Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Places to Visit: Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

Cranbrook is a place I really should have blogged about a long time ago. One of a number of interesting historic estate gardens in the Metro Detroit Area, it is located a mere five minutes from my parents' home and they occasionally go there for walks. I, too, tour the grounds at least once almost every time I am home. Why, then, have I not posted about it before? I think it had to do a with a lack of pictures; perhaps because I never have the sense that visiting Cranbrook is a one-time opportunity, I kept forgetting to take a camera along when going there. Not so on our last walk there a few days ago! This time, I took plenty of pictures, and I will try to give a thorough overview of the Cranbrook grounds.

A partial view of the Arts-and-Crafts manor house at Cranbrook

Cranbrook House and Gardens form the origin and center piece of a much larger complex which today includes some of the area's most elite private schools, a renowned school of art and design known as the Cranbrook Academy of Art, an art museum, a small theater, an Episcopalian (Anglican) church, and a museum of natural history. Built in 1908, the house is the oldest surviving manor house in the Detroit Area. It was designed by the famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn for newspaper magnate George Gough Booth and his wife Ellen Scripps Booth. Ardent followers of the Arts and Crafts Movement, they envisioned early on that their private residence would become the center of a larger educational community. The house itself can be toured and the principal gardens are arranged in its immediate vicinity. They offer a lovely example of Arts-and-Crafts-inspired American estate gardening and although not all parts of the grounds are as well-maintained as they could be - much of the garden upkeep today depends on volunteer labor and financial contributions - the more formal flower gardens adjacent to the house are meticulously cared for. On the west side of the mansion  lies Library Terrace, a long panel of lawn edged with mixed flower beds and trimmed yews and adorned with a pair of statues known as "the gardener and his lady."

The Library Terrace

Below the Library Terrace lies a garden space arranged around a long reflecting pool that culminates in a large fountain edged by massive boxwoods (Buxus sempervirens). The beds running along the pool are planted with a mixture of perennials, annuals, and flowering shrubs in shades of yellow and blue, punctuated by silvery columnar junipers. Further beds running along the bottom of the retaining wall that separates this part of the garden from the Library Terrace contain shade-loving perennials as well as large Kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa).

View from the Library Terrace along the Reflecting Pool

Plantings along the Reflecting Pool

A section of the shade border at the foot of the retaining wall

Along the long north front of the house are a series of formal, simple terraces of lawn connected by stone terraces. Below the terraces the slope drops steeply to the wide lake at the bottom of the hills, just glimpsed through a narrow vista cut through the tall conifers that flank the stairs descending from the terraces. Seen from below, the structure is adorned by a sort of grotto with a statue. 

 The narrow vista from the north side of the house down to the lake

The little grotto in the staircase

At the eastern end of the lawn terraces that run along the north front of the house one finds the Turtle Fountain, a large, ornate fountain named for the small turtles included in its decorations and set in its own terraced garden "room."

The Turtle Fountain

Beyond the Turtle Fountain one reaches yet another lawn terrace, though this one is edged with perennial borders and overlooked by the little pavilion that stands at the edge of the herb garden on a higher terrace directly adjacent to the eastern end of the manor house.

View along the lawn terrace, culminating  in an ornamental well set at edge of the woods

Some of the flower borders

View back towards the Turtle Fountain

Continuing on towards the eastern side of the house, one now reaches some of the most charming and impressive parts of Cranbrook's formal gardens. Deep below the terraced lawns and almost completely hidden until one looks over the edge sits the magnificent Sunken Garden, beautifully backed by a cluster of  greenhouses and other functional buildings climbing up the opposing hillside. The center of the space is taken up by two long panels of lawn which are edged with bands of wildly colorful bedding plants in elaborate geometric patterns, while each corner of the panels is punctuated by a massive boxwood. Lush herbaceous borders filled with both common-place plants and botanical rarities run around the outer edge of the garden, backed in turn by the tall stone walls smothered in clematis, climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris), and various other climbers.

 The Sunken Garden with its elaborate bedding scheme

 The lovely terrestrial orchid Bletilla striata in the Sunken Garden

 The white form Bletilla striata 'Alba'

Ascending up towards the house high above the Sunken Garden are the two much more intimate spaces of the Herb Garden, one very sunny, formal and geometric, the other a bit shadier and more informal.

 The lower, formal terrace of the Herb Garden

 The upper terrace of the Herb Garden

 An unusual yellow foxglove (Digitalis sp.)

Beyond these manicured formal gardens, Cranbrook has a number of other lovely features nestled in the extensive grounds designed by Ossian Cole Simmonds between 1910 and 1923. These include the large lake and various ponds and fountains, a Bog Garden, a Wildflower Garden, an Oriental Garden loosely based on Japanese garden design ideas and adorned with stone lanterns and small wooden bridges, and a Greek Theater used for outdoor performances. On the whole, this is truly one of our local gems and well worth a visit if you are in the area. For more information, you can find the website of Cranbrook House and Gardens here.


  1. Stunning in all seasons, a wonderful photo/journal capture of awesome Cranbrook (5 minutes from my home).

  2. Thanks so much for the tour. I have had the great fortune of touring many private and public estates over the years. I always get great ideas, but never enough room or money to try it all when I return home! Sometimes I want to dig up the whole garden here and start over after seeing all the wonderful places and gardens out there. Does that ever happen to you? Thanks again for the tour. Jack

  3. joey - I am glad you liked it. Thanks for stopping by!

    Jack - Rather than wishing to change what is already there in my family's garden I usually find myself wanting to add things. Often it is the creative details that particularly captivate me when visiting a garden, whether it is an unusual plant, and unusual use of a common one, or an especially creative combination of plants or materials, and these I will then try to imitate. As you say, though, space and money are usually the limiting factors.

  4. Ooo. What a lovely garden! Even the carpet plantings are nice.

  5. OOoo Digitalis goldcrest, almost looks like a penstemons, but foxglove it be. Nice tour, looks like a nice place for a walk.


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