By Nicole Narea
Trish McQuillen strode up to the barn house on the French Farm estate and creaked open a worn wooden door to reveal its dark interior. The sounds of the crowd who gathered at the Lake Avenue manor Friday evening for the Greenwich Historical Society’s Green Market Picnic echoed in the distance while she cracked a smile and beckoned for her friend Barbara Wright to follow.
“Come on,” McQuillen said. “You can’t leave here without seeing the black sheep. It’s worth being one if you’re that cute.”
Wright obliged, but trailed cautiously. Inside, the scene was surreal. A menagerie of carousel horses, stone sculptures, and massive amethyst geodes lay amongst the hay as if part of the sheep’s habitat.
It is safe to say that French Farm is an anomaly, nestled as it is between uniform backcountry mansions.
“Magical is the word that everybody uses,” said Barbara Bishop of the Greenwich Historical Society. “It is elegant, but casual. And this is a casual event, which we don’t usually do.”
The private picnic, catered by John Baricelli, owner of SoNo Baking Company and host of “Everyday Baking” on PBS, showcased the property’s whimsical gardens and featured the tunes of classical guitarist Ed Wright. Tickets to the event were $50, with all proceeds benefiting the Greenwich Historical Society, according to organizers.
In defiance of the weekend heat wave, about 100 attendees strolled the grounds, joined friends and family for dinner on tables set up on the lawn, and listened as horticulturalist Michael Harvey gave a guided tour of the gardens, originally designed by the late owner, David Wierdsma.
“David was always a tinkerer,” Harvey said. “He wanted to preserve the original structure of the estate, but he also wanted to innovate. It is a personal testament to Greenwich and to gardening.”
Wiersdma inherited the property from his parents, who bought the farm — originally commissioned by famed architect H. Van Buren Magonigle in 1905 — from the French family. Wierdsma sought to restore the property to its original glory, renovating the original structures and constructing peripheral gardens with the creative assistance of Harvey. The result was a collector’s paradise.
“David pursued all kinds of interests, from architecture to gardening to art,” Harvey said. “He saw a beautiful agricultural landscape here when he inherited the French Farm in 1972. He turned it into a very well-regarded and noted gentleman’s farm. He not only preserved it and conserved it, but innovated within it.”
In turn, the structure became the first Greenwich property to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
The property boasts a rich visual atmosphere: each area of the garden, connected by maze-like paths, is like a separate postcard. A piece of prehistoric times lives on in the form of a “pterodactyl tower,” constructed using bricks from Brooklyn brownstone; the surrounding relics include petrified wood from Madagascar and ancient quartz. An Asian garden is adorned with sculptures from the Orient. Wellies rubber boots suffice as makeshift pots for herbs. The whimsical abounds.
“The spirit of David Wierdsma certainly lives on here,” Patricia Dillon, a member of the Greenwich Historical Society, said. “I will always remember this place for its quirkiness. It’s just so natural. It looks like it belongs here. I am very glad that it’s being preserved because it can be appreciated by our children.”