For many people familiar with Millbrook, Walter and Marion Beck, if remembered at all, are names connected with the creation of Innisfree Garden--and that's about where the story ends. As with most things, the fuller version reveals surprising complexities. How exactly did a garden inspired by an 8th-century Chinese intellectual take root in the Hudson Valley?
Walter Beck was an Ohio-born painter schooled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, and at age 58 he married Marion Burt Stone, 46 and heir to her father's mining fortune. We may think of second and third careers as a recent phenomenon, but the Becks' great garden adventure, begun in 1930, was of necessity late-blooming. On a practical level, Marion had had time to inherit the requisite Millbrook acres, 950 of them to be precise, with a 40-acre glacial lake at their center; and both Becks had traveled widely enough by their middle years to draw on a deep well of aesthetic influences. Innisfree was named for the poem by the Anglo-Irish poet W.B. Yeats, but the garden's germ sprang from the fertile design sensibility of Wang Wei, a cultural icon of the T'ang Dynasty.
When it came to big ideas executed on a grand scale, Capability Brown's 18th-century rearrangement of the English countryside could be considered a mere echo of Wei's scope and vision. For the Becks, Innisfree's forested shores and hilly terrain provided a large enough canvas on which to work and play in a like manner, but it was Wei's subtlety and restraint that intrigued them most. Rather than moving mountains or redirecting rivers, Wei preferred an evolving series of small scenes, or "cups," emphasizing a floating lotus, a ribbon of water dripping over a stone lip, a misting spray... Within each cup was an intimate paradise, its simple beauty to be enjoyed without distraction.
Walter Beck was tireless in fashioning his cup constructions, while Marion became a knowledgable plantswoman key to every project. When Walter died in 1954, followed five years later by Marion, Innisfree was well under way. But it took the talents of landscape architect Lester Collins to make the garden we see today.
Collins had met the Becks in 1938 at a Chinese garden lecture at Harvard, where he was then a student and later taught. After Walter's death, Collins took the cup conceit and quite literally dug in. By 1960 the garden was opened to the public, but it wasn't until 1972 that its survival was secured by the sale of 750 acres to Rockefeller University for its ecological studies branch. The 200-odd that were left, which include Lake Tyrell, are today's Innisfree, cited among our country's twenty most important public gardens. Fundamental to the experience of Innisfree remains Wang Wei's belief that such a garden can lift us out of ordinary reality. Anyone who spends time here knows how truly this effect can be achieved.
IF YOU GO:
Innisfree is open May 7 through October 20. (For hours, closings, and fees, visit https://www.innisfreegarden.org
.) A footpath follows much of the lake's shore, occasional seating is positioned for optimal views, and a half dozen picnic tables invite small parties. Cell phone connections work as well here as they would have in Wang Wei's China.
Lorraine Alexander, along with husband Giancarlo Grisi, is owner and innkeeper of Millbrook Country House, a recently renovated, historic American Colonial home. Lorraine is a former editor at