Tranquillity Farm, spanning the rolling hills around Lake Quassapaug in Middlebury Connecticut, was originally a 303-acre “model farm” developed by John Howard (J.H.) Whittemore, a successful industrial-era businessman in Naugatuck, and his wife Julia Spencer Whittemore. The sweeping landscape, featuring miles of distinctive stone walls lining the roads and crisscrossing the fields, was designed by Charles Eliot and completed by Warren H. Manning – both protégée of the Olmsted Bothers, a landscape design firm in New York City renowned for their design of Central Park.
After nearly two decades in the extremely successful business of producing malleable iron, Whittemore (age 48 in 1885) mostly withdrew from active business and devoted himself to extensive philanthropic projects in Naugatuck. He became well known in his efforts that transformed downtown Naugatuck from a scraggly industrial town to an urbane city. Yet, he is less well known for establishing Tranquillity Farm, which began as an idea to create a large managed preserve for a summer home in Middlebury that would connect to his home in Naugatuck by a landscaped parkway.
Over the years, Whittemore had purchased several large farms overlooking Lake Quassapaug and gradually added more and more of the viewshed. In 1893, Whittemore wrote to Charles Eliot, soon to be partner in the Olmsted firm, requesting a plan for the property. At the same time, he commissioned McKim, Mead and White (MMW), the pre-eminent architects of the Gilded Age who he had previously employed in Naugatuck projects, to design an expansive Colonial Revival house with a commanding view of Lake Quassapaug as well as a farmhouse, large barns, carriage houses, and several outbuildings.
While MMW designed the main house, Eliot focused on the placement of the buildings, roads, gardens, fields for crops for grazing and woods to be managed for timbering. The landscape and buildings were regarded as a single design unit, with human-made features designed to harmonize with the existing landscape. Buildings were carefully sited and roads followed the contour of the land in order to preserve important vantage points to the surrounding hills and the lake. The result is a harmonious, peaceful setting of extraordinary beauty.
The house was completed in 1894 and sat on a rise overlooking the lake to the west. The flower garden at the base of the massive cobblestone wall, which includes the bird basin and millstone sundial you see today, was laid out in 1897 with care to not interrupt the panoramic view.
The estate was equally designed for pleasure and usefulness. It had golf, rowing, riding, as well as a working farm, mostly dairy and poultry, and tracts designated as forest preserves. Around the turn of the century, Manning expanded on the original model farm concept, specifying broad meadows defined by hedgerows and stands of trees, which sloped down to the lakeshore. He also urged the Whittemores to acquire more property to protect viewsheds, to create new roads and walking trails, and to enlarge the woodlands. Near the lake, he created a long flight of rustic stone steps to connect an upland meadow to a boathouse at the shore, planting it with a mix of native and imported species. In 1923, the Whittemores’ daughter, Gertrude, commissioned Ellen Biddle Shipman to design a rose garden at the south end of the formal garden.
Whittemore also funded and oversaw a number of improvements in Middlebury, as he had done in Naugatuck, including the Green, Shepardson School, and Westover which opened in 1909. The 8 miles or so of road connecting Naugatuck and Middlebury were landscaped as a parkway, with planted islands periodically along its length. Most of the landscaped property along the sides of the road has long since been sold off, but Whittemore Glen remains.
Over the years, Tranquillity Farm continued to evolve, and each succeeding generation left its mark. In 1927, Harris, the Whittemore’s son, subdivided the estate into several large parcels according to a plan developed by Manning, who had been commissioned for the job. Over the years, many of the large outer tracts were sold off while the pieces of the core estate remained under the meticulous care of Whittemore’s decendants until the 1980s. Robert Whittemore, a great-grandson of J. H., worked diligently to place agricultural and conservation easements on the entirety of land, which have successfully protected it from inappropriate development. The main house was removed in about 1985 but the carriage house remains.
Today, Scott Peterson, a Middlebury-based ophthalmologist, and his wife, Jean own the property and reside in the renovated carriage house. The Petersons maintain the meadows according to their original layout on the plan created by Eliot and Manning.
While overlooking the lake, Scott said, “Tranquillity Farm is one of the most magical places Jean and I could ever imagine living, and we are very pleased to share it with PRWC and their guests.”
The Pomperaug River Watershed Coalition (PRWC) invites old and new friends to Tranquillity Farm in Middlebury on Saturday, September 23 from 3:30 PM to sunset in celebration of our region’s water resources. Hosted by Tranquillity Farm owners, Dr. Scott and Jean Peterson, this year’s annual benefit, JAZZ at the Lake features the Berkshire Jazz Orchestra and welcomes the famed Faith Middleton of Connecticut Public Radio as Honorary Chair. Guests will be treated to a big band performance along with fine wines and tempting hors d’hoeuvres as well as silent and live auctions on this historical and amazing property overlooking Lake Quassapaug.
“Food, Olmstead gardens, jazz and preservation… What else do you need?” says Faith Middleton, two-time winner of the Peabody Award and of other distinguished honors for her radio host and executive producer successes at Connecticut Public Radio. For years, Middleton has been an outstanding supporter of PRWC and passionately shares its dedication to the environment. In a recent Facebook post on her page for Food Schmooze, Faith thanked PRWC “for its extraordinary work on behalf of the watershed towns”, and wrote “I can't wait to be with all of you. I wouldn’t miss it, and I hope [others will] join me to support preserving clean water and land.”
JAZZ at the Lake tickets are $75 per person and it is recommended that they be purchased in advance online or by calling 203-263-0076. All proceeds for the event support the work of PRWC. In the event of rain the celebration will be held on September 24.
Major business and foundation sponsors include Heritage Village/Connecticut Water Company, New Morning Market, Aquarion Water Company of CT, O&G Industries, Inc., Classic Turf, Connecticut Community Foundation, Ion Bank, Kevin and Alicia Bennett, Giuliano Richardson & Sfara LLC, Good News Café, Haynes Materials, Milone & MacBroom, Inc., Secor, Cassidy, McPartland P.C., Southbury Village Square LLC, Thule, Timex Group USA, and USA Hauling & Recycling.