Early Life and Family Estate
The son of Oliver Ingraham Lay, a professional painter, and Hester Marian Wait Lay, Charles Downing Lay was born in Newburgh, New York. At age 7, Lay began spending summers with his grandmother in Stratford, Connecticut. Her house was located at 95 Chapel Street, which is approximately 100 yards (91 m) away from the banks of the Housatonic River. Lay spent much of his childhood in Stratford fishing, sailing, and swimming and developed a great appreciation for nature. The Housatonic, along with the Long Island Sound, would greatly influence the course of Lay's career.
Lay inherited his grandmother's estate, the land he first fell in love with, in 1900 and he remained there until his death in 1956. The property was not extensive and although the landscape was informal, there was little to suggest a truly naturalistic landscape. Walls, ramps, and steps with planting occupied the slope between houses, with interesting plants planted in a casual manner. There was little space between the houses and the country road to the north; the outdoor living areas were focused on the south view toward Long Island. These areas were bounded by old stone walls with large lawns and perennial borders surrounding the grounds. Always planning further improvements, he often experimented in growing new plants. In 1947, shortly before retirement, Lay bought 85 acres (340,000 m2) in Lyme, Connecticut, near Selden Creek, where he spent time with his wife and family during the summers. He described this land as "farm grown to woods which I subconsciously had been longing for."
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