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Higher Ground

At this pedigreed Greenwich property—designed a century ago by landscape luminaries and now home to the Tallman family—Phillip Watson brings new life to grand gardens

One morning in early August when the air is thick enough to make a hydrangea droop, Alease Fisher Tallman awaits her visitor under the front portico of her manor house in the Rock Ridge section of Greenwich, tanned and coiffed and dressed in a champagne-colored shift made of silk.

Her home, known as Chelmsford, began life clad in fieldstone and clapboard in 1899, designed by Philadelphia architect R.A. Whittingham for Charles Lanier, who bought the land from Alexander Mead. Lanier eventually divided his 32 acres (or 40, depending on the source) and sold 19 or so of them in 1906 to Elon Hooker, a chemical manufacturing tycoon and one-time deputy super-intendent of public works in New York under Governor Theodore Roosevelt.

Early in the Hooker family’s 50-year occupancy, the house was expanded and remodeled by the renowned architects McKim, Mead, and White in the shingle style prevalent at the turn of the century and accented with gambrel-roofed gables, some original to Whittingham’s design. It is the only surviving McKim, Mead, and White structure in Greenwich.

A Colonial Revival with expansive wings that embrace a circular drive, the estate features dramatic swales, a grass and stone staircase, copious rock outcroppings, a shaded woodland with a babbling brook, and a rolling lawn roamed by wild turkeys.

On a large table inside her grand foyer, Fisher Tallman has arranged a rare-book library’s worth of blueprints, manuscripts, historical photographs, architectural drawings, property deeds, and hand-colored maps. Her preparation for this meeting is in part due to her studious nature and innately congenial personality but also to the fact that the house and grounds she owns possess a significant architectural and landscape pedigree.

Indeed, the contours of the now ten-acre parcel—which includes the boxwood allee, the croquet lawn lined with Victorian benches, the root cellar, numerous arbors and trellises, the Victorian folly featuring mature cryptomeria trees interspersed with stonework evoking antique ruins, and the statue of Pan, the god of field and forest, who stands guard over the frog pond—were designed and maintained over time by landscape architecture’s leading men.

The lineup included the luminaries Warren H. Manning, a proponent of wild gardens and indigenous species who once worked in the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape design; Manning apprentice Charles Gillette, who later settled in Richmond and would become known as the creator of the “Virginia Garden”; and Bryant Fleming, another Manning protege who is credited with the renovation of several of New York’s state parks and the campus of Cornell University.

They were commissioned in tandem by Blanche Ferry Hooker, wife of Elon and accomplished horticulturist. (On the subject of pedigree, it’s worth noting that Elon was a direct descendant of the founder of the Colony of Connecticut, a minister named Thomas who spent time in the town of Chelmsford, England, for whom the estate is likely named.)

It was under Blanche Hooker’s supervision that the estate was transformed into a genuine gentle-lady’s working farm, chronicled in a 1917 article in The New Country Life, complete with chickens, cows, horses, strawberry patches, canning rooms, rose gardens, a giant manure pile, and a two-acre vegetable garden. According to a 1977 interview with the son of the Hookers’ estate superintendent, at times the estate employed as many as 40 laborers to maintain its lush and naturalistic aesthetic.

So it’s no surprise that Fisher Tallman, a native of southwestern Virginia’s tobacco country and the daughter of a nematologist and a sculptor-painter who designed her own clothes, has embraced her mantle of responsibility as custodian of some of Greenwich, Connecticut’s most sacred ground.

To help her restore and improve upon the designs of these masters, she determined that no ordinary grounds crew would do. Instead she hand-picked the Mississippi native and Virginia enthusiast Phillip Watson, a garden designer who studied with England’s garden maven Rosemary Verey, to be her modern-day Frederick Law Olmsted. As both will tell you, it was a match made in wisteria heaven. At the time, Fisher Tallman was married to her first husband, Andy Fisher, with whom she purchased the house in 1995.

