George Eastman's Gardens
In 1902, George Eastman purchased the last 8.5 acres of the Marvin Culver Farm on East Avenue in Rochester for his new Georgian Revival style mansion. Assisted by landscape architect Alling Stephen DeForest and architects J. Foster Warner and William Rutherford Mead, Eastman transformed the farmland into a unique urban estate that functioned both as a working farm and as an elegant floral setting for entertaining. In 1916, Eastman purchased four additional acres and hired DeForest to draw another plan of the property in 1921. The resulting landscape provided the finishing touches, tailored to Eastman’s needs as well as his character. In addition to spacious lawns, eight flower gardens, and five greenhouses, the estate also featured an orchard, a poultry yard, stables, pastures, a rolling east vista, and a magnificent house. In this way, Eastman was able to enjoy the benefits of life in the country without even leaving the city.
The estate was created during the Country Place Era, the decades between the end of the nineteenth century and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Prior to the advent of the federal income tax, Americans could spend fortunes on palatial homes and elaborate grounds numbering hundreds of acres. By these standards, the Eastman estate was rather modest, encompassing only 8.5 acres. Yet the skillful design of DeForest enabled Eastman to have all the features of a much larger estate on a city lot in Rochester, just a short distance from downtown.
When Eastman died in 1932, the estate became the University of Rochester’s presidential home until 1947. During this time, the expense of maintaining an urban farmstead proved to be too costly. In 1936, landscape architect Robert Chamberlain was hired to simplify the grounds. The most significant changes were made in the terrace garden. Flower beds and brick walks were taken out and covered with turf. The central sunken lily pool was filled in, and a rectangular reflecting pool was built on top.
In 1947, the University of Rochester transferred the estate to the Board of Trustees of the newly formed George Eastman House, Inc. The house opened to the public as a photography museum in 1949. Gradually the grounds evolved to accommodate this new land use. On the west side of the property, the peony garden and greenhouses gave way to a parking lot. In 1950, the Dryden Theatre was built. The garage (formerly the carriage house), stable, heating plant, yard, and poultry house were converted into gallery space in 1951. The west garden was redesigned by the Museum in the 1960s. The interior beds and walks were replaced by turf with a central octagonal pool surrounded by semi-circular beds of bulbs and annuals.
Landscape preservation and restoration began in 1984 in the west garden and continued between 1987 and 1992 in the terrace, library, and rock gardens. DeForest’s plans, existing historical photographs, correspondence, and invoices were used by garden historians to reconstruct the original gardens and grounds. The Museum, a National Historic Landmark, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta.
The landscape collection is being carefully restored, conserved, and interpreted for the public by Museum staff, volunteers, and docents as it relates both historically and horticulturally to George Eastman.
The 12.5 acre historic landscape collection comprises lawns, trees, ornamental shrubs, vines, and features four restored/adapted gardens planted with perennials, bulbs, annuals, and groundcovers typically grown during Eastman’s residence. Historic architectural elements such as the grape arbor, pergola, sunken oval lily pool, seventeenth-century Venetian wellheads, and garden house are also part of this collection. The George Eastman Collection houses Eastman’s estate photos taken between 1902 and 1932, correspondence, plant lists, and original maps of the property. Past and future landscape preservation and restoration plans are based on these documents.
The terrace garden contains more 90 varieties of perennials with Latin and common name labels. The library garden, an adaptation of Eastman’s cutting garden, contains six bulb varieties, 16 shrub species, six tree varieties, groundcover, and vines. The rock garden is planted with 39 varieties of perennials, six bulb species, three groundcovers, and six shrub species among dolomite rocks arranged in scallop-shaped beds. The west garden adaptation currently contains 48 kinds of shrubs, three types of perennials, and an assortment of groundcover.
In spring 1998, the front lawn of the house was rehabilitated to appear the way it did during George Eastman’s time, from 1916 to 1932. The rehabilitation included the planting of 21 varieties of shrubs and 29 trees, a total of seven varieties of trees that stood about 15-feet tall upon planting. Some of these trees will grow as high as 90 feet in about 20 years. While the trees will provide a natural canopy, the house will not be hidden from East Avenue — the plan includes 70 feet of open lawn directly in front of the house.
The front lawn project has been in the works for a decade. In 1988 the Eastman House hired garden historians Gerald and Christine Doell to develop a restoration plan for the gardens and grounds that was based on landscape architect Alling DeForest’s original plans dating between 1902 and 1921. Mr. Eastman worked closely with Mr. DeForest to develop the landscape plans, which called for the planting of shrubs and trees that would provide privacy from the street while allowing a view of the house from East Avenue. Many estates built during this same time period had similar “woodland drive” landscape designs. However, most of the trees from the early 1900s eventually died (many from Dutch Elm disease) and were removed.
Restoration planting plans for the west garden and vista will be implemented in the future.
For information on regularly scheduled house tours and private group tours, please visit the tour information page.
The west garden and rock garden are accessible without Museum admission. The terrace garden, library garden, and east vista are accessible with Museum admission Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.
Landscape Curator, Amy Kinsey
Email: akinsey -at- geh -dot- org.