Glorious Peonies

Enjoyed for centuries from China and Japan to Europe and North America, these fragrant, showy blooms have a big impact on Vineyard gardens.

Brookside Farm is one of those Island spots at which the tour busses slow down so passengers can admire its rural charms. With its pair of oxen grazing in a lush field surrounded by stone walls, its blossoming fruit trees, and its hillsides sloping down to a serene pond along the Tiasquam River, it is the embodiment of up-Island Vineyard beauty.

Situated on Middle Road in Chilmark, on land originally owned by Silvanus Allen in the 1700s, the property stayed in the Allen family until 1818, when it was sold for $2,000 to John Davis. His grandson’s widow, Anna Allen Davis Norton Maxson – who survived several spouses and was likely a descendent of Silvanus – owned it until her death in 1980. A year later, Douglas Liebhafsky and Wendy Gimbel bought it and have owned it since.

When Wendy speaks of the farm, it is in tones of awe and almost disbelief, like someone who’s won the lottery without even knowing she was playing. Indeed, she and Doug hadn’t been intending to buy a house when they first saw Brookside Farm. They had come to the Vineyard during the wintertime and were looking at a potential summer rental for a friend. The real estate agent informed them that it had already been rented, but said she had a “dream house” they ought to see.

“We drove into the driveway and fell in love,” says Wendy. “The place had the strength and integrity of a perfect New England landscape. We looked at each other once and said, ‘We’ll take it.’” From all accounts, they’ve lived happily ever after on the farm, though not year-round. A writer and lawyer, respectively, Wendy and Doug live in Manhattan but spend summers here, and try to make it to the Island once a month during the off-season.

Although they own the property and were married in front of one of its stone walls, they don’t view it as theirs alone. “We see ourselves as its caretakers,” Wendy says. “It’s really a farm that belongs to the Vineyard.”

To ensure that it continues to “belong” to the Vineyard long beyond their tenure, Wendy and Doug have given the Island conservation group Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation a large portion of the farm’s surrounding acreage – mainly woodlands, some of which can be viewed from Middle Road Sanctuary’s public walking trails. They have also put agricultural restrictions on the house and fields as well as a neighboring property they bought, which is large enough to accommodate four or five new houses, and though for a time they considered building on it, in the end they decided that it was too beautiful to despoil. These measures were taken so that Brookside Farm will always look as it does now, with its numerous fields and open vista down to Davis Pond – a generous gift to Martha’s Vineyard.

Fed by the Tiasquam River and dammed at one end, Davis Pond was once the site of a fulling mill for cleaning and thickening wool. Large enough to warrant keeping a canoe on its shore, the pond has some trout in it, and Wendy and Doug suspect that people have fished it, because once, when they had to have it drained, they found several pairs of shoes at its bottom.

In the fields between the house and the pond, several horses graze. Wendy used to ride, but back problems have kept her from it in recent years, and the horses are now what she and Hilary Blocksom (the property’s landscaper, architect, and animal caretaker) refer to as “lawn ornaments.”

The buildings on the property – two barns for the animals and feed, the former milk shed (now used mainly for storage), and the house – are clustered near Middle Road. Before Middle Road was constructed, a cart track (or “way”) on the other side of the buildings led up-Island, following the Tiasquam River. So the barns’ main entrances are on the pond side.

In 1982, when Wendy and Doug were putting in a window for a pond view, they uncovered what had once been the house’s front door, which would have opened onto that old roadway. In 1898, after Middle Road was built, that door was walled in and a new front door installed on the opposite side of the house, facing the new road. A shadow box now in the wall near the old front door shows wallpaper and wainscoting from the time of the original renovation, signed and dated by the men who did the work, including John Davis Jr., the father of Orlin Davis, first husband of Anna – the widow who owned the house before Wendy and Doug. This is a house that wears its history on its sleeve.

