James Brayton Hall, President & CEO

We gathered a few first impressions and  personal insights from our organization's new leader in mid-July 2017, seven weeks after his arrival.

How did you begin gardening? How has your interest evolved over time?

I grew up in a small post-war modernist house in Providence, RI, designed and built by my father on a piece of land that had been in his family for about 100 years. My mother was educated at Rhode Island School of Design and, in large part because of this influence, their aesthetic was classic mid-century modern. They were actually rather prescient—no lawn, lots of native plants, permeable surfaces, and, of course, lots of azaleas and rhododendrons.

My father and grandfather were both land surveyors, so many of the natives were gathered in the woods—removed in advance of their being destroyed for subdivisions. I can remember very clearly my father returning home at the end of the day with a dozen pink lady slipper orchids in the back of his International Harvester Scout for planting in our garden. Needless to say, in our suburban neighborhood of long, low ranch houses surrounded by vast lawns, our property was more than a little eccentric!

As a student in the School of Architecture at University of Virginia, I was deeply moved by the gardens created around Jefferson’s “lawn” at the heart of his Academical Village, which were reimagined and restored by the Garden Club of Virginia. These small private “rooms," some in a naturalistic style and others geometric in design, and surrounded by Mr. Jefferson’s famous serpentine walls, were intimate oases for reflection. They rightly served as spaces very much away from the busyness of university life. In many ways, these gardens were the first to teach me about the important role that beautifully planned, sensitively scaled, and meticulously detailed gardens can play in one’s emotional and intellectual life. The memory of these gardens at an important time in my life is never far from me.

Do you have particular areas of interest within gardening? Particular plants or types of gardens?

It’s hard not to love an herbaceous border! I actually think the Victorians and Edwardians did it best. I remember seeing a riotous Edwardian border at the forecourt of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. I’m certain that there were flowers, but what was most memorable was the amazing variety of shrub foliage—the inky black of purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria var. purpurea), the delicate but showy serrated leaves of variegated kerria (Kerria japonica var. variegata), and the almost white fountains of a variegated giant reed (Arundo donax).

For me, the sweet spot is where a strict geometry brushes against vegetative exuberance. At the home of a board member on our recent Fellows trip to Sun Valley, ID, we were all stunned by the beauty of bushel basket-sized chartreuse lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) spilling luxuriously over the strict steel edges of raised beds and onto a polished concrete terrace! The combination of a classic, old-fashioned perennial with rigorous modernist materials was jaw-dropping, and really inspiring.

Gardens can and should be fertile grounds for experimentation. I once designed a formal rose garden for a dear friend in Middletown, RI. She was still selecting and ordering the roses and they weren’t going to arrive until the fall, so we planted vegetables in their stead for the summer season. There was a draped classical figure in the center of the garden, and that summer it was surrounded by corn stalks. (Eventually we did plant out the roses).

What gardening do you do these days?

For the first time ever I’m part of a real community garden, which has been established by the residents in the building where I now live in Beacon, NY. It’s a community of many artists and “makers” so the approach to gardening is creative, opportunistic and very idiosyncratic! Everything is in containers; it’s very public; and everything is “negotiated." It’s teaching me how to accept a little less control as I garden. There are a couple of photos from this garden that I put on the Conservancy’s Instagram feed—check it out. Here's a sample:

Also, now that I’m once again geographically closer to my childhood house in Providence, I’m looking forward to getting that garden back into shape after four years of benign neglect. I’ve got the bulb catalogues open on my coffee table at home….

How does preservation of gardens differ from other types of historic preservation?

That's a very important and instructive question. Gardens mature and change over the course of their existence. Gardens are also more malleable in the hands of their creators—plantings can easily and radically change from year to year, whereas architecture is more resistant to change, and the change is therefore less spontaneous.

As a result, when it comes to preserving a garden, one must first address what is important about it—is it the plant material? The architecture and structure? The history of the place or the personal history of its creator? At Hampton Court Palace, mature boxwoods and naturalistic plantings were destroyed to restore an earlier—and rarer for the UK—very formal, very French series of parterres and arabesques. A lot of research was done and there was good documentation of the Baroque gardens that had been there in the time of William and Mary, but it was still very controversial. That sort of truly radical restoration is rarer in architecture, but it has happened, notably and recently at Montpelier, the home of President James Madison and now a National Trust for Historic Preservation property outside of Washington, DC.

I believe that the Garden Conservancy can, should, and will shape national garden preservation practice in the coming years.

In what ways is your experience in museum management and curation (saving & sharing the fine arts) and in historic preservation (saving & sharing architecture and cultural icons), similiar to or different from garden preservation (saving & sharing outstanding gardens)?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve thought about this a lot. One of the major advantages, albeit a largely perceptual one, in making our case for the cultural importance of American gardens, is that most people have only positive associations with gardens. Just the word "garden" itself evokes good feelings—people remember gardens from their past, or perhaps they were married or fell in love in a garden. Most folks don’t feel that they have to be knowledgeable about gardens to appreciate them. Sadly, that is not the case with museums where, in spite of herculean efforts to dispel this feeling, museums are often still perceived to be unwelcoming, and the art within to be inscrutable, political, or “too old." The issues around architectural preservation are more complex, because buildings are perceived as real estate. Of course, we know that gardens can get in the way of real estate decisions, as with the recent controversy surrounding building on the site of the Russell Page-designed garden at the Frick.

Why did you decide to join the Garden Conservancy?

I’ve always known about the good work that the Conservancy does, and I had attended Open Days programs in the Boston area. I love being involved with organizations at a time of change and re-evaluation, and when I read about the position and the job description, it seemed like a good fit with my own passions for the field of landscape architecture, garden design, and horticulture. I strongly believe in our mission.

What have been your most significant first impressions of the Garden Conservancy?

The organization is much-loved, and has a strong board—one that is both knowledgeable and committed. As a CEO you cannot have a better gift than that.

Why does garden preservation matter?

Garden design is a true and challenging art form. It speaks to who we are as a culture and who we are as individuals.

Unlike “fine art," i.e., paintings, sculpture etc., which too often become commodified, it’s very hard to buy and sell a garden. In fact, gardens have never been a very sound financial proposition. The care and maintenance that they require, combined with the challenge that they are living things, often makes their preservation a risky endeavor.

But what greater, more important, and more fragile cultural resource could there be?

Going forward, what do you see as the key opportunities for the Garden Conservancy?

I love the idea of exploring and defining the essential qualities that make a garden uniquely “American.” What did America add to the canon of garden design?

Key challenges?

Many people have a favorable perception of the Garden Conservancy, but even our supporters can be a little bit unclear about what we actually do. I assure you that the staff and board are working every day to identify, save, and share the most outstanding American gardens. We have to be better at clearly communicating just how we do it.

How would you describe your vision of the Garden Conservancy five or ten years down the road?

I believe that the Garden Conservancy will strengthen its position as a respected voice in garden preservation and a leader in shaping professional standards. In the coming years, we will also continue to explore creative, diverse, and non-traditional approaches to preservation and, through robust public programming, lead a national discussion about the cultural relevance of gardens.