Ignatius Sargent and the Arnold Aboretum

Francis Parkman’s neighbor across the ancient Perkins Street was Ignatius Sargent, a Boston merchant and banker. He received his business training with Perkins & Co., whose senior partner James built his summer house Pinebank on the Pond in 1806.

Ignatius Sargent image courtesy of Greg French.

Ignatius rightly scented profits in the railroads that were just starting and added much to the already substantial Sargent fortune via the Boston & Albany Railroad. In his Brahmin family tree were Saltonstalls, Brooks, Winthrops and Everetts.

Boston & Albany Railroad station, South Framingham, Massachusetts.

Sargent began summering on the Pond in 1847 to be near the Perkinses, and by 1852 he lived there year round. He bought his first acreage in 1845, until by 1873 his estate of 130 acres straddling the Brookline/Boston line was completed. Among these was the 20-acre plot of the estate of Thomas Lee, who had in 1800 begun the trek of Bostonians to Jamaica Pond for rural retreat. Lee also began the tradition of simple rambling landscape, which the Sargents carried on.

Ignatius’ second son, Charles Sprague Sargent, was born in 1841 and grew up on the estate named Holm Lea - from the Norwegian/Swedish for ‘Inland Island Pasture.’ After a lackluster career at Harvard with no education in the natural sciences (though it was available) Charles graduated in the Class of 1862 and enlisted in the Union Army later that year. He saw service in Louisiana, was mustered out in 1865 and then traveled in Europe for three years.

Returning to Holm Lea, Charles Sprague Sargent had no idea of what he wanted to do and, for lack of nothing better took over the management of Holm Lea as its horticulturist - a calling then in its infancy. In this he was influenced by his cousin Henry and H.H. Hunnewell of Wellesley. With his money, self-education in botany and its application at Holm Lea, and his father’s business training, the younger Sargent used the estate as a springboard and training ground.

Holm Lea was sold after Sargent’s death in 1927 and cut up into luxurious house lots, and its former appearance faded. It had been described as a place tempting visitors under overhanging branches with lanes clothed with a profusion of trees and shrubbery. There were no flower beds, no gardens, no geometric schemes but rather nature under control, allowed to follow its way. If Holm Lea sounds like a description of the Arnold Arboretum, it is because both are the creation of the same man.

Visitors to the Arnold Arboretum walk past an expanse of Mountain Laure in bloom on Hemlock Hill. c. 1900. Photograph courtesy of Francis Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University.

By wondrous coincidence Harvard University finally decided to use the vast remainder of the Bussey bequest in Jamaica Plain for an arboretum in 1872. After a year as Professor of Horticulture at the nearby Bussey Institute on South Street (1871-72), Francis Parkman - never a healthy person - resigned and probably suggested his young neighbor as a successor. By the end of 1872 Sargent also became the first Director of the Arnold Arboretum (a post held until his death) and Director of the Botanic Garden in Cambridge (long since given up).

Bussey Institute

Sargent’s activities for Harvard in Cambridge and Jamaica Plain are easily found elsewhere, but Holm Lea remained among his activities as well. Before the Arboretum’s familiar Administration Building was erected in 1893, he kept the records at an empty house in Holm Lea. In addition, Sargent came of age as a dendrologist and published voluminously. His influence was felt nationally on the conservation of American forests (in particular the Catskills and Adirondacks). Locally he and Olmsted often teamed up, even for the tree pattern on Commonwealth Avenue.

John Muir, California’s noted naturalist, visited Holm Lea and noted: “This is the finest mansion and grounds I ever saw. The house is 200 feet long with an immense veranda trained with huge flowers and vines and stands in the midst of acres of lawns, groves, wild woods of pine, hemlock, maple and beech hickory. There are all kinds of underbrush and wild flowers, acres of rhododendrons 12 feet high and a pond covered with lilies. All the ground, hill and dale, waves clad in the full summer dress of the region and is trimmed with exquisite taste.”

Even by the standards of Boston society of the last century, Charles Sprague Sargent was unusual. Unlike his neighbors, the Quincy Shaws, he had nothing to do with local government and the social ills of his era. Like his father, Sargent was colder than cold roast-beef Boston society, a stern lord of his manor, and always at work during his waking hours. Yet his ways prompted keen loyalty in his co-workers, and his permanent legacy is the Arnold Arboretum for all to enjoy. If not a social lion in his lifetime, Charles Sprague Sargent spent his existence with an eye on the future.

In a ceremony appropriately held on the Arbor Day, after Sargent’s death Governor Fuller planted a white spruce on the grounds of the State House in Sargent’s memory, complete with a plaque. He remarked, “Professor Sargent knew more about trees than any other living person. It would be hard to find anyone who did more to protect trees from the vandalism of those who do not appreciate the contribution that they make to the beauty and wealth of our nation.”

Charles Sprague Sargent had definitely found his mark with an everlasting legacy, even if the Holm Lea he knew is no more.

Written by Walter H. Marx

Sources: Brookline Public Library, Sargent file; Encyclopedia of National Biography; S. Sutton, “Charles Sprague Sargent & the Arboretum,” Harvard, 1970; Arnold Arboretum, Sargent Papers, 14 boxes.

Reprinted with permission from the August 13, 1993 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.

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