Restoring Martha Brookes Hutcheson's Water Harvest System
by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA

Martha Brookes Hutcheson, FASLA, is an important pioneer in the landscape architecture profession and holds a place among the first three women who pursued early training in landscape architecture in the United States. Through her seminal book, The Spirit of the Garden, she strove to convey five main principles: selecting garden size and type in relation to the style of house; emphasizing proper line of approach, the treatment of the main axis, and integration of the house and garden; creating beautiful transitions between schemes; using the natural topography to create levels; and using plenty of green foliage to provide backgrounds, contrasts, proportions, perspective, and shadows with varying amounts of color.

 A 1920s illustrated plan documented the character of the water system designed by Hutcheson as both a functional and ornamental landscape feature.  Courtesy Morris County Park Commission Archives. 

The 100-acre Merchiston Farm, known today as Bamboo Brook, is her former home. Applying the principles prescribed in her writing, the farm manifested Hutcheson’s talent and design skill and an expression of her garden-making principles. In The Spirit of the Garden, Hutcheson further stated that, “to introduce water is to include the fantastic and the intangible, and a garden without it is robbed of poetry and romance.”

Hutcheson-era historical photographs were a useful source in construction detailing for the multiple elements of the water system.  Courtesy Morris County Park Commission Archives.

Following this ideal, Hutcheson designed and implemented a complex rain water harvest system to feed pools connected by a rock-edged stream at Bamboo Brook.

In 2000, Heritage Landscapes developed the award-winning Bamboo Brook Historic Landscape Preservation & Maintenance Plan for the Morris County Park Commission, the current steward of this important property. Hutcheson’s plans and hand-written notes conveyed the intricacy of the system of surface swales, concrete curbs, cistern tanks, pipes, and catch basins used to collect and distribute rain water.

Field survey work revealed substantial deterioration of water system features, while local conditions highlighted the need to collect and harvest stormwater. Historical documents conveyed the importance of the water system, which supplied water to the house, pools, and swimming tank, and circulated water through the garden. Over time, elements of this intriguing system have failed. The complexity, significance, and deteriorated condition of the system of pools and rock-edged stream and spillway, as designed and implemented by Hutcheson, stood out as important foci of the landscape recapture. Hutcheson’s unique water system at Bamboo Brook is being restored to its historic character and function with the support of durable contemporary details, public safety accommodations, and new mechanical systems. 

The main swimming tank has been poured as a shallow basin, adapting the historic feature to meet public safety requirements.  Courtesy Heritage Landscapes. 

A detailed environmental review process was carried out to ensure the restoration project would not adversely impact the natural resources on the Bamboo Brook property and the surrounding watershed.

The stewardship goals of the Morris County Park Commission and the professional work of the prime contractor bring together an effective team for this important effort. Careful disassembly of historic masonry unveiled layered construction, alteration, and repair over time. Thorough construction documents served to retain original pipes, catch basins, and tanks while incorporating new water loops for filtration, water recirculation, and additional storage for sustainable water harvesting and management into the future. Valuing both sustainability and historic preservation, the team enhanced the original detailing for durability while updating capture, recirculation, and filtration systems to conserve water.

Illustrative plans and technical construction documents recapture the former function and scenic quality of the character-defining water system at Bamboo Brook.  Courtesy Heritage Landscapes. 

Heritage Landscapes’ restoration work at Bamboo Brook honors Martha Brookes Hutcheson, ASLA Fellow and pioneer woman landscape architect, while implementing methods to ensure the sustainability of the unique water harvest system into the future. The implementation of the landscape restoration plan from 2000 to 2009 has led to recovery of the Coffee Terrace Garden, Armillary Sphere Axis, Entry Circle, Tennis Court Masonry, Cattle Bridge, Upper Pond, Water Tank, and a stream and watercress basin, as well as the replanting of over 100 trees and several hundred shrubs and perennials. These restoration activities were carried out as documented in the planning effort, applying current best practices regarding soil management and control of disturbance.

Restoration of Bamboo Brook” in Morris County, New Jersey was completed for the Morris County Park Commission by Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners; Patricia M. O'Donnell, Principal; Peter F. Viteretto, Project Landscape Architect.

Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, is a principal and founder of Heritage Landscapes in Charlotte, Vermont and can be reached at:

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