Catch Gilded Age Extravagance in Bethlehem

Olmsted gardens and fine summer homes abound

Seeing the restored Frederick Law Olmsted garden in New London set us on a quest that led to Bethlehem. Set high along a ridge in the western White Mountains, Bethlehem gained early tourism fame as a pollen-free refuge for those with hay fever. Guest houses and hotels followed, leading in turn to “cottages” and country estates built by city people flush with early 20th century (read: pre-income tax) wealth.

The big hotels are gone, but the cottages still line the streets, and the great estates have morphed into new uses. Some of these summer places were designed by prominent architects, and it followed that the owners, who could afford the best, would turn to the premier landscape designer of the day for their gardens. I knew there were two Frederick Law Olmsted gardens in Bethlehem, but a chance conversation with a friend from the White Mountain School turned up a third.

After the former Seven Springs estate burned and the school rebuilt, Linda D’Arco told us, the garden became overgrown. Three years ago, a group of trustees visited the Olmsted Archive in Brookline, Mass., to find the original design. 

“When we began to research and restore [it], we discovered that there were 99 different iterations of the garden,” D’Arco explains with a laugh. The newly restored garden seems to be doing well, with even the cold-sensitive boxwood surviving last winter.

The same problems confront Cathy and Joel Bedor, owners of Adair, a neighboring estate built in 1927 for Dorothy Adair Hogan, who also called on Olmsted to plan her gardens. The Bedors’ research took them to the Library of Congress, where they unearthed not only plans and a complete plant list but voluminous correspondence about the project.

“Some of these flowers may not survive here,” Cathy Bedor lamented as we perused the plant list in the parlor at Adair, which is now a luxurious country inn. We’ve come to spend a weekend at the inn, and we’re impressed at how far the garden restorations have come. Much of Adair’s original Olmsted landscaping remains, including the sloping lawns and the pond that lies scenically below the Colonial Revival mansion. Olmsted didn’t just design formal gardens; he thought nothing of radically rearranging the terrain as the perfect stage for a worthy house.

He was equally adept at incorporating elements prized by his clients, as he did with the elegant gate that once guarded the entrance to the Hogans’ Washington, DC, mansion. Today, it opens into a terraced garden below the inn, shaded by a large apple tree.

Resident innkeeper Cindy Foster took us on a tour. Adair was a year-round residence, and original furnishings still decorate the inn. Dorothy’s passion was hats, and the public rooms display her collection, ranging from flowered confections and ’20s cloches to pith helmets and dapper fedoras. A giant desk and other original antiques furnish guest rooms, which have been updated with modern amenities such as double Jacuzzis and oversized showers.

The dining room, which Cindy showed us photos of in its original incarnation, has changed little from Dorothy’s day, but the elegant paneled library has become a smartly cozy bar. Chef Eric Kadle has recently arrived at Adair’s restaurant, and his new menu offers some surprises. Alongside creamy sea-fresh chowder, we found chipotle shrimp and grits, perfectly seasoned to alert the taste buds but not overwhelm the grilled shrimp. My garlic-marinated veal steak was double-thick, cooked to a perfect pale pink and meltingly tender, served with feather-light gnocchi. The chicken saltimbocca was perfumed with sage and prosciutto. After the veal, dessert was unthinkable, but, upon tasting the lemon cake, I toyed with the idea of returning for a late dessert after a walk in the garden.

For bedtime reading, I borrowed Bryant Tolles’ “Summer Cottages in the White Mountains” and learned a lot more about Bethlehem’s architectural largesse. After breakfast (hot popovers with strawberry jam and perfectly poached eggs over a tasty sweet potato fry-up), we set out to find some cottages and the third Olmsted garden.

The 1,400 acres that remain in The Rocks Estate begin across Route 302 from Adair and rise to a hilltop with views stretching to Mt. Washington. The main house is gone, but the rest remains New Hampshire’s best example of a “gentleman’s farm.” As co-founder of International Harvester, John Jacob Glessner had a particular interest in farming, and he was the first to try adapting equipment designed for the flat acres of the Midwest to New England’s irregular hillsides.

Frances Glessner was more passionate about her gardens, and, when their son became college friends with Olmsted’s son, it wasn’t long before the father was spending summer vacations at The Rocks, offering suggestions about its landscaping and designing garden terraces. Central stone steps and a grindstone table were later added to the terraces, but the layout today is essentially Olmsted’s. Historical signage and photos fill in details about the estate, where the stone Carriage House is now the architectural centerpiece.

Heading down Bethlehem’s Main Street, we identified cottages designed or inspired by some of the greatest architects of the early 20th century. Three Olmsted gardens and more than two dozen distinguished homes is quite a record for a town of barely 2,500 residents.

Categories: Our Town, Seasonal Guides – Fall