blanchards. Since it formally opened to the public in 2013, Greenwood has drawn thousands of visitors from across the country.
But for the young Blanchard, an only child whose mother died when he was 5, all of that was, and perhaps still is, secondary to the world just beyond his door: the 2100-acre South Mountain Reservation that abuts the property.
“My greatest joy was the woods,” he said in an interview, recalling long days when he would “disappear down the...trails with two or more Labradors.”
It was a solitary life, but not a lonely one, as Blanchard remembers it. “Immersion in the natural world meant that there was rarely room for a dull or even a lonely moment in the day.”
When walking the old bridle paths and narrow trails that had seen so much history within them, he writes, “I could readily imagine myself in some earlier time. …A bend in a pathway might bring me face to face with a Lenape scouting party or with a platoon of Hessians attempting to flank colonial militia occupying Short Hills.”
Even today, one of his favorite places in the garden is a spot in the parking lot from which it’s possible to see a copse of old growth trees in the reservation. Looking there, he says, “you could be back in the 14- and 1500s.”
It is no wonder that after studying biology and art history at Princeton, he got a degree in forestry from Yale.
An appreciation for that lost natural world wasn’t all that was nurtured in those walks. His interest in observation and exploration led him to drawing and painting, a passion that continues to occupy him. Many of his oil paintings hang in the house at Greenwood Gardens.
He also leads journaling classes at the garden, which he describes as lessons in “immersive observation.” A journal is something like a diary but instead of looking inward, the subject looks out, exploring and carefully observing the natural world. In a video on the Garden’s website, Blanchard spends a spring morning in May sketching a small cherry seedling. The process is both a lesson in interacting with our world and in reflecting on it. Although it has most often involved drawing, he is expanding it to writing. And he encourages participants to incorporate what is happening in the wider world as well, so that the journal describes a moment in time, a day in a life.
“I feel so strongly about it that I think it should be required in college,” he says. Colleges ask students to take any manner of courses to graduate. But, he adds, “You’re never encouraged to be quiet.” Or reflective.
Blanchard’s desire for a simpler, more considered, less hurried existence is not the only way he seems out of step with our busy, technologically obsessed world. There is also the question of this gift of the garden, of giving away something of such incredible value to a public he doesn’t even know.
Blanchard’s mother, Adelaide, was the granddaughter of Henry Clay Frick, the turn-of-the-century industrialist whose mansion in Manhattan became a museum displaying the family’s collection of European masters. Blanchard is on its board. His mother’s father, Childs Frick, was a paleontologist, and an early and important patron of the Natural History Museum. At his death all his fossils were donated to the museum, and his longtime home on Long Island is also now a county park. So there is a long history of public donations.
Blanchard says, however, that it was his father, Peter Blanchard Jr., who wanted the land preserved forever. During his lifetime, the elder Blanchard donated the large field where the horses and sheep had grazed to Millburn, a gift that was opposed by some. “Actual friends of ours were really incensed,” Blanchard recalls, “asking ‘Who the heck are the Blanchards to take land off the tax rolls.’”
The pressure to develop the property was relentless. In his book Blanchard recalls an afternoon when a Saudi prince landed his helicopter on the lawn. The Saudi prince was also rebuffed.
But if it was the elder Blanchard – who died in 2000 – who stipulated that he wanted the land to be left undeveloped, it was his son, long involved in public preservation efforts, and his wife, Sofia, who made it happen, first by offering it to public entities and then, when they refused because of the inability to absorb the great cost of maintaining the garden, by establishing the Garden as a nonprofit and working to raise money to keep it going. It has been a years-long effort. Although the Garden officially became a nonprofit in 2003, it took a decade to accomplish the work necessary to make the space safe for the general public. Fundraising and work continue.
And Peter Blanchard, who once had this vast estate mostly to himself, now shares it with dozens or hundreds at any given time. His childhood home has become the Garden’s headquarters and his old bedroom is its board room, a fact, he admits, that fills him with a bit of nostalgia every time he enters. He tries to visit from his home in New York City two or three times a week. There’s an old room in the 1929 Carriage House where he sometimes bunks.
He admits to some sentimentality about the place, but sees his gift in historical context – as a small continuation of the great gift North Jersey’s ancestors gave to their citizens when they created the Reservation. Because of that gift of property, and of the Watchung Reservation beyond, the view from the summit at Greenwood Gardens is spectacular. Despite his great love of the forest, Blanchard contends that there is nothing finer than standing on the veranda outside the house, at the very top of the mountain, “and having a 360-degree view without any development.”
That, he would say, is worth more than anything money can buy.
Greenwood Gardens is located at 274 Short Hills Road in Short Hills. It will reopen to the public on May 1.
Tia Swanson grew up next door to the Allegheny National Forest, and understands the pull of the natural world, and the beauty of a simpler, quieter existence.