Restored James Arnold gardens will be open to public

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In a letter to Henry David Thoreau in November 1855, Daniel Ricketson of New Bedford answered Thoreau’s questions about the trees at the James Arnold mansion on County Street. Local residents are probably more familiar with the mansion as the home of the Wamsutta Club.

Ricketson, a birder and naturalist, was friends with Thoreau. His list of trees included English walnut, beech, elm, weeping ash, hawthorn, linden and weeping willow. He also named a variety of bushes and said he was sending Thoreau some leaves.

While there is no record of Thoreau visiting the Arnolds, the Arnolds were friends with other well known people, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and John James Audubon. And the visitors to their gardens included President John Quincy Adams and Herman Melville.

Now, as the Wamsutta Club attempts to bring new life to the 427 County St. mansion they have occupied for close to 100 years, the focus will be on the landscape.

Richard Asquino, president of the James Arnold Mansion, Inc., said, “The biggest thing people will probably see is the landscape.”

This story by Peggy Aulisio first appeared in the Standard-Times
on April 19th, 2018 – HERE

Asquino said there will be significant work on the building where the “first priority is the envelope” to keep it water and weather proof. He said New Bedford architect Kathryn Duff will be working on the mansion and that they “need to bring it back to what it once was.” While the building is important, Asquino said the hope is to attract people to the gardens and to hold educational and other gatherings related to the landscape.

Nancy Crosby, who serves on the boards of the Wamsutta Club and Arnold mansion, said there will be an emphasis on trees. In fact, the new logo for the mansion features a Beech tree.

As part of their research, Crosby, landscape architect Paul R.V. Pawlowski and several board members visited the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston recently.

As the arboretum’s website states, “The Arboretum was established in 1872 when the trustees of the will of James Arnold (1781-1868) … transferred a portion of Arnold’s estate to the president and fellows of Harvard College.”

Arnold was married to Sarah Rotch, the daughter of William Rotch, who made his fortune in the whaling industry. A successful businessman, Arnold built the Federal style brick mansion in 1821. The family lived there for close to 100 years until the property was bought by the Wamsutta Club in 1919.

Crosby said they formed the James Arnold Mansion, Inc., in September 2016 because of the declining membership of the private Wamsutta Club. She said a major reason for the formation of the James Arnold Mansion, Inc., was so they could receive tax exempt status from the IRS as a 501(c)(3). The IRS granted that status in June 2017. The change means it can now accept tax deductible donations to help with the restoration; it also means there will be much more outreach to the public and gatherings linked to the new mission.

The mission statement says they hope to “preserve, restore and maintain the historic James Arnold Mansion … for the public’s enjoyment; to educate the public about the history of the mansion and the Arnold family, and their role in the history of New Bedford and Massachusetts; and to invite the public to explore history, culture, architecture, arts, etc., through educational programming, exhibits, performances, and other activities.”

The property originally encompassed 11 acres. Pawlowski has been researching its history as he prepares to restore as much of the landscape as he can on the remaining three acres.

“This was undeveloped land when the Arnolds acquired it,” Pawlowski said, adding that the area behind it was all farmland and woods. “The house was significant for its time,” he said, “but it wasn’t a showpiece because they were Quakers. The focus was on the gardens.”

Arnold was a founder of the New Bedford Horticultural Society and the gardens at his County Street home are mentioned in several major works on landscape gardening, including A.J. Downing’s work, Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening.

After the Wamsutta Club purchased the mansion, it added two large wings. The club was formed in 1866 as a social club centered on the member’s passion for baseball or “rounders” or the “New York game.” It gradually became more of a gentleman’s club. Crosby recalled that her grandfather used to play pinochle there.

Anyone who visits the Wamsutta Club is struck by the large parking lot. “There is a lot of asphalt where there were gardens,” Pawlowski said. While they still have to determine how much parking they will need, he said, “The goal is to turn it from a parking lot back into a park so when you are in the building looking out, you see a lovely landscape.”

The property currently has just under 30 trees. Two big oaks were taken down because they were diseased. Pawlowski said they were determined to be about 200 years old, which means the Arnolds most likely planted them. He said there is a large oak left, which seems to be from the same period, making it one of the oldest trees in New Bedford. .

Pawlowski said he hopes to “recapture the spirit” of the original landscape in a way “that seems meaningful and that people can enjoy.” He added, “This was a magnificent estate with a fabulous landscape.”

Spinner Publications has a photo in its archives of an oval grotto, which Pawlowski said they hope to duplicate. According to one historical account, there were greenhouses and fruit trees, including peach trees trained on trellises. Pawlowski said there was also a boxwood rose garden, a lovely oval promenade and graperies.

“The Quakers did not drink wine but they ate grapes and liked to have fresh grapes on the table,” he said.

Pawlowski said when people think of New Bedford, they tend to think of the whaling industry and waterfront, but the city also has significant buildings and trees. Through educational programs at the mansion, he said, they hope to educate people about their trees.

Asquino said that unlike the owners of other private estates, the Arnolds opened their grounds to local residents to enjoy on the weekends. He said the goal once the landscape is restored is to open it to the public once again and to have events and gatherings focusing on the gardens.

Along with enjoying the gardens, there is clearly a chance to reconnect local residents with a special period in the city’s history.

Pawlowski pointed out that the Arnolds lived on the property for about 100 years and that the Wamsutta Club will have occupied it for close to another 100 years.

He said, “Now we’re in the process of determining what the next 100 years will be.”

Some famous friends and visitors

The Arnolds had some well known acquaintances and guests, including John James Audubon, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Quincy Adams.

Arnold was one of the financial contributors or subscribers to Audubon’s The Birds of America. He visited Audubon in London and Audubon visited the Arnolds during extended visits to New Bedford in the early 1840s.

According to research compiled for the Wamsutta Club by local historian Peggi Medeiros, Emerson “became a friend of James and Sarah Arnold.” She said Emerson found James Arnold to be “a good enough conversationalist to quote to others.”

In his diary, Charles Francis Adams describes a September 1835 visit to New Bedford with his father, former President John Quincy Adams. The younger Adams wrote,“We went on to Mr. Arnold’s where we stopped. He took us over his garden, which has been laid out with great taste.”

Herman Melville is known to have visited the gardens, but it is not known if he met the Arnolds.

Medeiros, who writes a monthly column for the club, also writes about a connection to Louisa May Alcott’s father.

She says, “In 1857 the Arnolds joined the usually impossible effort of friends to help Bronson Alcott and his literally at times starving family. The charming educator, philosopher, professional genius refused to work at any job after he was forced to give up the Temple School in Boston. He did agree, however, that he would accept money for conversations and eventually toured the country giving them.”

Medeiros said Alcott was a close friend of New Bedford historian Daniel Ricketson. She wrote, “In April 1857 Alcott came to New Bedford and gave three conversations in the Arnold double parlors.”

— Peggy Aulisio