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Quiet on the coast

The once spectacular gardens had fallen into ruins. Then new owners of the Marblehead property decided to bring them back.

This brick stair, restored and covered in ivy, led from the formal rose garden to the original house, which no longer exists. This brick stair, restored and covered in ivy, led from the formal rose garden to the original house, which no longer exists. (Keith LeBlanc)
By Marni Elyse Katz
May 1, 2011

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When Brian and Nancy McCarthy purchased waterfront land on Peach’s Point in Marblehead in 1996, they hadn’t planned on re-creating the gardens of a storied Massachusetts family. The nearly 2-acre property, which overlooks Dolliber Cove and Marblehead Harbor, was one of three lots that originally composed a large estate belonging to Francis “Frank” Boardman Crowninshield, an acclaimed yachtsman, and his wife, heiress and historic preservationist Louise du Pont Crowninshield. The land that the McCarthys purchased had been the site of the Crowninshields’ formal gardens and pool, complete with cabana, at what was their summer residence from the early to mid-1900s.

The couple took on the project after neighbors (who are Crowninshield descendants) showed them old photographs of the property. Formal and Italianate in style, the once spectacular gardens had fallen into ruins. Brian, one of the owners of Kelly’s Roast Beef, tended his own vegetable garden as a young boy growing up in Dorchester. About this project, he says, “I wanted to make sure that what we did looked original to what Mrs. Crowninshield had created; she put in a lot of time and effort.”

The McCarthys hired Douglas Jones of Boston-based Keith LeBlanc Landscape Architecture to resurrect that vision. Brian and Nancy and their two now college-aged children moved into a newly built house on the land in 1999; the pool, pool house, and grounds were completed in 2001, and the gardens have matured now.

Jones and his team used period photos and remaining elements of the old gardens as their guide. “The new garden plan was informed by the circa 1937 photographs and what we could glean from the archeology we found on the ground,” he says. Although the gardens were overrun with vegetation and the old railings and masonry were in ruins, Jones says the basic architecture was still very much legible.

Indeed, the plan of the rose garden, with its formal layout, is practically identical to the original. There is a small fountain at its center, with concentric circles of roses in various shades of pink. The space is framed with white “Iceberg” roses that climb over new wrought-iron rails designed to match the ones found decaying on the property. In a stroke of luck, the McCarthys found a Beverly Farms nursery owner who had worked in the Crowninshields’ garden decades before. He shared what he remembered, including some varieties of roses that had been planted there.

The rose garden leads to another garden, this one set around a koi pond. When the McCarthys purchased the property, the pond’s brick-lined basin was caved in and crumbling. Jones had it rebuilt, following its original lines. Old photos showed just a small fountain at the pond’s center, but Brian had grander plans. He added a spectacular piece of fountain statuary that he discovered at Bob Courtney Auctions in Millbury in 1997. He explains: “I had been on the lookout for marble and bronze garden statuary from the start. I knew where this belonged the second I saw it.” The fountain features a maiden with a tipped vase standing in the center of a clamshell that tops a pedestal of four dolphins.

The area behind the rose garden is flanked by an ivy-covered brick retaining wall and stairway that once led to the Crowninshields’ house. The McCarthys restored the staircase even though it’s essentially a dead end (the property at the top is not theirs). In the wall’s original niches, Brian installed cast-iron maidens representing the Four Seasons by Moreau. “Each figure weighs 350 pounds and came on bases with pedestals, though we got rid of those,” he says. “The statues are all rusted and look better every day.”

Once the gardens were re-created, the way to get there had to be reinvented. The Crowninshield house had been sited on a high elevation that overlooked the gardens, but the McCarthys’ home sits on the water. “In the old scheme,” Jones says, “one would have come from the house and descended into the rose garden, with a view of Dolliber Cove. In the new design, one ascends to the garden.” In other words, instead of looking toward the water on the way down the stairs to the garden, a visitor now climbs up to the rose garden, back to the water. Jones adds, “As you climb up to the garden, the focal point is two mature beech trees; the water view doesn’t reveal itself until you turn around.”

These days, the McCarthys make frequent use of the gardens by hosting fund-raisers for local foundations. “The roses are in full bloom in the second or third week in June,” Brian says. “It’s just mind-boggling, and we love it.”

Marni Elyse Katz, a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine, blogs about design at Send comments to