“The property was spectacular,” she said. “I thought, If the house comes with it, that’s fine.” It was the grounds rather than the house with its pipe organ, ironing machines, and specialized closets for off-season draperies and gift-wrap that seduced her. Together the couple departed Bronxville, New York, and moved in with their four sons and went about renovating the house and the grounds concurrently, precisely as the Hookers had done it.

Like Blanche Hooker, Fisher Tallman was intent on creating a natural idyll, which she dubbed Camp Fisher and where in the summer months her sons could swim, and play tennis, badminton, chess and croquet while also learning languages and art.

“Alease hired me because I’m a plantsman,” said Watson. “Most landscapers know the hardscape, but my degree is in horticulture. Add to that the fact that I’m Southern and willing to work in a style consistent with that of Charles Gillette, with a gracious southern feel–a little worn around the edges, not edged and crisp.”

There was another parallel: not only was it Gillette’s first project in New England, it was also Watson’s first in the Northeast.

“Phillip has an appreciation for what other people love,” said Fisher Tallman. “He’s not an egotist.”

Asked about the greatest challenge on the project, Watson drolly quipped, “Keeping Alease from seeing the bills–she is the cheapest woman alive!” (The label is one that Fisher Tallman gleefully claims with pride.)

Indeed when the Fishers hired Watson, Andy Fisher instructed him to send the bills to his office.

Eventually Fisher Tallman split from Fisher but kept the house. Several years later, she married Paul Tallman, the builder who’d renovated the house. Ultimately he moved in, and now it’s he who handles the payment of Watson’s bills.

“Paul loves the gardens,” said Fisher Tallman, adding that in the summer, the compound has been renamed Club Tallman. “Thank God he lets me have my way. He’s got spectacular taste.”

As for Watson, he arrived with several items on his to-do list. Working within the partitioned outdoor “rooms” mapped out by his predecessors, he cleaned up the croquet lawn, which had been the location of Blanche Hooker’s experimental vegetable garden, and lined it with footpaths. As a border along the pool, he planted a variety of columbine known as Aquilegia Woodside, which produces blue, pink, or white blooms, from seeds he was given by Rosemary Verey years ago.

In addition, he enriched the vista to the south by extending the terraced lawn just outside the back porch. And he used the boulders that once dotted the lawn to build it.

“That back porch is my favorite place in the world,” said Watson. “When I die, I want to lie in state back there.”

Around the pool, he interspersed short French lilacs with the “old leggy lilacs” he’d inherited. Then he put in a peony-lined path alongside the swale “because Alease loves peonies and the deer aren’t interested them.”

But Watson, whose specialty is parterres, could not finish the job without marking it with his own signature. The center of the circular drive was a “derelict rock garden full of rubble.”

He removed the rubble and designed a parterre of hearts and filigrees that was “romantic and soft” and sculpted from winter gem boxwood.

“I wanted it to be fancy, like a big Faberge egg, curvilinear and with no hard edges.” The parterre requires a trimming only three or four times a year, and Watson says that “snow on it in winter is magic.”

Magic is something this Watson client knows a lot about. In addition to being an amateur–make that semi-pro–botanist, a former management consultant, an involved mom, and a thrower of legendary parties and charity benefits, Fisher Tallman has a new trick in her bag: Alease Fisher Designs, the fashion label she has recently revamped. The line features designs, like the champagne-colored sleeveless shift she chose for our meeting, that make women look “tall, thin, and rich.”

“Gardening and fashion are not unaligned,” she said. “If a design is good, it will last and be pleasing to the eye. I can’t sew and I can’t draw, but I know how to run a business, and in this case, the widget of the business is fashion.”

As for the passion she shares with Watson, her plant-loving soulmate of fourteen years, what’s next?

“In the original drawings, there was a Gothic gazebo that was drawn to sit atop the root cellar that was never executed,” said Watson. “You could construct it exactly as it was supposed to be.”

Indeed. And send the bill to Paul Tallman.

Photo Above Right: Nearly 100 years after it was built, the pool house, originally designed by legendary architect Stanford White, was re-decorated with a 1920s motif by interior designer Keith Langham.

Phillip Watson, 404-502-2246
Richard Keith Langham, 212-759-1212
Alease Fisher Designs, aleasefisher.com