From the road, the house still looks like the unpretentious farmhouse it has always been, but it has undergone several stages of renovations since Wendy and Doug purchased it. “It was a house with amazing bones,” says Wendy, “but the inside was a nightmare. There was a purple bathroom, a linoleum floor in an upstairs room, and almost no windows on the pond side. But it was fun being able to discover the old house again; as caretakers of this sacred Vineyard place, we felt it incumbent upon us to make it its best.”

Fortunately, Hilary, with her architectural and landscape-design expertise, came along with the house. She and her partner, Bill Honey, who live not far away in West Tisbury, were written into the deed of sale, to be allowed to keep animals on the property. “The deed gave us several years to stay,” says Hilary, “but Wendy said, ‘I don’t care about that; you stay here forever!’”

“We’ve all become an extended family,” agrees Wendy. “That arose from the magic of our mission to let everyone see the beauty of Brookside Farm.” (It evidently arose from other common interests as well: While Wendy was being interviewed for this article, Doug and Hilary were engaged in the next room in one of their regular chess matches.)

Hilary, who refers to herself as “heading for retirement,” drew up all the plans for the renovations. First, they added several large windows on the pond side of the house; then they took down a wall and added on a glassed-in porch made up of panes of glass separated by long mullions – a look that is consistent with the rest of the house and the period in which it was originally constructed. Explaining the former paucity of windows, Wendy notes, “In the old days, people just needed to keep warm in their houses, and so they took a very Spartan approach when designing them.”

Later, they added a small porch off of the upstairs bedroom that they believe has the best view, and below it, they replaced “a dinky, dark little sitting room” with a second glassed-in porch. They removed the upstairs linoleum and put in hardwood floors, building window benches into what has become the family room (though the family still refers to it as “the linoleum room”).

The most recent renovation, completed last year, created a new master bedroom on the ground floor in place of what used to be, in Wendy’s words, “a stuffy, little, tiny guest room with a bizarre bathroom with weird 1930s lilac and white plastic wall-covering.” The new room has a wall of windows
and glass doors opening onto a small porch overlooking the pond. The sloping ceiling is covered in white wainscoting – echoing that found elsewhere throughout the house. The room, with its bathroom and walk-though closets, is spacious, but hardly enormous; nothing about Wendy and Doug’s
renovation work even hints at trophy house–ism. Rather, they have improved upon what was there, while respecting the essential character of a farmhouse. It feels comfortable but unostentatious, lived in, practical, and a little quirky – as in the upstairs, where the floors of the rooms never seem to meet on the same level.

Outside, Hilary has renovated the landscape with the same respect for the property’s farming history, and with a view toward bringing out its natural beauty. There are quince and apple trees by the house that were planted by former residents, but now there is also an espaliered pear tree growing up the side and onto the roof of the milk shed, and an espaliered apple tree on one of the barns. The flower beds are planted with an array of annuals, perennials, and herbs. Near one end of the house, there is an arbor draped in wisteria with a little table and chairs beneath it. “We like to have lunch there and call it ‘Tuscany,’” says Wendy.

“Hilary is a genius at landscaping,” Wendy notes. “It’s as though she walks around with a magic wand. The gardens became spectacular as she allowed her ideas to flower in them. It wouldn’t have worked out this way if we’d had it done commercially; it succeeds because it comes from the way we have mutually imagined the farm to be at its absolute best.”

Brookside has always been a farm. Wendy and Doug have a photograph of Orlin Davis, Anna’s first husband, working a team of oxen during the Depression. “It’s a beautiful, strong landscape,” says Wendy, “but the oxen are very skinny. It was a hard life then.” Not so now; the pair of Red Devon oxen (Buddy and Boy) that are often seen grazing in the field next to the barns appear hale, hearty, and well fed. While they do work,
their primary job may be – as with the horses – to look picturesque and evocative of farm life to passersby, not to mention family members.

“Our children and grandchildren love to come visit,” says Wendy. “I love to see the grandchildren jump out of the car and disappear into the barn. It’s wonderful to witness them all looking upon the farm as the magical place that it is. It’s a kind of Eden. When I’m here, it’s hard for me to leave the property. I can’t imagine going any other place.”