Monday, October 10, 2011

The Lasdon Park and Arboretum

" Envy always dogs merit at the heels, there may be those who will whisper..."
-Sir Walter Scott, Old Mortality

As I visit private gardens, and those that once were, envy often rears it's head. Gardens of the wealthy are most desirable. Never mind that I don't have the means to establish and maintain such Edens, I want very much to own them, anyway. So I'm reminded that el pecado mortal is not exclusively a transgression of the wealthy, and that contentment is a rare jewel. My recent visit to Lasdon Park and Arboretum was another opportunity to learn the lesson. Follow me to see what grows behind that garden wall.

The property was formerly known as Cobbling Rock Farm, owned by Dr. Antonie Phineas Voislawsky (1872-1939). Dr. Voislawsky, a graduate of Dartmouth Medical College, was a well-respected rhinologist and otolaryngologist from New York City. He had practiced and consulted at various hospitals in and around New York City.

Situated off Route 35 in Somers, New York, Lasdon is bounded on the south and east by New York City watershed property and the Amawalk River. When the house burned in the early 1930s, Dr. Voislawsky rebuilt it as a three-story Colonial Revival style mansion, resembling George Washington’s Mount Vernon. After Dr. Voislawsky died in 1939, William S. and Mildred Lasdon purchased the estate for a country retreat.

William Stanley Lasdon's (b.1896 in Brooklyn, d.1984 in Manhattan) distinguished career included co-establishing and serving as treasurer of the Pyridium Corporation, officer and director of Nepera Chemical Company founded by Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a partner of Harriman Chemical Company, vice chairman and chairman of the executive committee of the Warner-Lambert Company, board member of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a member of the Cornell University Medical College Board of Overseers, and a member of the Business Advisory Committee for Nixon-Agnew. In addition, he was president of the Lasdon Foundation, which he and members of his family set up in 1946 to support medical research and cultural institutions. Lasdon, along with Margaret Van Rensselaer Voislawsky (the widow of Dr. Voislawsky) and others, was also a charter member of the Somers Historical Society (1956).

The Lasdon estate provided jobs for a full-time staff to maintain the house and grounds. Mr. Lasdon had a strong interest in horticulture, so he imported many plant specimens to his estate as he traveled the world.

After Mr. Lasdon died, there was some interest in developing the property for commercial purposes. However, Westchester County purchased the land in 1986 for $4.2 million to preserve open space. It now adjoins the county's Muscoot Farm Park and the Mildred D. Lasdon Bird and Nature Sanctuary.

The Lasdon Park and Arboretum consists of over 200 acres with thematic sections joined by walking trails.

The William and Mildred Lasdon Memorial Garden, is located next to a parking area, so might be the one you'd visit first. The one-acre garden was made possible by a donation by their daughter, Mrs. Nanette Laitman. Within it are an entrance court and fragrance garden, the Formal Garden with fountain and busts of the Lasdons, and the Synoptic Garden. The Synoptic Garden features a collection of shrubs from A to Z, literally, beginning with Abelia x grandiflora 'Compacta' and ending with Zenobia pulverulenta.

The small Rain Garden appears to be a new addition. Rain gardens are becoming very popular as the importance of water conservation gains more attention. The rain garden at Lasdon serves a functional as well as educational purpose.

I visited in late July, so missed the Lilac Walk and Azalea Garden in bloom. For the same reason, I was unable to enjoy the magnificence of the Magnolia Collection and the Flowering Tree Grove. (I did see the Fragrant Epaulette, Pterostyrax hispida, in display.) This is true of any single garden visit; the seasons and their beauties are ever changing. You must visit often. I do intend to visit Lasdon during the appropriate seasons if I have opportunities.

The Magnolia Collection is home to a variety of species, including rare yellow-flowered ones. Some of the specimens were developed at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in the 1950s.

The Conifer Collection includes species large and small. A special area is devoted to dwarf conifers. Among them I believe I spotted several varieties of Pinus parviflora, and P. thunbergiana 'Thunderhead'. It was difficult to be sure exactly for many of them were unlabeled.

The Street Tree Grove lines a drive, appropriately enough. Lindens, maples and oaks dominated the collection. Though the species were on trial for the New York State climate, any city planner and arborist would do well to visit the grove.

The Famous and Historic Tree Trail is a bit off the beaten path, though it's an easy walk to reach it. It features species that commemorate historic events and notable people from American history. The trees were propagated from seeds of parent trees that were witnesses to these characters and times. Small signs along a path tell their stories. The seeds were provided by the American Forestry Association.

The Chinese Friendship Pavilion and Cultural Garden symbolize the friendship between citizens of Westchester County and its Sister City, Jingzhou, in the People's Republic of China. The pavilion, the focal point of the garden, was given by that city, where it was constructed, disassembled, and shipped to the United States. It was reconstructed in the Cultural Garden by Chinese craftsmen with the assistance of park staff. The pavilion is surrounded by native Chinese species and overlooks a picturesque pond where we found deer meditating despite a gaggle of geese.

The Lasdon House was only recently opened to the public. Guided tours are available. The house provides offices for various horticulturally oriented civic groups, a library, and offers meeting spaces for workshops and classes. The pool house has been converted into a gift shop.

When I visited, concert-goers were arriving for an evening of music during the Midsummer Night Music Series. I wanted to stay for it, but couldn't. Other pleasant events are scheduled throughout the year.

I was unable to explore the Mildred D. Lasdon Bird and Nature Sanctuary. It's a 22-acre preserve which was donated to the county in 1976 by William Lasdon and named for his wife. Trails provide bird-watchers opportunities to view many species in various habitats.

The Westchester Veterans Memorial and Museum is also on site, but was closed the day I visited. It's only open on weekends.

Horticultural research is ongoing at Lasdon Park and Arboretum. A number of surviving native American chestnuts were discovered growing there, so a cooperative effort has been in progress since 1992 to develop blight-resistant chestnuts. Similarly, Lasdon is home to a large number of dogwood trees from around the world where they are studied to develop resistance to various diseases of Cornus species.

The park is open from 8 am to 4 pm daily. Fees are not charged for general visits.

Researching the lives of William S. and Mildred D. Lasdon was about as interesting as exploring their country estate. Perhaps it has to do with a common fascination of wealth, the people who attain it, and by what means. Lasdon had a lot of it. Wanting a piece of it is prevalent. Suspecting the motives and means of those who have it is pervasive. Though he had some argument with the IRS, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation had issues with his Estate, it seems he was a man of merit and earned his estate fairly. He certainly dispensed with a lot of it philanthropically.

As I strolled through the Lasdon Park and Arboretum, I caught myself thinking, "Why can't I have something like this? Why them and not me?" Though too natural, it's odd how envy stirs in the hearts of men and women, even when walking through a garden.

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1 comment:

A. Joseph Marshall said...

Great article! The gardens are worth the trip from the city!

A. Joseph Marshall
Commercial Real Estate Agent
Savannah, Ga.