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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

House Hunting

The Gleason Garden, circa 1960-1967. 
A view of the patio with outdoor furniture and a grill. 
Photograph by Molly Adams.
The Gleason Garden, circa 1960-1967. 
Looking from the patio towards the house. 
Photograph by Molly Adams.
There is a whole host of romantic verbs to describe the historian’s process: hunting, digging, seeking, unearthing, recovering, uncovering. However, most historians are not out in the field digging up buried treasure, but buried up to their noses in stacks of books and folders of documents in libraries and archives with bad florescent lighting. Not all historical mysteries are as elusive or exotic as the search for Atlantis or the true identity of Shakespeare—but that doesn’t mean the smaller mysteries hold any less appeal. 

The moment I came across images of an unidentified house and garden while perusing the Maida Babson Adams Collection at the Archives of American Gardens, I knew I had to find out more about the cozy, modern home. Perhaps it was the way Molly (Maida Babson) Adams had photographed the home to emphasize the contrast between the horizontal lines of the house and the organic shapes of the garden, or perhaps it was the inviting butterfly chairs on the patio, but I was intrigued. Nothing was written on the back of the photograph except “Gleason.” The only revealing cataloging information was that the garden was designed by landscape architect Nelva Weber; it was anonymously featured in her 1976 book How to Plan Your Own Home Landscape. I continued to wonder about the house. Who lived there? What was their idea of home?

Over the next few months I spent a few minutes each day searching for the house. Molly Adams was a prolific garden photographer, shooting gardens in the Northeast from the 1960s through the 1980s for magazines such as Flower Grower and Popular Gardening & Living Outdoors. Flipping through my mental rolodex of mid-century architects, my first thought was that the home may have been designed by Joseph Eichler or Carl Koch, both prolific mid-century architects who designed small, modern homes for suburban families. Geographically it seemed most likely that the house was located in Massachusetts, New Jersey, or Connecticut. That meant Eichler, builder of mass-produced homes in California, was out. In the beginning I spent an embarrassing amount of time Googling “Molly Adams Gleason,” “Gleason modern house,” Gleason modern garden,” “Gleason Connecticut modern,” “Nelva Weber modern,” etc. Clearly, this was going to be a long search.

Back to the drawing board, and failed by modern tools, I turned to books. Home design books and traveling museum shows like the Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design” exhibits were key to disseminating new ideas about suburban living to a design-conscious middle-class. I checked out a multitude of 1950s home design books from the library, including John Hancock Callender’s 1953 book Before You Buy a House. The book was of interest to me because it included a house by Hugh Stubbins, who was on my list of potential architects. And there it was, staring right back at me on page 113. The house was not designed by Hugh Stubbins, but by the architectural firm Nemeny & Geller. Designed for a rolling, wooded site in Morristown, New Jersey, the house in the book was part of the then-new Robert Morris Park development. 

Nemeny & Geller created a basic house plan to be used throughout the development that could be varied through the addition of a garage or different paint colors, yet still present a unified front. A garden design by Nelva Weber surely further distinguished the Gleason house from the rows of similar houses in the neighborhood. Robert Morris Park was a stepping stone between owning one of the “little boxes made of ticky tacky” (from the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song) and paying a well-known architect to build a custom home. Originally 305 houses were planned, but only a small percentage of them were ever built. A quick Google search confirmed that there was a Gleason living in Morristown, and a Google street view search revealed the house itself. It took hours of searching for the right book to divulge the identity of the garden, but only minutes on the internet to confirm its identity.

As with most archives, a number of images in the Archives of American Gardens came to the archives without documentation. The research efforts of museum specialists and volunteers have saved many gardens in the collection from anonymity. Are you interested in digging into a garden mystery? Learn more about AAG’s Mystery Gardens Initiative and how you can contribute to preserving America’s garden heritage.

-Kate Fox

Kate Fox is a guest blogger who is currently working on an upcoming SITES exhibition for the Archives of American Gardens at Smithsonian Gardens


  1. Nice post! I am looking forward for more photos of this Gleason Garden house. It was really a nice article.

  2. FYI, the Nemeny & Geller Morristown project was featured in a 1952 exhibit at MoMA,"Modern Architecture in the New York area". For the press release see: Nemeny & Geller designed an attractive and innovative apartment complex in Syracuse, NY built in 1948. Centennial gardens apartments are little known today - even in Syracuse - but i would like to get them on the National Register. Thanks for your blog!