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Existing garden at the Allis-Bushnell House. (Photo by Bob Gundersen )
Concept plan of new garden, courtesy of Lucy Van Liew )
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Though it's been lovingly maintained by the Garden Club of Madison over the years, 40-plus New England winters have not been kind to the garden at the Madison Historical Society's (MHS) Allis-Bushnell House. The fences, clamshell walkways, and other structures show wear. Invasive plants have moved in; trees need trimming and hedges need pruning.
"There came a time when it became apparent that the landscape really needed some sprucing up," says Doe Boyle, MHS vice president. "We felt we had an opportunity to reimagine the space."
Originally installed by the garden club and landscape architect Rudy Favretti in 1975, the quarter-acre gardens were part of a larger piece of land in the 18th century.
"It shrunk to what I call a vest-pocket park," says Boyle.
Built in 1785, the Allis-Bushnell House has already seen much change as part of the buildup to the Madison Historical Society's centennial in 2017. The home gained a new roof and a fresh coat of paint in historical colors. Its walkways and bathroom were redesigned to meet ADA standards.
"We did a number of fundraisers and we enlisted the collaborative imagination, if you will, of the town," says Boyle about the centennial work. "We wanted to make sure we were reaching out to our constituents and community."
Now, a similar renovation is in store for the home's yard.
"We wanted to have a comprehensive look at the whole entire landscape," says Boyle. "That's a process that began in the minds of the Madison Historical Society trustees several years ago, when we began an initiative to restore the house."
Garden designer Lucy Van Liew and landscape architect Roger Engle, both of Madison, are drawing up plans for the property. The new gardens will be all organic, with no pesticides used.
"The planting will aim to make the garden a haven for birds, bees, and butterflies, as well as for the local community, using native plants where possible," says Van Liew.
One potential design would move the parking lot to enlarge the garden beds and create a lawn spacious enough for outdoor venues. An herb garden—showcasing Colonial culinary and medicinal herbs, as the current one does—might be installed closer to the home.
"We want to create a large enough lawn area so that there can be tables and chairs and tents," says Boyle. "We also know that lawns are not the best things for our environment, so we're going to create pockets of beauty: beds and borders and edges so that birds, butterflies, and other pollinators are welcome in those spaces."
The goal is to create a space for MHS to host educational programs, and also for the community to rent for events like weddings and anniversaries.
"Our hope is that we will create a very welcome downtown vest-pocket park open to the public from dawn to dusk—and also make it a useable venue for anyone who wants to host an anniversary party, a wedding, a workshop of their own invention—anything like that," says Boyle.
Proceeds from renting the space would go entirely into preserving Madison's history. Inside the Allis-Bushnell House is an extensive collection of six- to eight thousand historical artifacts. It includes diaries, ledgers, maps, paintings, clothing, shoes, china, jewelry made out of hair, and a special collection of quilts. The items on the lower level are always on display, while items that must be kept away from light or humidity are stored upstairs.
"A large part of the collection can be seen on a regular basis by anyone who wants to visit it," notes Boyle, "and much of it is protected and out of view."
Preserving the collection means installing UV protection on windows to protect paintings from sunlight, purchasing archival storage boxes and cabinets, and installing humidity controls to prevent mold and corrosion. Entirely through community donations, MHS has already begun to preserve them to an extent never before possible.
"Every one of those donors is essential to us," Boyle says.
From the donors who help preserve Madison's history to the garden club volunteers who have tended the historical home's gardens over the years, Boyle emphasizes that collaboration is the key. For Boyle, opening the grounds to private events is a way to fund preservation of town history for years to come.
"We want people in Madison to feel like it belongs to them; it belongs to all of us," says Boyle.
Work will begin in earnest in the fall; the goal is to finish the project by the end of next summer.
The Allis-Bushnell House is located at 853 Boston Post Road in Madison. For more information, visit madisonhistory.org.
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