Harkness Park, Summer at Eolia
By Carolyn Battista/Photos by A. Vincent Scarano
In the early decades of the 20th century, Mary and Edward Harkness summered at Eolia, their estate overlooking Long Island Sound in Waterford, Connecticut. They had several other residences, but they liked the summer breezes at their seaside manor. They named it after Aeolia, island home of King Aeolus, keeper of winds (and host to Odysseus).
The couple and their guests could settle comfortably in a 42-room mansion (with 18 little bedrooms just for servants). Around them were assorted outbuildings, such as greenhouses and a complex that housed the squash court, bowling alley, billiards room, vehicles center and stables downstairs, with more servants’ quarters upstairs. The estate’s approximately 230 acres included lawns, tennis courts, a golf course, a beach, flower and vegetable gardens, and orchards, along with territory for turkeys, chickens,and cows. A large, full-time staff looked after it all.
When Mary Harkness died in 1950, ten years after her husband, she left Eolia to the people of the State of Connecticut. Today it’s Harkness Memorial State Park (and adjoining Camp Harkness, for people with disabilities). The park grounds are open year-round; the mansion and an outdoor amphitheater can be rented for weddings and other events. People come to walk, rollerblade, rest, play games, strum guitars, have picnics, fish, watch birds (there’s a blind overlooking Goshen Cove), fly kites, take photos, paint, sketch, and enjoy the beach (no swimming, but plenty of sand and sea air). In winter, some hardy souls even cross-country ski across windswept Harkness fields.
But it’s in summer—the season of Mary and Edward, after all—that visitors can get a full Harkness experience. The restored formal gardens are in spectacular bloom. On weekends, guided mansion tours offer glimpses of grand old days. The greenhouses, which are undergoing a major restoration, now look much as they did in those days. And everywhere, staff—sometimes aided by volunteers—are working to keep Eolia elegant and welcoming.
The Harknesses’ everyday vocabularies probably lacked such terms as “state budget cuts.” The park now has a permanent staff totaling four, plus 25 seasonal employees. “The staff does a fabulous job,” said Eileen Grant, who began to list staff tasks galore, including mowing vast lawns, tenderly caring for heirloom plants, servicing 250,000 park visitors annually, and dealing with 100 or so weddings each year (with proceeds funding park restoration and maintenance). Grant belongs to Friends of Harkness, a volunteer group organized 23 years ago to advocate for the park, raise money toward restoration projects, and dig in, often literally, to help the hardworking staff. Mark Darin, park manager, says, “They’re a tremendous help.”
Docents from the Friends lead the summer mansion tours, giving visitors lively commentary on Eolia and the Harknesses. Ruth Tombari launched one tour by explaining that she’d grown up knowing Eolia well. She’d lived nearby and hung out with kids whose parents worked on the estate, in the years before and after Mary Harkness died. “I spent a lot of time roaming around here,” she said. “My mother and I had tea with Mrs. Harkness in the Music Room.”
The mansion, which underwent major restoration in the late 1990s, now reflects the Harkness heyday. Tombari pointed out such features as the original Venetian glass lighting fixtures in the Dining Room, a lovely green tile floor in the Breakfast Room, servants’ bedrooms, little buttons for summoning servants, a guest room housing Harkness memorabilia (including a model of the couple’s 135-foot yacht, the Stevana), and Mary’s magnificent bathtub, with numerous knobs and spigots for dispensing salt water or fresh, at temperatures to suit.
Edward Harkness was one of the richest men in America, his father having backed a start-up called Standard Oil. Edward worked steadily throughout his life to give money away, and his wife, also from a wealthy family, was a kindred spirit. Tombari reeled off examples of the Harknesses’ philanthropy, from the Commonwealth Fund to college buildings. “They were very good to their employees,” she added.
Two videos available at the park gift shop relate Harkness history (and Harkness generosity). One video features interviews with people who remember the days when they or family members worked for the Harknesses. The interviewees tell how Eolia employees received turkeys at Thanksgiving, $50 bills at Christmas, and help with medical expenses whenever they needed it. A local dentist tells how a band he once led got a surprise gig on the Stevana, with excellent pay. Another fellow tells how Mary Harkness, who had severe arthritis, loved to wade in the Sound. Her butler drove her to the beach in her electric car, and with another employee, helped her in and out of the water. “She was a very gracious woman,” he says. Former workers also tell of golf-course tasks, like regularly brushing dew from the greens with a flexible bamboo pole and of looking after the Harknesses’ prize dairy cows. One man especially remembers (“Sixty-five years later!”), the day in his teens when he helped with the birth of a calf.
