It might have been a hard act to follow. Frederick Law Olmsted aimed to design outdoor spaces that would refresh and renew the human spirit, and this he certainly did in sculpting the sweeping landscape of the Gilded Age Vanderbilt-Webb estate on Lake Champlain in Shelburne, Vermont. Today, the estate is part of Shelburne Farms, a 1,400- acre working farm, forest, and National Historic Landmark run as an educational nonprofit organization with an emphasis on sustainability. Recently, it sold one of its outer parcels to a couple who built a new home on the 10-acre site. The Olmsted legacy notwithstanding, the new owners, who had spent time in Japan, challenged Keith Wagner and Jeff Hodgson of Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture in Burlington, Vermont, to design a Zen landscape that would integrate the house into its setting.
The site overlooks expansive meadows, Lake Champlain, and the Adirondack Mountains. “It was the view that sold us,” says one of the owners. “Being elevated above the lake, you have a near, middle, and distant view. Our mandate was to have the house ‘disappear’ into the landscape over time.”
The landscape designers appreciated their clients’ eye for art. “They didn’t want anything run-of-the-mill,” Wagner says. “They didn’t say ‘no’ to anything. It was a great site, the clients were great, and they gave us a great budget. It’s unusual to get all three of those in one project.”
Working closely with architect Brian J. Mac of Birdseye Design of Richmond, Vermont, who designed the long, low-slung contemporary home, Wagner and Hodgson conceived a landscape appropriate to the historic, natural, and agrarian site. This meant, as Wagner put it, “letting the woodland palette ooze out of the woods and embrace the house” on one side and opening the house to the commanding views on the other. “We wanted the house to feel on the edge of the woods,” says Hodgson.
Other considerations included a neighboring house that compromised the view, an existing barn that was to be converted to a guesthouse, a stable for the owners’ four Shire draft horses to be built on an adjoining, leased 5-acre parcel, the unwanted clear view of the driveway from the road leading to Shelburne Farms, and the clients’ request for a water feature.
Wagner and Hodgson rerouted the approach to the house, adding an elbow that created a privacy screen. They laid the driveway to the stable outside the residential threshold, which is delineated by dry stone walls, a configuration that shields the house from truck traffic. A graceful arc of bluestone slabs connects the guesthouse to a parking court and the front entry of the main house. Lilac bluestone retaining walls were built close to the back of the house, mirroring its strong horizontal plinth, and, in the spirit of Shelburne Farms, the meadow comes right up to the stone.
To de-emphasize the sightline to the neighboring house, the landscape architects framed the best view of the lake and mountains with tall trees — mature shade specimens moved from elsewhere on the property. The relocation, undertaken by arborist Bill DeVos of TreeWorks in Montpelier, Vermont, was no small feat. Waiting until winter, when the tree root balls were frozen, DeVos lifted two 30-foot maples and one shagbark hickory from the ground and dragged them to their new locations with two excavators.
A series of outdoor spaces was created around the house: a car court hidden from view by trees, shrubs, and a hedge of upright European hornbeam; a kitchen garden of herbs, greens, and flowers; entertainment terraces that include an outdoor hearth, kitchen, and dining area; and a sculpture court with a honey locust tree that, when viewed from inside the house, creates a foreground for the distant vista of lake and mountains.
To accommodate the change in grade between the main living spaces and the bedroom wing, which includes a walkout basement, Wagner and Hodgson used lawn ramps below the stone retaining walls and an exposed concrete wall faced with Corten steel panels covered with vines. (Corten, which rusts and seals itself, recalls old farm machinery found around Shelburne Farms.) One-inch joints between the panels allow light to emerge at night, when the steel appears to float off the wall.
The water feature began as a rain-collecting system. In a storm, sheets of water flow off the standing-seam metal roof into a runnel along the front of the house. The sound of the falling water was so pleasing to the clients that Wagner and Hodgson added a circulating pump and a waterfall that’s audible, along with natural birdsong and the rustling of birch leaves, through the master bedroom and a guest bathroom windows. The waterfall splashes into a Corten steel basin bridged by a single 12-foot slab of bluestone.
Transitional plantings of river birches, dwarf fothergilla, cinnamon and ostrich ferns, and blue star amsonia blur the boundary between the man-made landscape and the mature woods. Similarly, the “enhanced woodland garden” of shadblow trees, foamflower, bunchberry, snakeroot, and sweet woodruff that flanks the approach to the house creates a soothing embrace for anyone entering the site. At night, the trees are backlit with tiny LED lights to suggest moonlight. “As the plantings grow, they are softening the house and pulling it back into the landscape,” says the owner, “giving it the tranquil quality we intended.”
“When you come home at the end of the day,” says Wagner, “you need something that calms and refreshes you.” One can’t help thinking Olmsted would have approved.