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In Newport, a peek at how the rich garden

Newport’s Secret Garden Tour includes: the restored Japanese Garden (top) at Wildacre, owned by Dorrance Hamilton; a home interior on the tour; and the grounds of Bellevue House, which is owned by Ronald Lee Fleming. Newport’s Secret Garden Tour includes: the restored Japanese Garden (top) at Wildacre, owned by Dorrance Hamilton; a home interior on the tour; and the grounds of Bellevue House, which is owned by Ronald Lee Fleming. (Stew Milne for The Boston Globe)
By Carol Stocker
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2008
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NEWPORT R.I. - If I were a grand historic estate in need of restoration, I would hope to be purchased by Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton, who loves gardens, has good taste, and is one of America's wealthiest women. This has been the happy fate of Wildacre, an amazing Arts & Crafts style summer mansion built for a brother of Brookline landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and landscaped by his firm in 1902.

With plantings completed only months ago, the newly restored private garden will be open to the public this weekend as part of the fifth annual fall Secret Garden Tour of Newport's Benefactors of the Arts.

Now on the National Register of Historic Places, Wildacre represents the pinnacle of a style that replaced Victorian clutter with organic simplicity and helped usher in modern design. Nestled in Price's Neck Cove, the Irving Gill-designed house commands an isolated view of open ocean bracketed by steep granite promontories.

With their carefully labeled specimen plants and almost total lack of flowers, the green gardens complement rather than compete with the view. Ocean front gardens often are blighted by wind and salt, but this one combines natural plantings and terracing into a textbook lesson in what works with salt water. Footpaths lead to magnificent views framed by Japanese black pines that appear indigenous but have been carefully planted.

"We just kind of give nature a little boost," Hamilton said.

When Hamilton bought the 7-acre oceanfront property in 1998, "it had been let go," she said. " 'Neglected' would be a kind word." She began the 10-year restoration project of house and garden at age 70, working with Spencer Architects of Virginia and landscape designer Mary Ellen Flanagan of Newport.

"I had a lot of help, so I thought, 'Let's go!' " said the Campbell Soup heiress, who like many true gardeners is cheerful, enthusiastic, and unpretentious. Little remained of the Olmsted-designed 1-acre gardens around the house except a few specimen trees, and characteristic stonework such as a bridge and Japanese lanterns in the original Japanese garden. But there were plans and old photos to work from.

Hamilton, who bailed out Bristol's wonderful Blithewold Botanic Garden when it almost folded some years ago, also maintains a home with six greenhouses near Philadelphia and is a link to the grand estate gardeners of the Gilded Age. Her family has summered in Newport for generations.

Hamilton has kept her grandchildren in mind during the restoration, adding a boccie court and an infinity pool.

The ocean garden also features amusing 19th-century French garden furniture, including faux tree trunk seating made of concrete.

And there is a designated Arts & Crafts woodland garden featuring handmade gates and a carefully tended moss garden. Hamilton got the idea for the moss garden after seeing Martha Stewart's in Maine.

There are 10 other gardens on the tour, which focuses on estates along Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive. Particularly noteworthy is Ronald Lee Fleming's Bellevue House, which was designed in 1910 by Ogden Codman, who coauthored the influential 1897 book, "The Decoration of Houses" with Edith Wharton.

Fleming is president of the Townscape Institute in Cambridge and author of "The Art of Place Making." When he bought Bellevue House a decade ago, the gardens already included a 1923 reproduction of a well-known Federal period garden teahouse designed by Samuel McIntyre, one of America's first architects.

Fleming has since added more structures, decorations, and follies including accurate reproductions of a church cupola and a second McIntyre teahouse. He is completing a new water garden to unveil for this weekend's tour. This is a garden where everything references something from art history, sometimes in a personal or idiosyncratic way. There is a bronze bas relief sculpture devoted to the Fleming alma mater, Pomona College, and several water gardens, including a complex art installation near the house that features a stone sculpture of Fleming's head as a fountain spout.

In the process of pursuing his vision, Fleming has employed a virtual village of artists, architects, craftsmen, sculptors, and landscape designers, including Mark Mennin, Derek Kosciuszko, Greg LeFevre, Will Reimann, and J.P. Couture.

There is also one interior on the tour decorated by Mark Clay of Mark Clay Design of Dallas, a former creative director for Ralph Lauren. If the Fleming garden is complex in its cultural references, Clay's concept is simplicity itself: "The house is a converted stable block on an estate so naturally the decor would be horsey."

He and the owner went on a shopping trip to England and purchased horse paintings and sculptures as well as antiques. The tartan upholstery and blankets come straight from the Lauren line. The most fun is the vestiges of the original stable, such as the wood and metal sliding doors to the kitchen and the stall that was converted into a staircase. Who are we to neigh-say?

Newport's Secret Garden Tour is this Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tickets are $25 at the Newport Visitor's Center, 23 America's Cup Ave., or Kingscote Mansion, 253 Bellevue Ave., Newport, R.I., or $20 in advance from www.secretgardentours.org or by calling 401-847-0514.

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