Ron Fleming's newest book, The Adventures of a Narrative Gardener: Creating a Landscape of Memory, is both an intimate memoir and a study of the twelve gardens of his Newport, RI, estate. A planner and urban designer, Ron pioneered early Main Street revitalization projects and innovating place-making strategies. His ideas on place-making are evident in his own gardens and he offers suggestions for anyone looking to add more identity, intention, and sense of place to their own spaces.
You’ve opened your gardens at Bellevue House in Newport, RI, to the public during Open Days and for our Society of Fellows garden-study tour in 2017. For our Fellows who haven’t had the honor of seeing Bellevue House in person, tell us about your gardens.
There are twelve gardens behind a walled enclosure, a private world of three-and-a-half acres off fashionable Bellevue Avenue with its long parade of mansions. We anchor the northern end; the house was built defensively to protect its own private park, which most people didn’t know about until my family started welcoming charitable organizations to enjoy it more than twenty years ago. After renovating the house, we have spent more than ten years restoring, re-imagining, and inventing these gardens. They contain what garden historian Eric Haskell, then of Scripps College, calls the greatest collection of follies in America. They also include a new Arts & Crafts garden and sapphire pool, an oriental vale and water garden, a classical garden with an emerald pool, and a cascade garden leading out of the nymphaeum, below the library framed by carved granite volutes. One garden, “The Years of Living Dangerously,” contains small sculptures depicting seven of my nine near-escapes from death. I am living now on borrowed time.
I joined the Garden Conservancy because its members visited my garden and wrote such discerning thank you notes that I knew that this was an organization that understood what I was trying to accomplish. Ben Lenhardt was the chairman then and wrote a particularly thoughtful note. So I joined. I now have his book, Gardens of the North Shore of Chicago.
Designing twelve gardens is quite a feat; how do you address the challenges, including maintenance, inherent in such an elaborate design?
Maintenance, you rightly surmise, is the greatest challenge. It is the time bomb buried in any elaborate garden. We have a manual of instructions prepared by the contractor, but there are many challenges where drainage was not clearly understood, as with the folly in the back, adjacent to the water garden. We designed it as a rotunda that echoes the marble flooring of the 44-foot rotunda in the house, but in wood. This is on the front cover of my most recent book [shown here, at right].
We also discovered that the cheap wood used in the gazebo anchoring the allée that bisects the property was rotting and could be replaced by a newly available synthetic material. One distinguished artist used iron reinforcing rods in the Villa Lante-style table, which you view from the new breakfast room. He should have used stainless steel. He could never admit that the rusty expanding iron rods had cracked the table. Even a granite sculpture of the goddess Pomona at the head of the foreshortened Lante-like table has developed tiny cracks. I now have a slideshow that documents the irony of these problems and recalls the W. B. Yeats poem, “things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” A continuation of these lines can relate to our national politics as well.
You say that historic gardens most influence your designs. What are some of the most inspiring gardens you’ve drawn from during the restoration and reimagining of your historic estate?
I was fortunate to receive a fellowship while at graduate school at Harvard, which enabled me to see gardens in Kyoto. I later spent a healing period after the Vietnam War visiting English country houses and then visited Studly Royal, Hestercombe, Hever Castle, Iford Manor, and the follies at Stowe and Stourhead. Later, I won a fellowship to the Salzburg Global Seminar and saw the Schloss Hellbrunn, with its surprise splashing of guests at a table, a feature that I added to my Villa Lante table. A musician and rosarian took me to visit a daughter of Iris Origo at Villa La Foce. I went to India, and I finally saw the Viceregal gardens in New Delhi which Lutyens designed.
Some of the lattice work around the goddess Pomona was sketched by the architect Ogden Codman Jr. at Het Loo. This was the Dutch palace where William and Mary lived before they came to England. I also went to Argentina to see Achille DuChene’s garden rill [at the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Buenos Aires], which influenced a contrasting design for our rill descending from the Villa Lante table. My architect, JP Couture, the principal form giver in our gardens, made his own independent trip there. We had given up on landscape architects who just didn’t have enough historical context. Their modernist training was not sympathetic to our more intricate approach.
