If you’re in the area of Morristown National Historic Park, take a few minutes to visit the Cross Estate Gardens, a small but beautiful botanical garden on the site of the New Jersey Brigade Unit of the historical park. For a few moments, you’ll escape into a different time and place — exactly as the estate was originally designed to do.
The Gardens offer both formal and informal areas, including a walled perennial garden, a native garden, a wisteria-covered pergola, and a mountain laurel allee.
The house is a sprawling mansion with several wings; it looks as if the builders took a lovely stone house and smooshed it up against an equally lovely yellow stucco house. The reality is that the house was renovated in the 1940s and an entire wing was taken down. It’s not very beautiful from the outside, and we didn’t go inside — that didn’t seem like it was an option. Instead, we entered the gate leading to the wisteria-pergola, carefully avoiding the young family taking family photos, and entered the gardens.
This estate is just one of many grand country mansions built as summer retreats in the “Mountain Colony” in Bernardsville NJ. The original house, built by John A. Bensel in 1903, formed the centerpiece of his “Queen Anne Farm.” Bensel’s estate included a carriage house, a five-story stone water tower and a gate house. Bensel’s widow sold the estate to W. Redmond Cross, a New York investment banker who renamed the property Hardscrabble House; his wife, Julia Newbold Cross, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, restored the mansion and developed the formal, English-style garden. After her husband’s death, she remodeled the house to better suit her needs.
In 1975, 162 acres of the property, including the primary buildings, were added to the Morristown National Historical Park. This addition helped protect the adjacent 18th century New Jersey Brigade Revolutionary War encampment area and provided access from the New Jersey Brigade encampment area to the Jockey Hollow unit of the park. Unfortunately, funds were not budgeted to maintain the gardens, which soon fell into disrepair.
But now the gardens are a visitor attraction, thanks to the preservation efforts of a few volunteers. Probably the coolest aspect of this English-style gardens is that they’re only there because of the efforts of volunteers.
In 1977, volunteers began the arduous task of restoring the nearly obscured gardens back to life. These diligent volunteers uncovered paths and walkways, removed weeds and pruned or replaced out-of-control shrubs and trees. Their efforts have preserved a fine example of an English country garden for others to enjoy.
The gardens are still maintained by volunteers, who meet every Wednesday morning from April to November. If you want a tour of the gardens, that’s generally the best time to find someone who’ll talk about the gardens and the plants!
Getting there: 61 Jockey Hollow Road, Bernardsville, NJ
Hours: During the summer, daily 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Website: Cross Estate Gardens
Enjoy visiting historic and botantical gardens? Check out other gardens and arbortetums MidAtlanticDayTrips has visited.