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Whispers from a gilded past linger at Brookline estate

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Skip Moskey, author of a new biography about Larz and Isabel Anderson, looks up at an original statue that still stands on the Brookline estate.,
Skip Moskey, author of a new biography about Larz and Isabel Anderson, looks up at an original statue that still stands on the Brookline estate.(Barry Chin)

BROOKLINE — If you've heard the name Larz Anderson, you probably associate it with vintage cars on display at a Brookline park with sweeping views of the Boston skyline.

A century ago, people would likely have thought of the lavish outdoor parties and shows held on the estate. For one of them, a Persian Pageant, Isabella Stewart Gardner mounted an elephant to lead a procession of Boston's elite — costumed as royalty, courtiers and ladies of the harem — to a garden arena. The elephant didn't cooperate, though, and the grande dame of the city's art world had to make her entrance on foot.

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The force behind that charity benefit, which drew 2,000 spectators, was not Larz, but his wife, Isabel, a multitalented woman who was born in the year of the nation's centennial.

For his new book "Larz and Isabel Anderson: Wealth and Celebrity in the Gilded Age," Stephen T. (Skip) Moskey spent six years combing journals, letters and books; interviewing descendants of Anderson relatives and workers; and poring through archives from Paris to Washington.

"Skip's book breathes life into the estate," said Erin Chute Gallentine, who as Brookline's parks and open space director is overseeing a multimillion dollar effort to refurbish the property.

The Andersons did not have any children, but their 64-acre estate was very much their baby.

There Larz, who dabbled in diplomacy as a career, devoted himself to his avocations of architecture, landscaping and decorative arts, while Isabel mounted theatrical events and produced thousands of pages of stories, poetry, essays and travelogues.

While the Larz Anderson Auto Museum has preserved the cars in an 1889 castle-like carriage house, the estate's other buildings and gardens went to seed after Isabel's death in 1948. The Anderson's 21,000-square-foot mansion was razed in the 1950s and replaced by a parking lot. Its footprint was restored only in the last 30 years as the Friends of Larz Anderson spearheaded the rescue of Brookline's last remaining intact Gilded Age estate.

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"This is truly a gem for the region," said landscape architect John Amodeo, a 19-year veteran of the Boston Landmark Commission. "I don't know of another estate landscape in the Boston area that's not just open to the public, but owned by the public."

Ironically, the car collection ranked fairly low among Larz's hobbies. It owes its survival to a personality quirk. "Larz was unable to let go of anything he owned," Moskey said. "He was something of a pack rat."

But Larz took his gardens very seriously, transforming the estate into a living travelogue inspired by the Andersons' global tours. Larz initially worked with landscape architect Charles A. Platt, who planned gardens as outdoor rooms, each suited for a different mood or time of day. The Olmsted Brothers, sons of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designed the plantings.

The crown jewel was an Italian garden more than two-thirds the size of a football field. Featuring a central mall lined by elevated promenades, it dazzled the eyes with a changing cast of flowers that bloomed from spring to fall; Roman and Greek-styled statuary; and topiary in such quirky shapes as a cat and a little man. It soothed the ear with the splash of fountains and the chirping of birds kept in cages set atop decorative columns.

A 20-foot-high replica of Mt. Fuji, a smiling Buddha and a spread-winged eagle (now at Boston College) were among the highlights of the Japanese garden.

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The Temple of Love is still a popular spot in Brookline.
The Temple of Love is still a popular spot in Brookline.(Barry Chin)

An English garden, haphazard by design, surrounded an artificial lagoon that in recent years has been rescued from the weeds. Today, the site is marked by what is popularly known as the Temple of Love, a domed structure that was inspired by the Temple of Diana at Villa Borghese in Rome. Since Diana was the goddess of childbirth, local lore has it that the Andersons built the replica as a fertility offering. Appropriately, it has become a popular spot for wedding photographers.

Both Isabel and Larz came from families with deep roots in Colonial America. Larz's great grandfather, Richard Clough Anderson, gave Patrick Henry a firsthand account of the Boston Tea Party, served in the Revolutionary War and later taught Lewis and Clark the art of surveying. In the Civil War, Larz's father, Nicholas Longworth Anderson, was wounded three times, and Isabel's father, George Hamilton Perkins won fame battling the Confederate Navy.

