Ballinger, J. H., Shoreline WA #06692
Type:Private Estate & Homesteads
The Ballinger garden, “Belfagio,” is among the best preserved Olmsted Brothers landscapes in The Highlands. Steep topography afforded excellent Puget Sound and Olympic Mountain views—and major construction challenges. Inspired by Italian hillside gardens, James Frederick Dawson used strong axes, including an allee, sunken parterre, and sloping “fountain vista” that captured hillside springs.
The Ballinger garden, “Belfagio,” is among the best preserved Olmsted Brothers landscapes in The Highlands. Steep topography afforded excellent Puget Sound and Olympic Mountain views—and major construction challenges. Inspired by Italian hillside gardens, James Frederick Dawson used strong axes, including an allee, sunken parterre, and sloping “fountain vista” that captured hillside springs.The landscape also integrated a curving drive, informal perennial borders, and a shrub-edged lawn linked strongly to the house’s grand view terrace.
Seattle attorney John Ballinger was neighbor and son-in-law of A.B. Stewart, for whom J.C. Olmsted a decade earlier had designed “Braeburn” (job 03709). Wife Alma Stewart Ballinger took great interest in design of the grounds and house, writing Olmsted Brothers partner J.F Dawson in April 1920, “We are all working for the “finished whole” and your interest in the house as well as the grounds is very much appreciated.” Ultimately the design gracefully fulfilled Alma Ballinger’s concept of “an Italian country home as you see around Fiesole and the hillsides of Italy.”
With their Seattle architect Sherwood Ford, the Ballingers gravitated toward a house of grand formality, about which Dawson observed in March 1920, “In our minds your lot does not particularly lend itself to a formal treatment.” Landscape plans were complicated by the property’s steep topography, drainage issues, unrealistic expectations for access, and the ever-expanding size of the house on a relatively small 2.5-acre lot. Dawson adjusted his layout a number of times to fit all the elements, and the garden’s many structures and plantings required extensive detailing.
When design commenced n June 1919, Alma Ballinger warned Dawson, “All along the bank of Spring Drive there [are] all kinds of water percolating through, from the higher elevated properties. …It may be necessary to have a proper draining system installed, to collect the water…which could be used to advantage in some pool, or brook.” As suggested, Dawson transformed this excess water into an asset that fit both the site and Alma Ballinger’s vision:
"The feature which we have indicated as a “fountain vista” was suggested by the presence of supply of spring water now delivered in pipes at the upper edge of the lot. This kind of device is highly characteristic of the Italian work you have admired, and so is the green allee parallel with the upper side of the flower garden , and the broad arbor below it. If the garden is properly detailed and planted it should give you quite the effect you are aiming at."
The fountain vista is intact today, overgrown but under restoration. From the top pool and small terrace, views to the gardens below and the Sound beyond are memorable. Below the drive, a long allee, a sunken Italianate flower garden and a pergola parallel the slope in terraces, at cross axes with the vista.
Regarding access, Dawson wrote in January 1920, “Our first plan meant so much bulk-heading, and such steep grades as well, that we endeavored to see if some plan could be worked out that would save more of the space, and save expense in bulkheading. We tried several times to bring the road in from the corner where…Mr Ballinger wanted it brought, but it did not seem to be practical, and after considerable study and discussion with Mr. J. C. Olmsted, we decided that if the road on the south end of the property was open, and not too steep…it would really be better to bring it in there.”
Not long before he died, J.C. Olmsted shared his perspective from the earlier Stewart project which presented identical challenges. As built, the driveway sweeps gradually downward on a curve, passing the “fountain vista” stair and paralleling the long allee below, to gradually reveal the house, garage and formal forecourt. For the entry gate Dawson recommended a “plain stucco post with dark stone cap as used to excellent effect on the loggia of the Palazzio Zamboni in Verona” rather than the architect’s more elaborate treatment.
Pushed toward a more formal landscape style than he would have preferred, Dawson injected simplicity and softening vegetation where appropriate and possible. Forest paths lie beyond the formal gardens, and curves of lawn and shrubbery sweep away below the view terrace on the house’s west side. The resulting landscape Dawson created has strong structure and geometries well fitted to the difficult site and large-scale house. Sequences of view and movement remain largely intact, little affected by shifts in plant palette and some loss of property at the bottom of the hill. The Ballinger project reveals Olmsted Brothers talent for addressing practical challenges, meeting client demands and exploiting natural assets of a given site.