Campus & Buildings

Restoring the Formal Gardens, 2007-2020

Posted by Holly Brough
Director of Communications

Note: This blog expands on an earlier garden restoration update from 2015

Inspired by an anonymous donor, Shelburne Farms began plans to restore its formal gardens in 2006, under the careful guidance of architectural conservator Douglas Porter. This spring, we completed the final phase of the four-phase restoration, thanks to the vision, talent, dedication and generosity of so many, from supporters to craftspeople. Collectively, they have helped us conserve -- and continue to help maintain -- these remarkable gardens.

Here are some photographic highlights from the four phases of the restoration.

PHASE 1: Lakeshore Erosion Stabilization (2007)

After years of erosion, several pieces of the balustrade had fallen into the lake, while other parts were cracked and crumbling. Stabilizing the shoreline was the first step to support and protect future work. Equipment operators drove out onto the frozen lake in the winter/spring of 2007 to construct a new retaining wall, which was backfilled with tons of stone to provide substantial fortification between the lake and the garden.

(photo: Marshall Webb)
The completed shoreline stabilization project in 2007. Note the gap in the middle of the balustrade, where pieces had fallen into the lake. (photo: Marshall Webb)

PHASE 2: Repairing balustrade & lily pool area (2012)

The balustrade was constructed in 1914 by the Art Stone Company of Miller Falls, Massachusetts, and the lily pool was completed by 1918. Both of these elements were meticulously restored and reconstructed over several years by a historic preservation team from the University of Vermont, overseen by Doug Porter.

The balustrade circa 1914. (Shelburne Farms Collections)

The crumbling balustrade, prior to restoration (photo: Marshall Webb)

Masons re-set 161 balustrades for the overlook. Each balustrade that was removed was numbered so it could be returned to its original location. Today, 75% of the balustrades are original to the garden. Forty-five new castings replaced the section that had fallen into the lake. (photo: Janice Heilmann)

The balustrade today. (Photo by Glenn Suokko. Used with permission from his book, The Formal Gardens of Shelburne Farms.)


A newly constructed (and not quite landscaped) lower garden, ca. 1914-1915. Note the pots containing Bay Trees. Lila Webb purchased no less than a dozen of these pots and four surviving pots were restored in Phase 3 (see below). (Shelburne Farms Archives)

(photo: Angelyn Bass, used with permission from The Formal Gardens at Shelburne Farms by Glenn Suokko.)

(photo: Neil Dixon, used with permission from The Formal Gardens at Shelburne Farms by Glenn Suokko.)
(photo: Angelyn Bass, used with permission from The Formal Gardens at Shelburne Farms by Glenn Suokko.)
(photo: Neil Dixon, used with permission from The Formal Gardens at Shelburne Farms by Glenn Suokko.)


The Lily Pool in June 2020 (Photo: Holly Brough)

PHASE 3: Upper garden walls and stairs (2017)

The grand allee (ca. 1913) is a focal point of the Formal Gardens today, planted in an adapted Gertrude Jekyll color scheme.  Head Gardener Birgit Deeds carefully removed the plant materials to allow workers to repair and reconstruct the built elements, stairways, and statuary. This included improving the drainage of perimeter walls to assure their long-term stability.

In 2015, masons began tackling the curved boundary wall of the northern pergola, as well as other walls in the north end of the garden. They repointed the mortar between the bricks, which had decayed and weathered over time, and reinforced plain concrete retaining walls.

(Photo: Rosalyn Graham)

Northern pergola wall after repointing. Note the Flemish bond brick coursing pattern, which alternates short and long bricks (headers and stretchers). The dark bricks were glazed and fired to achieve the black color. (Julie Eldridge Edwards)

Conservator Angelyn Bass, a consultant to the Formal Gardens Restoration Project, oversaw the repair and cleaning of cast stone and marble decorative elements, including wall caps, statuary, furniture, and urns.  She conserved and repaired one of the two lions perched in the garden, as well as two of four surviving Italianate pots purchased by Lila Webb in 1909. 

Two of the original, glazed terra cotta pots acquired from William Galloway Company of Philadelphia. After many years of use, the pots had cracked. Here they are prior to conservation work, with metal banding to keep them intact, 2006. (Julie Eldridge Edwards)
Pots being conserved using a custom-made “cradle” to accommodate their girth and allow a binding resin to set. (Doug Porter/Angelyn Bass)
By 1918, wooden columned pergolas book-ended both the north and south ends of the gardens but both were dismantled following a hurricane in 1953.  For over 60 years, nearly all of the original pieces of the south pergola were carefully stored away in the Coach Barn attic.  In July 2015, the various pieces were removed, scraped, and repainted. The pergola was then reinstalled in its original location, with 99.5% original material, according to Doug Porter. 

In the Breeding Barn, Doug Porter works on restoring the south pergola's columns. (Angelyn Bass)

To prepare the south pergola allee, we laid down new sod and Head Gardenerr Birgit Deeds designed new beds. The beds include French lilacs, a collection of peonies (donated anonymously), and globe thistle. The globe thistle is sympathetic to the original planting scheme (see photographs below).

The south pergola, circa 1920
The south pergola, summer 2020, 100 years later, with globe thistle. (photo: Holly Brough)

PHASE 4: The North Pergola Terrace

In the final phase of the restoration, craftspeople repaired the terrace of the North Pergola, in front of the arched wall that was repaired in 2015. 

In April 2020, the terrace of the North Pergola was repaired.
Lila Webb envisioned and executed her Italianate gardens between 1909 and 1915. Our restoration efforts have run in about the same time frame, 100 years later!  Thanks to all the skilled craftspeople, the leadership and dedication of Doug Porter and Birgit Deeds, and the support of many donors, this important historic American garden will continue to be enjoyed by many as a place of beauty, peaceful reflection, celebration, and learning.  

If you are interested in supporting the ongoing care and maintenance of the Formal Gardens, through an endowment gift or otherwise, please contact Heidi Webb,  Major Gifts Officer,, 802.985.0303

For a closer (and beautiful) look at the Formal Gardens and their restoration, see the recently published book, The Formal Gardens of Shelburne Farms by Glenn Suokko. Several images from his book are included in this blog, used with permission.


Submitted by Patricia M ODonnell on Fri , 08/14/2020 - 09:50 AM

Thanks, nice post with great details of garden evolution and dates. Early garden details interesting as well as the various chambers of the formal gardens today. We are happy to see the Sukko book, it puts a cap on the efforts begun back in 2000 and further in our planning work, by Heritage Landscapes in 2004. Fun to read.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.