While his work was known to botanical enthusiasts in the 19th century, the role that Alexander Gilson played in the grand Montgomery Place estate has been a bit lost to history.
The Livingston family mansion near Red Hook, N.Y. is an architectural standout. First constructed in 1805, it was redesigned in 1840 and again in 1860 by influential architect Alexander Jackson Davis. As is often the case in Davis’ work, the surrounding landscape was seen as an important element in the visual vocabulary of the site.
In the early to mid 19th century, those grounds were maintained and nurtured by Alexander Gilson. Born into slavery at the estate in the early 1820s, Gilson remained with the Livingston family after gaining his freedom. By the 1840s, he was named the head gardener, collaborating with Cora Livingston Barton and managing the grounds during a time when another influential figure, Andrew Jackson Downing, was refashioning the formal gardens.
The botanical wonders of Montgomery Place were described in an 1861 edition of The Horticulturalist and Gilson was mentioned briefly, although only by his first name, as taking justifiable pride in the place. His name also pops up in 19th and early 20th century publications like American Gardening and American Florist in relation to the double flowering Begonia ‘Gilsonii.’ The plant was cultivated by Gilson and named in his honor in the 1870s. He eventually established his own nursery business in Red Hook, running it until his death in 1889.
Alexander Gilson’s life and impact on the historic estate is being explored, celebrated and remembered over the Memorial Day weekend with a packed schedule of events on or near Montgomery Place.
Bard College ( which acquired the estate in 2016 from Historic Hudson Valley), Historic Red Hook, Dutchess County Historical Society and Red Hook Quilters are collaborating on “Toward an Ethical Imagination: Gilsonfest.” The series of free public programs starts with the unveiling of permanent public signage recognizing Gilson’s contributions on Friday, May 24 at the Montgomery Place Visitor Center
The same day you can visit the opening of “Alexander Gilson: From Property to Property Owner,” an exhibit created by Bard College students about the gardener and his life in the community. The exhibit includes plants and historic garden artifacts reflecting his work. The exhibit is located at the StoryStudio, 5 Cherry Street in Red Hook and will be open the whole holiday weekend from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then runs through Labor Day.
Coinciding with “Gilsonfest” is the last event in the Montgomery Place and Hudson River Heritage Spring Salon Series. This season, the series focused on the music of the Gilded Age, and it culminates in “The Gardener of Montgomery Place and the Composer of Newburgh” on Sunday, May 26 from 4 to 6 p.m.
The outdoor concert features a saxophone quartet playing the music of Newburgh composer, Ulysses J. Alsdorf. The composer’s grandfather, like Gilson, was enslaved in New York and became an entrepreneur. The Alsdorf family became well-known citizens of the community and Ulysses J. Alsdorf’s music was chosen by Newburgh to play during the 1909 Henry Hudson–Robert Fulton Celebration in the city. That same music will close out the celebratory weekend.
For full details on the times, locations and details of all the programming over the weekend, visit the Montgomery Place event page here. The Montgomery Place grounds are also open to the public from dawn to dusk, and mansion tours are available from June 1 to October 12. More information on mansion tours can be found here.
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