Eden by the Sea
Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and her husband, Paul, could have chosen any exquisite corner of the globe as the summer holiday retreat for their growing family. They were the original post-war power couple: she, the daughter of the founder of what would become the Warner-Lambert pharmaceutical company; he, the only son of billionaire financier, Andrew Mellon. An invitation to their 4,000-acre horse farm estate in Virginia was coveted by society’s finest who admired Bunny’s splendid gardens, Paul’s breathtaking art collection of the European masters, and the thoroughbred race horses he bred and raised, one of which would later win the Kentucky Derby.
The Mellons chose Cape Cod. Specifically, and to no surprise of any who have reveled in the warm waters off Dead Neck Island in Osterville, they chose a bluff overlooking this picturesque estuary to Nantucket Sound as their summer Eden. Since its completion in the early 1950s, the meandering shorefront property has displayed the trademark, understated elegance of a family that values privacy, simple beauty, and the natural environment. Houses and outbuildings are stained to look rustic and blend with the landscape. Security cameras are housed in weathered birdhouses, and sand has been imported to construct rolling dunes along the bluff.
Those of us who grew up boating by the compound, or picnicking on the nearby island the Mellons graciously preserved as a bird sanctuary, remember seeing President Kennedy’s boat tied up to their rustic pier. We wondered what it must be like to visit the Mellons and view the world from the perspective of their Oyster Harbors estate. Recently, in a rare and generous glimpse offered by the family, Cape Cod HOME had the privilege of finding out.
Although, at age 103, Mrs. Mellon now remains in Virginia, her grandson, Thomas Lloyd, reports she is ever eager to hear news of the property. Last year, she sold 26 acres, including the main house, to billionaire William Koch, but retained the house her children and grandchildren grew up in, along with her favorite artistic headquarters, “Dune House”, with its view to the river, the island, and the sparkling waters of the Sound.
For the loyal Cape Codders who have lovingly labored on her property for decades, Mrs. Mellon is known less as the famous designer of the White House Rose Garden or as style-setter for a generation than as their revered boss who always shared her horticultural expertise and was never afraid to get her hands dirty.
In his autobiography, Reflections In A Silver Spoon, Paul Mellon praised his wife’s down-to-earth sensibilities: “Bunny’s quest for comfort and informality has been nurtured with care; a little natural shabbiness is sometimes purposely overlooked. The result . . . is that the houses feel lived in and loved. More important to me than anything else, they are cheerful.”
That cheer extended to the flower, vegetable, and herb gardens, where the devoted student of horticulture, whose botanical library is world-renowned, set to work bringing color, beauty, and garden-to-table practicality to her Oyster Harbors home. Through the grace of her love affair with this refuge by the sea, the deep roots she planted are still bearing fruit.
Not only do the family’s great-grandchildren return each year to the idyllic shorefront compound, but the peach, apple, and pear trees Mrs. Mellon so lovingly pruned and sculpted still drip with fruit. It is now up to her son, Stacy Lloyd, and his sons, Thomas and Stacy, along with a landscape design team and a handful of loyal third- and fourth-generation workers, to uphold her legacy.
The challenge is substantial: how to bring a property that once required 20-40 gardeners and a limitless bank account into the 21st century without compromising its history, beauty, and original intent. “What would grandmother do?” is the mantra for Thomas and his wife, Rickie Niceta Lloyd, who escape their Washington jobs whenever possible to return with their two young children to the happiest scenes of his childhood. The couple cherishes the sight of their children frolicking on the lawn of Putnam House, the historic 17th-century home, brought by barge from Marstons Mills, where Lloyd and his brother spent six weeks every summer as boys. The shoreline path from Putnam to Dune House remains his favorite spot on earth. “It was kept natural and still is,” Thomas says. “I was able to explore, to listen to the birds, to go barefoot. It was away from everything . . . even today . . . there is the calmness of nature. When it’s almost sunset, the colors are magical.”
In addition to obvious decisions, such as no longer growing 10,000 annuals from seed, Thomas says, “the key is to look at the space, pick the elements you love the most, and calculate what measures are required to keep that going . . . what technology can we use to make it more efficient?”
To aid in the decision-making, Thomas and Rickie turned to an old friend who understood the importance of the property to the family and was dedicated to preserving Mrs. Mellon’s legacy. Jay MacMullan of The Garden Continuum in Medfield, spent countless vacations and summer weekends here as the guest of Thomas, his Dickinson College roommate and best friend. According to Lloyd, Jay understood that “the idea behind all my grandmother’s work was to frame an area, give it some structure, and grow it a little . . . that delicate balance between . . . a natural state and structure.”
Together with Monique Allen, landscape designer and owner of The Garden Continuum, the landscape team began to map out a future that would remain faithful to the family and the property. Says MacMullan, “It is a horticultural history paradise, but it is very labor intensive.”
Foremost in everyone’s mind was the need for continued care of the signature trees pruned in the Versailles espalier tradition of which Mellon was a master, along with the fruit trees shaped in rounded orchard style. The irreplaceable artisans behind this task were the Childs family, whose three generations of tree experts have sculpted the property’s trees to perfection for 50 years. Thomas calls Aaron Childs and his father, Bob, “true artists”, and says the family will happily continue to pay for the artistry of the Braddock-Childs Tree Service.
