A visit to a garden is the opposite of staying home. While we’re spending hours each day hunched over a computer and cooped up under artificial light, we often can forget the importance of getting outside. Gardens bring a green zen to counter our everyday stress, where a touch of sun on the shoulder can replenish vitamin D, the sight of blue skies can ground you to what’s important, and green leaves can carry our minds back to the present. We need gardens and green spaces more than ever, and lucky for us, the oncoming autumn weather is the perfect time for a long, aimless stroll through a beautiful space.
We know just the place to give your mind a rest. Just 25 minutes outside of Montclair, through the winding hedges of Old Short Hills Road, is a small sign that reads: Greenwood Gardens. Between trips to the Short Hills Mall, South Mountain Reservation, or the Turtle Back Zoo, there might not be a reason to stop along the way. But this garden is worthy of a visit, and it has nothing to do with shopping bags or wild beasts.
Welcome to Greenwood Gardens, a 28-acre garden steeped in history, family, and horticulture. From the Summerhouse to the croquet lawn, you can feel how this property was loved and used by the families that lived here, creating a magical playground of spaces that would have shaped childhood imaginations, been the setting for friendly gatherings, outdoor performances, and countless happy memories. The gardens are grand, but the property still feels intimate, well-loved, and positively enchanting. It is open to the public for all to enjoy.
History of the Gardens
Behind Greenwood Gardens is the story of two different American families. The first was Joseph P. Day, a self-made millionaire who was the most successful real estate auctioneer in the early days of the 20th Century. Like many other locals, he sought out this region of New Jersey for a retreat from the pace and heat of New York City. It was meant to be a private pleasure garden where the family could relax and take in the beauty of nature.
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So when the original wood-framed home on the property burned down in 1911, Day commissioned the building of a large 28-room Italianate villa, along with a corresponding formal garden with pergolas for hanging flowers, terraces for unobstructed views, a Summerhouse hideaway, and a Teahouse for dining with views of the Garden. He named this heaven on earth “Pleasant Days.”
Day hired architect William Whetten Renwick to lay out the home and gardens. The designer used strict lines and axes to cut the outdoor space into rooms with vistas, walls, and pavilions. He then used various local stones, including artisan-designed Rookwood tiles made by a woman-owned pottery company in New York. These beautiful colored pieces can be found throughout the property, adding personality and whimsy to what would otherwise be simple structures. With lush annuals and perennials, the home and gardens made a wonderful retreat.
When the roaring twenties came to an abrupt halt during the Great Depression, the once 100-person-staffed-estate became difficult to maintain. In 1949, after a few years of absent ownership, Peter Blanchard Jr., a NY businessman and IBM lawyer purchased the property. The original mansion was in disrepair, and the family erected a modest country house in its place. Built in 1950, the Georgian Revival-style house was home to Peter and his wife, Adelaide Childs Frick Blanchard (yes, of those famous New York Fricks), a pediatrician at a New York hospital. The new owners added an evergreen formality to the Garden and raised their happy family of three here until Adelaide’s unexpected death in 1956.
Mr. Blanchard spent his years at this property improving the landscape, planting and creating. It was his dream to share the gardens with people for years to come. In 2000, when Peter P. Blanchard Jr. passed, his son, Peter P. Blanchard III, and his wife Sofia turned the gardens into a nonprofit conservation organization, as their patriarch wished. Guided by the Garden Conservancy, based in Cold Spring, NY, Greenwood Gardens is one of only 16 exceptional gardens endorsed by the Garden Conservancy.
Visiting the Gardens Today
Quiet. That’s the first thing you think of while sitting on a wooden bench overlooking the dolphin pond. How is this place so quiet? It is, quite simply, a retreat. Despite being situated in the middle of a busy suburb near a giant mall, Greenwood Gardens feels otherworldly. It is a step back in time and away from the passing of it. Your heartbeat slows, your breathing calms, and a stillness overwhelms your fidgeting hands. Here is a place where you can simply be, where you can look at what’s around you. Notice the height and variety of the trees. Listen to the call of the geese as they’re herded around the ponds. Feel the stones beneath your feet yield to a grassy lawn. And allow the setting to take you away.
Greenwood Gardens is broken up into several different green spaces. First, there is the main house area. It is not the original structure built by Day, it is a quaint brick country house that is modest and functional. The lawn was used constantly for entertaining, and in the Day’s era, it was filled with planters, cherry trees, and more wisteria-covered pergolas.
While the Cascade, grottos, Teahouse, and Summerhouse are original, it has taken more than a decade to restore vitality to the historic grounds. Work continues each year to restore and manage the gardens so that the public can enjoy its splendor for many years to come. In the home’s heyday, the reflecting pool was the site of elegant parties.
The layout of the grottos and hedges created quiet nooks for guests to converse and abundant greenery to enjoy. There are three lead dolphins in the fountain, which were formerly at Clayton, Mrs. Blanchard’s childhood home in Long Island. Further down the central axis of the property is the romantic Garden called The Garden of the Gods. The pool once featured a series of painted busts of Roman deities, from which the name was derived.
In 2020, a renovation moved the bronze sculpture Boy With Waterfowl by Emilio Angela to the center of the Garden of the Gods’ pool.
As you wander further into the Garden, you come upon the Summerhouse, an octahedral stone pavilion surrounded by four-horse chestnut trees, each over 100 years old. Beyond this is an Italian Renaissance-inspired pathway lined with low moss-covered walls and statues. Throughout the Garden, oversized chess pieces soften the straight lines of the surrounding landscape and walls, adding playfulness and interest. Peter Blanchard purchased more than 100 pieces of garden sculpture in his lifetime, including the limestone knights, pawns, queens, and kings that line this walkway from the Summerhouse to the Cascade. Other sculptures punctuate pathways, draw your eyes to the trees, and welcome you to different garden areas.
But far and away, the most interesting structure in the Garden is the two-storied Teahouse. The stone tower looks like something out of a fairytale, crowned in sculpted copper trim and tiled with various Rookwood seashells. The arts and craft style building has a sink and fireplace on the first level, presumably for garden tea making, and visitors can view different parts of the property from the upper floor. It is a unique and adorable building that inspires childhood fantasies and must have been the site of many memorable luncheons.
Further into the Garden is an allée of London plane trees which echo the designs of St. James Park in London and the Palace of Versailles in France. Make sure to view this wild area, along with the two ponds added by the Blanchards. Nearby is the small farm inhabited by turkeys, chickens, and roosters, whose calls you might hear throughout the gardens.
One area still awaiting renovations is a closed-off area of the Cascade, a once-flowing fountain that ended in an oval swimming pool. You can appreciate the Cascade from the base, looking up at the half-moon terraced ponds decorated with Rookwood pieces and dream of it back in its glory days.
With our deep immersion in technology, we need gardens and green spaces more than ever. A visit to a garden is the opposite of staying home, brings green zen to our everyday stress, and is the best way to decompress during this new normal.
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The mission of Greenwood Gardens is to connect people with nature when they visit. The team envisions a world that embraces the beauty and transformative power of nature, combined with celebrating the history of the gardens. This mission is definitively achieved, and you are just one visit away from experiencing it.
Greenwood Gardens is open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10AM to 5PM. Adult tickets are $15, and discounted tickets are offered to members, seniors, and children. Reservations are required and advance timed tickets are sold online on the website.
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