Princeton, Massachusetts

Studio from garden

Studio from garden, Charbrook, Princeton, Mass. Photo by Lauren Stimson.

In recent years, we have been slowly building a live+work model at Charbrook, in Princeton, Massachusetts, down the road from Stephen Stimson’s parents’ dairy farm. This 18-acre site is at the foothills of  Mount Wachusett and the Ware River watershed, and has become our home and an extension of our urban practice in Cambridge. At Charbrook, we are working with the land in a different way than we did on the old farm, but still using the same local ingredients of stone, steel, wood, earth, and plants, as our forebears. Technology allows us to confer with our clients and our urban office, and work compatibly as if we were in the same room (unless the wind is blowing hard in a gale off Wachusett and our Internet goes down). Because this is also our home, our rural studio is fully integrated with the daily activities of homesteading: clearing land, burning brush, building stone walls, raising sheep, milking cows, starting seeds, and planting the gardens. Each of these elements of the homestead influences and inspires what we draw in our practice every day.

Cows in the lane at the Stimson Farm

Cows in the lane at the Stimson Farm. Photo by Bruce Dean.

Ten years ago, we established Charbrook Nursery at the old farm for native tree and shrub cultivation and, more importantly, as a testing ground and a way to integrate in-the-field learning and research into our practice. Low-lying wetlands, wet meadows, successional fields, glacial drumlins, and dense woodland offer a rich template for siting our selected species in response to the native ecosystems around them. As a way to restore the agrarian production, three abandoned and successional fields were identified as the first sites for tree and shrub production. The concept for the nursery is to cultivate native plant communities that are already thriving in the farm landscape. Inventory of existing plants, and the study of soil conditions and microclimates, was undertaken in order to guide plant selections for eight acres of nursery fields. If red maple and birch are growing nearby, the field rows are lined with four cultivars of red maple and three types of birch. Our projects benefit from this unique knowledge of the research we are beginning to develop related to hybrids and cultivars, planted form, growth rates, and habitat value. The nursery is the first step in a long process of bringing a new kind of productivity back to the old farm landscape.

Lizzie's Thicket at Charbrook pasture

Lizzie’s Thicket at Charbrook pasture. Photo by Lauren Stimson.

This return to the farm has informed our design expression, our ability to find charm in the old and new intertwined, and has also promoted a sense of regionalism, but that is not to say that the studio works solely in New England. We feel we can work anywhere, with great success and reward, by getting to know each site, carefully and methodically. By spending time in a region and experiencing things as a local does—embedding oneself in the urban grit or the wilderness—one discovers the real gut of a place. There was a time when we seemed to get on a plane every week, but in recent years, we’ve returned to the source, the center of our universe, and that is the Northeast. We used to get a bit defensive when we discussed regionalism among ourselves, because when a landscape architect stays “local” it seems to inhibit the perception of their body of work—somehow limiting their reputation. Now we feel quite bold about stating plainly that we are regionalists at heart. We have an inherent understanding of this place, from its mill towns to farmlands, and from urban centers and coastal villages to indigenous plant communities. We know this from being born and raised here, adopting colleagues, sharing our favorite places and opening our home to them, and from this firsthand experience comes an involuntary desire to express our regional identity in a legible way through the built environment.

Mid-summer garden at Charbrook

Mid-summer garden at Charbrook. Photo by Jonathan Levitt.

Yankee ingenuity describes a mindset of making-do with whatever materials are on hand. It represents an improvisation, a responsiveness to unexpected situations, and an overall attitude about living with very little. Because of rocky soil and long harsh winters, early New Englanders had to rely on the creative use of indigenous materials for survival. We like to adopt this attitude in our craft of landscape architecture. From our rural studio, we teach ourselves and others about plants in the garden, test certain tree and shrub species in the nursery, experiment with detailing in our walls and fences, and gain a greater understanding of habitat and biodiversity. Above all, we learn that there is never one singular approach to a design solution or detail; there is always more than one way to skin a cat.

—Lauren Stimson, Principal, Stephen Stimson Associates

To learn more about Charbrook visit the website.