Bob Childs studiously trained each winter with Mrs. Mellon and her team of arborists in Virginia. In turn, the team traveled north every summer to assist with the more than 100 fruit trees, plus the oak, sassafras, flowering locusts, and topiaries. Over time, Bob’s skill precluded the need for the Virginia crew and Mrs. Mellon became increasingly dependent on him. Sons Aaron and Jason joined the family business as teenagers and continue to prune the way they were trained—from a high wooden ladder tied to a tree with a simple pole pruner.
“You wouldn’t see a bucket truck,” says Aaron with a laugh. “We never used a chipper. There were no power tools involved.”
The delicate canopy of sunlit, dappled oak leaves, the majestic, flowering locusts, the plump apples and juicy peaches, and the intricate espalier trees are all testaments to years of loving care with hand tools instead of technology. “Nobody does it like this,” Aaron says with admiration. “[Mrs. Mellon] knows her stuff.”
Allen, who has worked on many choice New England gardens, says she is honored to work with a team who views the property not as a job, but as a professional legacy. “The Childs love it as though it is their own,” she says.
The next priority was the gardens of Putnam and its guesthouse. In addition to the installation of an irrigation system (“something my grandmother would have availed herself of had it been available,” says Lloyd), Allen chose an array of colorful, lower maintenance perennials and reduced the size of the massive vegetable garden, incorporating both flowers and vegetables into an intimate, outdoor living space.
When MacMullan, who is managing the project, explored the soil in the garden, he was astonished at the lack of sand so close to the sea. After some research, he discovered the secret. Years ago, Mellon had asked her employees to excavate six to eight feet below the surface and then truck in the choicest Barnstable County farm soil. The result is a garden rooted in rich loam instead of saltwater sand. A key task for MacMullan and his crew became managing the seedbed with groundcover and leaf mulch. “This approach allows for tremendous weed suppression while enhancing soil biology,” he says.
This is welcome news to property manager and longtime employee, Chris Harvie, who vividly remembers the gargantuan job of weeding these rows as a teen. More than two decades later, Harvie can still point out the weed-prone spots and rattle off the vegetables he planted for the Mellons: “Peas, eggplant, carrots, radishes, hot peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, five kinds of lettuce, but no butternut or yellow squash, and no pumpkins or watermelon, just Sweet 100, Better Boy, or Big Boy tomatoes, and she loved lima beans. A lima bean sandwich was her all time favorite.”
Though she has never met Mellon, Allen says the clear intent of her vision is noticelable everywhere around the property. “Here was a place for her to stop and reflect and enjoy family. An enormous amount of genius came out of that kind of stopping and reflecting and enjoying the beauty.”
To preserve that vision, Allen has created an inviting seating area in the midst of the garden. “Guests will feel invited to sit and let out a sigh—the sigh none of us ever has time for anymore.”
Allen used Mellon’s own plans to restore an herb garden within reach of the Putnam House kitchen. “We’ve made a small, but replicable herb and (flower) cutting garden,” Allen says. Behind the basil, Rainbow Swiss chard, and leafy vegetables, an antique pump drips water into a wooden barrel from the Virginia farm’s old barreling shop. In a nod to the future, tags that can be scanned with a smartphone link to a tailored website with information about each herb with a further link to possible recipes.
This, too, fits the Mellon legacy. “She was always ahead of the curve,” says Bob Hoxie who supervised the gardens for 17 years. “Her secret was incorporating history with art and craftsmanship.” Hoxie, who now runs Great Hill Horticultural Services in Sandwich, credits his former boss with teaching him the importance of the eye being able to “move through a landscape,” whether on the grand scale of the trails through the woods to the beach between Putnam and Dune House, or through the escalating drama of a carefully plotted small garden.
For Hoxie and all who worked there, Dune House holds a special place. “It’s her,” he says. “It’s where [Mrs. Mellon] found peace. I love the way it sits in the land. It’s where she liked to draw, paint, and write.”
Current projects at Dune House include restoration of the walled courtyard garden in view of Mellon’s painting table as well as plantings around the pool and pool house. In the contemplative garden, two elements have been preserved: the espalier tree on the garden wall, representing years of focused labor, and the well-established lavender in the tradition of the French gardens Mellon loved. Allen describes any new additions as “subtle blossoms . . . pastels, blues, pinks, purples, and whites that are calming to the senses,” complementing the aromatic, calming effect of the lavender. Abundant Knock Out roses add color. A roofed structure for tea adds coziness to the space.
The pool reclamation has been a longer process. In addition to repairing leaks, Mellon suggested her family add a “beach area” within the new fence required by law. When it came to blending the fence with the landscape, the family turned to Ron Brumfield, a local painting magician, who for a lifetime, has perfected the natural look of every building and board on the property. Brumfield’s alchemy with a paintbrush, blending yellows, creams, grays, oils, masonry lime, and vinegar did the trick. Afterwards, sand was spread on a 400-square-foot area sporting simple lawn furniture. MacMullan supervised the planting of 2,400 beach grass “plugs” to restore and enhance the natural look of Mellon’s beloved dune grasses. In addition, he and his crew planted an array of native berry bushes: blueberries, bayberries, bearberries, and beach plums around the perimeter.
There are plans for a new guesthouse and careful landscaping on the site of the wildflower field where Mellon celebrated her 90th birthday in a pink and blue sea of poppies and cornflowers. But for now, the deepest desire of those who have worked this land and loved its owners is for the family to spend more time here. Says Allen, “The more it is used and shared and loved, the better it will thrive. They can all recharge here.”