Before starting at Cranbrook last month, I was a grad student at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. At both places, buildings sit in and around gardens, and both Winterthur and Cranbrook consider landscape not as secondary to their missions of education, preservation, and scholarship, but as an integral piece in the character of the institution. It makes for two very enjoyable places to live and work.
While I didn’t live on Winterthur’s thousand rolling acres, I did spend a lot of time traversing the grounds. Staff and students parked in the woods, with oak, poplar, and black gum trees providing a shady canopy over a bubbling stream running alongside the road. As you approached the house, the gardens became progressively more formal, with rolling lawns, specimen trees and shrubs, and eventually stone planters and flowering perennials ushering you into the museum.
Inside the museum (which was the home of Henry Francis du Pont, 1880-1969), are some one-hundred and seventy-five rooms chock-a-bloc full of American decorative and fine art from the 1640s to 1860s. One of the great joys of studying inside the house are the views out. Across the year, the views change. In winter, you might see all the way to the ponds and railroad station at the edge of the estate, in the spring, your view is foreshortened to just the snowdrop and daffodil covered embankment beneath the window.
Mr. du Pont, who began collecting in the 1920s, was always concerned with color coordination in his period rooms, and when you enter certain rooms at the right moment in the year, the landscape becomes perfectly in tune with the décor. Walking through the house in the fall, the copious amounts of brown furniture sings alongside the rich colors of fall. The effect is subtle but sublime.
I’ve had much less time with the gardens at Cranbrook, but I’m already beginning to notice certain things. For one, there’s a lot more activity on Cranbrook’s 319 acre suburban campus than Winterthur’s country seat. Yet the many hands that have shaped Cranbrook have used the landscape to maintain the sense that the campus is a special place removed from the everyday.
On my walk to work, I pass from the row houses and dormitories of Academy Way to the monumental Art Museum peristyle and Orpheus Fountain, through the Ramp of the Chinese Dog and into a parking lot. (I appreciate the parking lot, it’s a reminder that even in the most beautifully designed spaces, there are still functional requirements).
But once I’ve crossed the lot, I get to my favorite spot: a long downhill path cut straight through the woods and paved in crumbling cast stone pavers. Its linearity is formal, but its worn state and its location in the woods make it feel as if one is walking down toward some long-abandoned city. At the bottom of the hill is a great swath of grass that flows toward the lake. Across the grass are stairs up and into the formal, Cranbrook House gardens.
My office is in Cranbrook House, and these European-style gardens, paired to the Manor-house architecture, provide some pretty amazing office views. While Winterthur’s gardens relied on color, massing, and the passing of time for effect, the gardens of Cranbrook are most impactful in their vistas. From one side of the house, offices look down a series of terraces toward the campus lake, another side over the reflecting pool, and my own view looks out over the circular court and fountain at the front of the house. These views, of course, were planned and enjoyed by George Booth, Cranbrook’s founder who lived and worked in Cranbrook House.
At both Winterthur and Cranbrook, gardens and landscapes provide a context in which to study great collections and their histories. I don’t think the value of a beautifully designed approach to your school or workplace can be overlooked—something with which I know du Pont at Winterthur, Booth at Cranbrook, and their designers agreed.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the seasons change my understanding of Cranbrook and its grounds, but for now, I’m going to head out and enjoy the perfect weather in these lovely gardens.
–Kevin Adkisson Collections Fellow