Rather than feeling pressed to add to his family's illustrious achievements, Larz seemed satisfied to rest on its laurels. Thanks to his father's connections, he entered the diplomatic corps. While serving in London, he fell under the spell of Henry Adams, the historian ("The Education of…") and descendant of presidents. In Rome, the 30-year-old Larz fell under the spell of a young woman 10 years his junior, Isabel Weld Perkins. Larz's future wife was making a grand tour of Europe, chaperoned by Maud Howe Elliott, daughter of "Battle of Hymn of the Republic" author Julia Ward Howe.

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After a trans-Atlantic courtship, Larz incurred the wrath of the State Department by putting love before country and demanding permission to return to the States to marry Isabel. While he finally got his way, his petulance came back to haunt him. Despite donating $25,000 to William Howard Taft's successful presidential campaign in hopes of obtaining an ambassadorship, it took him three years to get a posting – and that was as a minister to Brussels in 1912. After that, he briefly served as ambassador to Japan, but appeared more interested in shopping and sightseeing than in diplomacy, according to Moskey.

Money was never an issue for the Andersons. Isabel, after a middle-class upbringing in Back Bay, inherited nearly $6 million ($140 million today) from the estate of her shipping magnate grandfather William Fletcher Weld (former Governor William Weld is a distant relative). Grandfather Weld bought the first 20 acres of what became the Anderson's Brookline estate, calling it Windy Top because of the 110-foot rise at its center.

In honor of Isabel's grandfather, the Andersons renamed the property Weld when they acquired it in 1899. By then the property had been expanded by Isabel's cousin Billy Weld, a passionate polo player who helped found the Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton.

The Andersons wintered in Washington, D.C., where Larz worked with an architect to build a 95-room mansion. It was that property that first drew Moskey, a Washington-based freelance writer and editor, to the Andersons. But upon visiting Brookline, he realized that the real story lay here.

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"Brookline was the center of their personal life," Moskey said. "Washington was the center of their public life."

When the Andersons moved to Weld, Brookline was nationally known for its country estates. Moskey quotes a 19th-century outdoor architecture treatise that describes the town as "a kind of landscape garden, and there is nothing in America of the sort, so inexpressibly charming as the lanes which lead from one cottage, or villa, to another."

Weld was nearly self-sufficient, with a staff of 20 who lived on the grounds, tending to the greenhouses, which supplied fresh grapes in the winter, and the cows and chickens, which supplied fresh milk and eggs.

During World War I, Isabel traded her pampered life for perilous and rugged duty tending to soldiers near the front lines in Belgium and France. She chronicled her adventures in "Zigzagging" (1918), which can be downloaded online.

After Larz's death in 1937, Isabel donated much of her property to pare down expenses. She gave Anderson House to the nation's oldest patriotic organization, the Society of the Cincinnati, which Larz had staunchly supported.

Isabel died in 1948, surprising Brookline by leaving Weld to the town. Viewing the property as a white elephant — especially the rapidly deteriorating mansion — many in town wanted to sell the property.

"It wasn't a time when there was a lot of appreciation for historic preservation and landscape architecture," said Gallentine, who has been with the parks division since 2000.

Early on, the town donated the auto and carriage collection to an antique autos club, forming the nucleus of today's museum.

In 1955, the core of the Italian garden was carved out to make a skating rink. "People have a lot of fond memories of skating at night under the stars," said Gallentine.

The town has restored the balustrades and one of the garden's former pergolas, using materials found on site or replicating the original ornamentation. The skating pavilion incorporates columns that had stood at the site.

Based on a 1989 master plan and drawing in part on state and federal grants, similar work is going on throughout the park. Gallentine said the town has $5 million in its six-year capital improvement program earmarked for future projects.

While Brookline hasn't the resources to rebuild the mansion, it is committed to restoring at least the contours of the estate's exterior rooms and the linked series of international gardens, according to Kaki Martin, founding partner of Klopfer Martin Design Group, who is working with the town.

As gardens and pathways are reclaimed from tangles of weeds and vines, more artifacts from the Anderson's world travels may emerge.

"They were tinkerers and experimenters. … They were eccentric," said Martin. "Gosh, who knows what's out there?"

The crown jewel of Larz and Isabel Anderson’s 64-acre estate was the Italian Garden, pictured in this 1907 photo.
The crown jewel of Larz and Isabel Anderson’s 64-acre estate was the Italian Garden, pictured in this 1907 photo.(Boston Globe Staff Photo T.E. Marr)
In 1955, the core of the Italian garden was carved out to make a public skating rink.
In 1955, the core of the Italian garden was carved out to make a public skating rink.(Barry Chin)

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.