Also interviewed is George White, founder of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. He recalls how, when he was six or seven, his neighbor, “Aunt Mary” admired his Ovaltine shaker, acquired with Ovaltine boxtops, and introduced him and his family to a scary-looking, but exciting guest.
The cows, chickens, turkeys, and vegetables that the staff tended are gone now, but a small orchard thrives, and the gardens look splendid. Every Wednesday morning, usually from early April up to Thanksgiving, Friends work in the gardens with the staff. They also work in the greenhouses, starting in January to propagate the “Harkness heliotropes,” vanilla-scented plants loved by Mary Harkness.
On one recent Wednesday, staff and volunteers were in the East Garden, savoring sunshine and gentle breezes as they lugged flats of snapdragons, cut out silverweed, and carefully planted the heliotrope standards that had just been brought from the greenhouse. (On the next Wednesday they had to bundle in sweatshirts, as the wind-keeper Aeolus unleashed unseasonably cold, wet blasts).
Grant, who helped launch the restoration of the gardens in the 1990s and still oversees volunteer operations, unrolled fully detailed plans, some two by four feet, showing what was planted where, throughout the gardens. “So you can see the configuration,” she said. The formal gardens were originally planned by Beatrix Jones Farrand, who’d studied European gardens on tours with her aunt, Edith Wharton; and who’d help found the American Society of Landscape Architects. The East Garden plan was updated in 1949 by another prominent designer, Marian Cruger Coffin. The restoration closely follows Farrand’s and Coffin’s designs, with Grant and others grateful that the Internet can now provide so much help in tracking down needed plants, including heirlooms.
Main features of the East Garden include the heliotropes and a sunken area with a little jade-bottomed pool. The West, or Italian, Garden has “thousands of annuals,” Grant noted, with “lots of yellows, oranges, and mahogany, reflecting the sunny Mediterranean.” People can stroll from the West Garden up to the mansion’s vine-covered pergola or out to the little rock garden that was Farrand’s favorite. (It reminded her of Maine, which she loved.) Next to the West Garden is a boxwood cluster trimmed to form Mary Harkness’ initials.
Grant and a summer employee, Julia Jankowski, headed down to the greenhouse complex, designed and built for the Harknesses in 1908 by Lord and Burnham, a distinguished “glasshouse” company. Its restoration is funded, stage by stage, by state money, proceeds from mansion rentals, and money raised by the Friends. “We’ve restored a central three-room section and a potting shed. Now, we have east and west wings to restore,” Grant said. In the completed area, Jankowski noted, “It looks like it did when it was first constructed, but with modern conveniences.”
Grant pointed to “the biggest challenge–marrying new materials with old designs.” Old elements, like benches with terracotta inserts, were carefully saved and used as before. “We have photographs galore, showing what it looked like,” Grant said. But everything, from different climate zones to automatically controlled shades, can operate with new, high-tech, efficient, cost effective equipment, all of which is already working in the central section and is in place for the wings. Finishing touches to the central section will include making what’s now a storage room into an area for students of horticulture, history, and landscaping design. Also ahead are educational and interpretive programs for the public.
Meanwhile, the big project will be completing the wings. The west wing will be for plant production, with replacement heirloom plants propagated for the gardens and items grown for sale. The east wing will properly house the Harkness grapevines (which date to the 1930’s) and will include the restoration of the little fish pond where Harkness carp once wintered.
Mary and Edward would be pleased to see Eolia so cared for, and to see so many people enjoying it, although Edward, who regularly teed off right from his back door, might be a tad disappointed that the greens are no longer there, nicely brushed.
Harkness Memorial State Park, at 275 Great Neck Road, Waterford, CT 06385, is open 8 AM to sunset, year-round. Parking fees are charged on weekends, mid-April through Memorial Day Weekend; on weekends to mid-September, and daily, Memorial Day through Labor Day: For Connecticut residents–$6 weekdays, $9 weekends ($6 after 4 PM); For Out of State–$10 weekdays, $15 weekends ($10 after 4 PM). On Harkness Family Day, September 7–visitors are asked for a donation of non-perishable food, in lieu of the parking fee. For information: On seasonal passes and Charter Oak passes (for all state parks), click ct.gov/deep; on Harkness Park, click ct.gov/deep/harkness, or call 860-443-5725; on Friends of Harkness, click harkness.org, or call 860-437-1523.