The Friends of Harkness began in 1991 with three members building to a peak membership of 1200+ by 1995. The formation of the Friends group was a community grass roots response to the alarming deterioration of the locally beloved former Harkness estate. Upon Mary Harkness’s death in 1950, the property was donated to the State in pristine condition. The first Park Supervisor at Harkness Memorial was Edward and Mary’s Estate Manager, Celeste LaMere. Until his forced retirement in the early Seventies, the gardens were beautifully maintained to Beatrix Farrand’s historic garden plans and the buildings adequately protected. With the first supervisor’s departure came a rapid decline of the gardens and also the estate’s historic structures. Hurricane Gloria in 1985 severely damaged the Mansion’s roof. Water infiltrated the building and compromised every surface. The Mansion was allowed to degrade; the original perennial plantings in the gardens were replaced with annuals for ease of maintenance; heirloom plants were lost through neglect or ignorance.
The community at large determined to save the property, pressure State Government at all levels to fund restoration, and ensure the estate’s future preservation. Friends determined that the quickest route to success in this effort would be to engage the attention of a larger statewide audience. The Friends settled upon an “Adopt a Bed” restoration of the East Garden to garner that attention. The Friends believed that if park goers saw just one garden as it used to be, they would be better able to visualize Harkness’s glorious past and help agitate to restore the entire estate. Donors contributed $5 per square foot; $25,000 was raised; the garden was cleared and replanted to historic plan; garden infrastructure was repaired.
The Friend’s strategy worked. Statewide visitors were dazzled by the restored East Garden. Local legislators lent assistance; busloads of Friends members stormed the Capitol. After fits and starts, $3.8 million in bonding money was released for the Mansion’s restoration.
This first major success was only the beginning of our group’s efforts at Harkness and our slow march toward the goal of total estate restoration.