Harkness – from tables to state park

Following is a guest post from Cyndy at Gardening Asylum, who fondly links some little known history with Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, Connecticut. A little digging on my part into Harkness tables and Edward Stephen Harkness revealed the following quote by Harkness:

“Civilized discourse must be at the core of all good education and all full lives.”

Harkness’ vision of learning environments involved a classroom where students  “could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them, and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method …” Harkness foresaw an experience where each “would feel encouraged to speak up.”

Edward Harkness’ vision and donation led to creation of Harkness Tables … trademarked by Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, where the tables were crafted and first used.

All interesting history but Cyndy’s tale, below, makes it much more personal …

Long ago in ancient times, I went to a school that used Harkness tables http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harkness_table. Encouraging students around a large oval table (donated by Edward Harkness) to engage in discussion of subject matter was revolutionary at the beginning of the 20th century and remains a cherished tradition at many places of learning today.

Many years later, a dear friend who grew up in Waterford, Connecticut invited me to visit Harkness Memorial State Park, an estate donated by the same Edward Harkness to the state of Connecticut in 1950.

Harkness was a Standard Oil heir who married Mary Stillman, the daughter of a sea captain from Mystic, Connecticut. The mansion, a summer home magnificently situated on over 200 acres on the Long Island Sound, resembles the "cottages" of Newport.

The Harknesses were not attracted to Newport’s socializing, preferring the solitary retreat at Waterford. Childless, they gave away an estimated $129 million during the first half of the 20th century. Mary had a major role in the founding of Connecticut College.

Today, Harkness is a beautiful state park whose buildings and gardens underwent restoration beginning in the nineties. The grounds, reworked and improved by Beatrix Farrand from 1918-1929, include space for a charming fruit orchard, Italian, Oriental, and cutting gardens.


(Kite aerial photo over the Harkness mansion at the Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, Connecticut – photo Attribution: I, PostMan1107)

As you would expect, the structure of the gardens is formal, yet the plantings themselves have a wild kind of beauty within the rigid structure. I particularly remember tiny marigolds used as edging – old fashioned single strains of tagetes tenuifolia, popular when the original gardens were installed and utterly charming. A volunteer explained that an effort is being made to source original varieties for use in the restoration.

For its interesting history, its magnificent coastal setting and gardens reconstructed with care and integrity, Harkness is my Connecticut favorite. – Cyndy

5 comments for “Harkness – from tables to state park

  1. October 18, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Interesting! Like most visitors, I’ve been to Harkness, flown kites there, picnicked and wandered the gardens, but had no idea of the history.

  2. October 18, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    I have a serious case of garden envy from looking at that photo. I’m definitely going to have to put Harkness Memorial State Park on my ‘must-see’ list.

  3. joenesgarden
    October 18, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Laurie, Thanks to Cyndy we all know some of the history of Harkness.

  4. joenesgarden
    October 18, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Do I sense an upcoming field trip, Debbie? I’m in.

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