Miss Florence would be pleased to see her lovely old-fashioned gardens today at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme—gardens that had all but disappeared after her death in 1937. During the height of the Impressionist art movement, these gardens offered beauty and inspiration to some of America’s finest painters. Henry Ward Ranger. Willard L. Metcalf. Child Hassam. And many more.
To resurrect this special place to its 1910 glory was the dream of landscape historian Sheila Wertheimer.
“Before there was anything other than the Huntley-Brown house and the Florence Griswold house,” says Wertheimer, “I met Jeff Anderson, the director, at a dinner party. He lived here then, and asked if I would come and design a garden for him here.” There was little space, since most of the current 13 acres was owned by other people back then. Wertheimer was intrigued, knowing there had to be some history and stories to help her and, in 1998, an archaeological dig revealed the physical boundaries of Miss Florence’s gardens.
Wertheimer continues. “All the archives were kept in the house and I started looking at old snapshots and photographs and paintings. Every time an exhibit came here, I would go to see it and take pictures. I made lots of notes and got the history so we could work on it that way.”
From Florence Griswold’s correspondence, Wertheimer found references to seed catalogs and gardening books which revealed that Miss Florence was an avid gardener always looking for new and unusual plants. “I managed to get all the old-fashioned plants from a place up north near Canada,” says Wertheimer. “Some of them are very difficult to get. I’d love to have someone grow them down here.”
Once the garden was in the restoration process, Wertheimer realized she would need some help. “I decided we’d meet on Friday mornings and organize a group of volunteers to help,” she says. “At first, there were five, then we got bigger, even to 41 at one point.” The current Garden Gang, as they’re called, number 36 regular members who show up consistently. Each garden has a group coordinator with expertise in a particular garden type: vegetables, herbs, perennials, shrubs, and general gardening knowledge. Each volunteer wears the uniform: blue tee shirt and pearls.
A wider variety of volunteers you won’t find anywhere, but they all have one thing in common: love of gardens. Well, another thing: lots of energy!
Emily Snow beams from beneath the brim of her hat. “I’ve been here 31 years,” she says. “I started off at the garden club in Old Lyme, but they met at night and this was a daytime thing. And a hands-on thing, and I just became enamored of the whole place.” Emily is also a docent at the museum, so she gets to watch everything grow.
Another of the original volunteers is Teddy Curtis who’s been part of the garden crew for 29 years. “I love gardening—that’s all I can tell you,” she says with a huge smile. “It’s just such a beautiful place in Old Lyme and I wanted to be part of it. I love being out with these beautiful plants, this beautiful site, and fabulous people.”
“Yes, it’s a great group,” says Snow. “And everyone is very talented. And there’s no arguing and no problems.”
Over the years, the museum has reacquired the original land, the last piece coming home in 2017. Wertheimer smiles. “We wanted a garden where artists could come and paint again.” More than a hundred years have passed, but the light and spirit of this place are still alive.