Force of Nature



A testament to pastoral beauty and American progress, Shelburne Farms is a grand 19th century estate built with a modern vision

Written by Jenn Thornton

To stroll the rambling grounds of Shelburne Farms, a National Historic Landmark on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont, is to sense an America of another age, when the move from agrarian to industrialized nation produced unprecedented wealth for those powering its most profitable engines. During the time that Shelburne Farms was built—over the course of two decades starting in 1886—American cities were thick with industry and suffocating summer heat. Looking to live like European aristocrats, the moneyed class built extravagant mansions, deceptively coined “country cottages,” in highly visible enclaves like Newport, Rhode Island, where one could spend the summer amid clean air in the most elaborate fashion imaginable.

Likewise, a magnificent Gilded Age domain, Shelburne Farms, was still astonishingly singular for its era, located not in a center of social ambition, but in rural Vermont. And its owners—Eliza “Lila” Osgood Vanderbilt and her husband Dr. William Seward Webb— pictured not an ostentatious showpiece for themselves, but a consummate agricultural farm. The Webbs hired prominent New York City architect Robert H. Robertson to design their bucolic 3800-acre parcel, and he brought on landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted to help plan the grounds.

“It’s a very unusual place in that it’s so pristine and protected,” says Glenn Suokko, author of the new book Shelburne Farms: House, Gardens, Farm, and Barns. “The pace is slow, the landscape is very gentle and extremely well-planned. There’s a carefully considered way in which one works their way through the property.

It’s very organic, the way you come upon amazing views of the incredible buildings. It’s architecture as well as fields, meadows and woodlands, then the dramatic views of Lake Champlain. So the setting is quite compelling. There are no real signs of contemporary life, other than a car here and there. No billboards, very few signs. You can go through the woods on beautiful paths to experience nature as it should be. There are animals, gardens. It’s just got everything condensed right there, in the nicest, most thoughtful way.”

Of the 36 buildings that Robertson designed—a combination of Shingle and Queen Anne style—15 still stand, including the estate’s three major barns (the Farm Barn, Breeding Barn and Coach Barn), and Shelburne House, the Webb family mansion turned Inn at Shelburne Farms. The Formal Gardens, cultivated in classic Italianate style, complement the estate’s Vegetable Garden (Vermont’s first certified organic garden), which supplies fresh ingredients for the farm-to-table restaurant at the Inn.

The Dairy Farm, meanwhile, is home to a treasured herd of grass-fed Brown Swiss cows, and there’s a traditional Maple Sugaring operation for making pure maple syrup. Shelburne Farms was never profitable, nor was that ever the intention. Progress was the point. In an early form of new environmentalism, the estate looked to advance crop production and breeding livestock. By the mid-20th century, and facing difficult economic realities, members of the Webb family recast Shelburne Farms as a nonprofit education center promoting sustainability and matters of responsible pastoralism. Today, the once private family estate is public and 1,400 acres, but still way ahead of its time.



A Duplex in the Clouds: Inside Barbara Cartategui’s NYC Transformation

Nestled on the 78th and 79th floors of a Tribeca skyscraper, this New York City duplex boasts breathtaking views of the Statue of Liberty and the city skyline. Transformed by Workshop/APD, the interior is a gallery of contemporary art curated by expert art advisor Barbara Cartategui.
  • September 6, 2023
  • Karine Monié

The Rebirth of Santa Monica’s Iconic Georgian Hotel

The iconic Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica reopened its doors in April, unveiling a stunning transformation led by Fettle Design. With a rich history that hosted Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe, the hotel's restoration, guided by BLVD Hospitality, gracefully balances its storied past with modern hospitality.
  • August 23, 2023
  • Karine Monié

Of Possible Unveils Stunning Loft Living Concept in Williamsburg

Explore the soon-to-be-completed building at 103 Grand Street, Williamsburg, offering three units designed to capture the spirit of this historic area. Led by Rise Development and architect Vincent Appel of Of Possible, each unit boasts its own outdoor space and a seamless connection between interior and exterior.
  • July 13, 2023
  • Karine Monié

Elevating Tropical Modernism: Evan Edward’s Stunning Biscayne Bay House

This sleek tropical masterpiece in Biscayne Bay, Florida by architecture and interior design practice Evan Edward seamlessly blends indoor and outdoor spaces, embracing the warm climate and scenic surroundings. With a focus on fluidity and functionality, the 5,000 square foot home combining midcentury tropical modernism with European art deco influences, the interior design features a harmonious blend of materials and textures.
  • July 13, 2023
  • Karine Monié

Sustainable Luxury: Guz Architects’ Award-Winning Meera Sky Garden House

Discover the Meera Sky Garden House in Singapore, a stunning tropical residence designed by award-winning architect Guz Wilkinson of Guz Architects, reflecting his commitment to sustainable practices. This private oasis on Sentosa Island seamlessly integrates nature and architecture, blurring the boundaries between indoors and outdoors.
  • July 13, 2023
  • Jenn Thornton
Sign Up for DIGS Newsletters