I was one of perhaps 20 full-time groundskeepers on the estate. At the time, Johnson was 84 years old, spry and enthusiastic, proud owner of many homes including an Italian villa and a palace on the Florida coast. Called “Jasna Polana” (Polish for “bright clearing”), the Lawrenceville estate was his gift to his fourth wife, Barbara.
Jasna Polana was modeled after a traditional European estate; some called it “the American Versailles” after the world-renowned French palace. It was built of pink granite stones individually crated and shipped from Europe, dressed and laid by a crew of stonemasons on loan from the Polish Communist government. Construction went on for years. The landscaping alone cost over three million dollars, and included 200-year-old shrubs and trees transplanted from several southern plantations acquired just for the old boxwoods and magnolias, which were shipped to Princeton and re-planted.
The centerpiece of the main house was an indoor salt-water swimming pool in the classic Greek style, under a glass dome, and a downstairs “game room” the size of a high school gym. This room opened onto a bocce ball court of fine bentgrass as smooth as a billiard table, surrounded by “hanging gardens” of perennials bordered by walls of matching stone.
The bocce ball court and surrounding gardens were my responsibility. Each day as the sun rose I whipped the dew off the entire lawn with a long fiberglass pole, to keep the sun from scorching the fine grass. I mowed the lawn at one-quarter inch, alternating the direction every mowing, leaving nice neat stripes like a golf course putting green.
I spent the rest of each day maintaining the plantings. There was a walled garden with hundreds of miniature roses, with dime-sized blooms that needed deadheading every day. The Grounds Manager (my boss) was opposed to using mulch, so I spent a lot of time weeding the huge perennial borders. A 12-foot wide walk of beautifully laid Vermont bluestone ran the length of the house, each stone surrounded by a one-inch strip of the same Bentgrass. One of my duties was to hand-trim the grass between the stones with a hand shears, on my knees.
Working at Jasna Polana was fascinating, but paid only minimum wage. I worked there less than a year, but I had experiences I will remember for a lifetime. In one area old star magnolia trees were planted to shade a stately walkway. The trees did poorly, suffering from poor drainage. To save them, a construction team removed the newly-installed paving stones from around the trees, dug deep trenches to install drain tiles and gravel, and put the garden back together at tremendous cost.
A neighbor (heiress to the Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical fortune) complained of being able to see the new mansion from her window. In response, a wooded hillside was created using mature trees, some fifty feet tall, to create an instant screen. A giant spruce was trucked in on a flatbed tractor-trailer, a tree so heavy that a special construction crane had to be brought in to lift it into place.
Glass-walled greenhouses on the estate produced orchids and other houseplants, which were then air-shipped to wherever the Johnsons were staying. The greenhouses provided culinary herbs, long-stemmed roses and other cut flowers, and a rotation of foliage plants from delicate ferns to huge banana trees for decorating the big house.
They also grew vegetable seedlings for the estate’s three-acre organic vegetable garden.
All this luxury made a strong impression on me, a poor boy from south Jersey. Estate homes like Jasna Polana are rarely built today, and most homes of this scale eventually become public attractions like Longwood Gardens, Winterthur Museum and the Biltmore Estate. After Mr. Johnson’s death, Jasna Polana was sold to PGA Tour Inc. and converted to a Tournament Players Club world-class golf course.
Steve Boehme is the owner of GoodSeed Nursery & Landscape, located on Old State Route 32 three miles west of Peebles. More information is available online at www.goodseedfarm.com or call (937) 587-7021.