The Chalet is a historic 4.6-acre property overlooking Newport Harbor. When replanting the aging tree canopy of The Chalet, Dan Burns and Tom Eberhardt walked the grounds looking for telltale depressions or mounds which marked the spot where trees planted by Axel Anderson — head gardener for the estate from the late 1880’s to the 1940’s — once stood. In deference to stewards of the past, new trees have been planted in many of these spots along with “shadow plantings” next to mature trees whose lifespans are nearing their limits.
Over the past decade, the Chalet’s now carefully-tended landscape has slowly but surely recovered from a long period of benign neglect. In 2006, condominium owners gathered together to begin an ambitious restoration of the property, and since that time, an incredible variety of trees have been planted. This story of the rise, fall and rebirth of The Chalet’s historic landscape gives a striking parallel to the story of Newport’s urban forest as a whole.
Originally commissioned by Mrs. Colford Jones, an aunt of Edith Wharton, the residence was designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the Stick Style vernacular circa 1865. In the 1880’s, the property was purchased by Captain Hugh deLaussat Willoughby, who commissioned Hunt to treble the size of the cottage. Like much of Newport, the grounds of The Chalet were heavily planted from the Gilded Age through the early 1940’s (although the hurricane of 1938 felled many trees).
Upon Captain Willoughby’s death, his head gardener, Axel Anderson, was bequeathed the stables, and in the 1940’s, the estate was sold and the property became a rooming house. As it did citywide, planting at The Chalet waned during the second half of the twentieth century as enthusiasm for sylviculture turned to indifference, and indifference to neglect. In the 1960’s, a 60-unit, 3-building condominium complex was proposed for the site (and rejected), and in the 1980’s the main house was converted into the condominiums that exist today.
This familiar Newport story continues with the loss of ten mature fir trees in the early 2000’s as the black turpentine beetle swept across the island, a plague to any tree of the genus Pinus. By this time, the majority of the property’s surviving Gilded Age trees were in steady decline.
In 2005, a stately but ailing Copper Beech was summarily cut down, an act “silently observed by condo owners,” according to Dan Burns. “I had no awareness of the trees on our grounds until that moment when I drove on our property and saw something gone that can never be replaced in our lifetime.”
This dramatic loss to the landscape, combined with the suggestion that all of the property’s beeches might be similarly removed, spurred residents into collective action. Since that time, both the grounds and main building of The Chalet have experienced an infusion of energy and direct investment to revive the once-ailing property. The condominium association has come together to support the sustained effort of several residents to lovingly replant this jewel along the harbor.
Guided by photographs from the 1920’s and 30’s, Dan Burns, Tom Eberhardt, and Nanette Kritzalis and her mother have sourced trees with the help of arborists, landscaping companies, and nearby nurseries. A Katsura and Black Tupelo were planted through the Newport Tree Society Specimen Tree Restoration Program, and the City of Newport’s Division of Forestry has been supportive of replanting efforts.
Many original Gilded Age trees remain on the property, including a Fernleaf Beech, American Beech, ornamental Japanese Maple, Camperdown Elm, Tulip Tree, and several Butternuts and European beeches. Since 2006, well over thirty new species have been added, creating a true arboretum.
This encouraging story of the successful adaptive reuse of an historic Newport estate is an inspiration to us all. Dan Burns further prompts us with an old Chinese proverb: ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’