Spring Awakening

by Anne Patterson, Assistant Director of Development and Alumnae/i

When the Formal Garden was originally designed for Seven Springs, the Beck family's estate, it was conceived as a place of beauty for quiet reflection overlooking the mountains. More than one hundred years later, the Formal Garden is still a site for contemplation, but this past year it has been an important place on campus for students to gather outside. The location has been used for art projects, writing assignments, and photography classes, in addition to a favorite place to share meals, even during the colder days!

This year marks the sixth anniversary of the restoration of the Formal Garden at The White Mountain School. In addition to celebrating the anniversary, we are recognizing the generosity of all our donors to the garden project that beautified the campus. Of the many lovely places at White Mountain, the Formal Garden is the favorite of many. Sited adjacent to the entrance of McLane and a few steps up from Cook Circle, the Formal Garden's location just outside the Dining Hall is the setting for many photo opportunities, including the traditional class graduation and prom pictures. Alumnae/i enjoy it as a special place for reunion gatherings. But it is also a place for quiet meditation, conversation, and remembrance of friends, classmates, and faculty.

When we told former staff member Julie Yates P'17 about this article, she said, "I love the Formal Garden, and I loved working on the restoration project!"

She went on the share the following, "While common themes—lifelong friendships, a sense of adventure, and connection with something greater than oneself, to name a few—weave through the decades of Saint Mary's School and White Mountain, the Formal Garden is one of the few physical structures shared by all alumnae/i of our current location. So, when the opportunity to restore the Formal Garden presented itself, we knew we had to answer the call. And, with months of research, hours of labor, and the generous financial support from numerous alumnae/i, trustees, and parents of alums, the garden was restored to its rightful place of pride on the campus."

The Formal Garden holds memories for alumnae/i of all generations from the ladies of Saint Mary's-in-the-Mountains to our most recent graduates. We wanted to celebrate the anniversary as we are anxiously waiting for the Formal Garden to bloom again this spring. The outpouring of gifts and support for the restoration project from alumnae/i, parents, and friends was a testament to the strong feelings it evokes for different reasons across many generations.

Anne Weathers Ritchie, St. Mary's School, Class of 1970, was also pleased to hear about the anniversary article, "How nice to hear this! I love the garden and actually remember it more from my trustee days than my student days. When I was on the Board (and very actively gardening for myself and for others), I became very interested in Olmsted's designs and plans for the restoration. I actually have some of the original iris from the garden—treasures they are indeed."

The Formal Garden is a prime example of the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903), who was the father of American landscape architecture. He is best known for designing the grounds of New York City's Central Park, the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But in the eyes of the White Mountain community, his most important work is the garden that was originally designed when the property known as Seven Springs was owned by the Beck Family. The Becks knew of Olmsted from his work on the adjacent Glessner Estate and hired him to design their own garden.

Lovingly and beautifully restored in 2015, the project had started three years earlier when a group of White Mountain trustees met at the Olmsted Archives in Brookline, Massachusetts, to get copies of the original design. Olmsted had completed 99 iterations of the original garden plans for the Beck estate. The next step was fundraising and finding a landscape firm qualified to complete the project. At the dedication in 2015, former trustee Henry Vaillant, grandson of Eman and Mary Payne Beck, addressed the crowd. He remembered the original garden from summers he spent at Seven Springs. He thanked all who were involved for their support and congratulated the White Mountain School for taking the time and care needed to bring this important historical space back to its original beauty.

The Formal Garden is also important to many in the White Mountain community beyond the School and was the focal point of Alumnae/i Weekend in 2018 and in 2019, too, when The White Mountain Garden Club gave a presentation of gardens in the area and prominently featured our own garden. They shared the history and origins of the garden, including the fact that formal gardens represented a way of life that existed for the summer colony in the White Mountains.

A Timeline of the Formal Garden

1917 – Seven Springs estate was built for Eman and Mary Payne Beck.

  • The Beck's hired Fredrick Law Olmsted Sr. to provide the garden design.
    Olmsted was a mutual friend of the Glessners and a visitor to the Rocks Estate. He also contributed to the design of several White Mountain gardens

1933 – The White Mountain Garden Club, founded in 1924, arranged for photography of local gardens, including the Beck garden. The photos developed as hand-painted glass lantern slides are in the club's collection, and the glass lantern slide images are part of the Smithsonian Institute's Archives of American Gardens.

A vintage photo of the Formal Garden.

Treatment of the stone retaining wall, steps lead to the Formal Garden.


A vintage photo of the Formal Garden.

The picture above is the Formal Garden with the fountain as the center of interest unless one sees the view and lovely lilies in the foreground, Mrs. Beck's favorite flowers. Sculptor Carboni set and installed the statues. A Carboni man said Mrs. Beck's cutting garden was the finest. He set and installed the statue.

1936 – Beck estate was purchased by trustees of Saint Mary's-in-the-Mountains, and the School moved from Concord to the estate.

A vintage photo of the Formal Garden.

The Formal Garden circa 1940.

2015 – The Formal Garden restoration was completed under the direction of landscape architect Leigh Starer, who worked from Olmsted's drawings and circa 1940 photographs.

A vintage photo of the Formal Garden.

A vintage photo of the Formal Garden.

The Formal Garden in 2018 and "Heron" by Elliot Offner watching over the garden.

"The Formal Garden is a place where students, faculty, and staff can pause to reflect on the moment or think about the future. Even in the midst of nature, it is important to have a setting where there is structure and consistency in the pattern of a garden, where a person can focus on the growth and change that happens in each of us every day. Thank you for celebrating the restoration of the Formal Garden! The traditions and culture at a boarding school are what connect the generations of students. I will always be grateful for my experience at St. Mary's-in-the-Mountains," said Debby Garfield Bangs '71.

Every year and every season, The White Mountain School is grateful and privileged to have the Formal Garden as a central part of the School's campus. We enjoy sharing the Formal Garden's beauty and history in addition to its representation of the culture that existed at the time it was designed. Please come and enjoy the Formal Garden if you visit this summer and encourage your friends who might visit.

Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.