Bellevue House is receiving more acclaim with the release of your recent book, The Adventures of a Narrative Gardener: Creating a Landscape of Memory (GILES, December 8, 2020). The book isn’t just about your gardens; it’s also a narrative of your life’s story. What was it like writing about such personal experiences?
It is the only ostensible garden book with a chapter as homage to lost friends and a short, but harrowing, memoir about my Vietnam experience during TET year, 1967-68, covering my service as an intelligence officer assigned to the Green Berets in Nha Trang, the public affairs office in Saigon, and then something called “the Company." There was a harrowing Conradian Heart of Darkness experience where I both fought for and then marched against the war in Washington. It was painful to dredge up memories that I had not even told my wife. I never even explained what “wired for sound meant” in the book. One of my best friends, Captain Ronald William Penn, the only Pomona College graduate to die in the war, was killed before I visited his camp in Pleiku. Read that account in the book. It still gives me survivor’s guilt.
What do you hope gardeners and non-gardeners alike will gain from reading this book?
I hope that the book gives a richer perspective on what is important in our lives, and how that can influence the way we see a garden. It goes beyond the abstraction of drifts of grasses in new gardens or the crafting of the best herbaceous border in a more traditional garden. It transcends the context of historical references, which we already discussed in our gardens. It should remind us of our own humanity, not just the fragility of our gardens, which are, after all, more temporary than our houses. It challenges us to accept the fact of impermanence and thus to think about a sustainability of memory and how we do this.
As your work and words make evident, you’re expertly skilled at weaving art, design, gardening, and memory into a unique narrative. What suggestions do you have for our Fellows who are looking to add more meaning and intention to their own landscapes?
It is ultimately about the empowerment of place. The garden can show that everyone, no matter how modest or grand their creation, can connect to a larger resonance, a certain life force. So the garden can, at its fullest realization, lay claim to this larger meaning. It is the ultimate empowerment of our sense of place and definition of this humanity. It should help us lay claim.
You’ve made many important contributions to the American landscape as a planner and urban designer over the years. When did your interest in urban planning begin?
Growing up, I built a little town on a lot we owned adjacent to our hillside house in Los Angeles County, overlooking the city. I was fascinated by old western mining towns my very indulgent parents had taken my sister and me to visit. I called this my ghost town and had my friends, in Tom Sawyer-like fashion, build the structures, which included the Hangmans Hotel, a sheriff’s office, two boot hills, and a stream that ran down the hillside on bone dry hard pack. My parents never complained about the water bill because they liked the fact that I was constructing my own "adventure" playground.
I had an early love of history which led to town planning. I greatly looked forward to seeing Williamsburg on a family cross country trip in the fifth grade. Here, I saw a formally organized town. Later, I won a fellowship to Deerfield, where I did a required comparative paper on conservative Deerfield with its mile-long main street to adjacent Greenfield. It was chaotic, but grew because the railroad went through it. I later submitted this paper to attain admission to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I didn’t realize that you could obtain a planning degree. Indeed, Harvard had the oldest program in the country. I went on to do innovative placemaking work and pioneering Main Street revitalization.
As our world has very rapidly changed over the past year, many are emphasizing the power of gardens for their psychological and health benefits. How have you been looking to nature for solace during this time?
My mistress is ultimately the solace of the garden, which is "man-made!" Stroke-shocked, I cannot drive any more to experience wild nature, but I was never a big camper. I preferred an elegant hotel at the end of the day. Likewise, sauntering through my gardens, swimming naked in my sunken pool surrounded by its Arts & Crafts splendor, exercise, and exorcizing mind, body, and spirit.
Ron's new book, "The Adventures of a Narrative Gardener: Creating a Landscape of Memory" can be purchased here.
Portrait of Ron Fleming at top by Bethy Cardoso