Gardens lost in time

Walled garden entrance gate at Chatham Manor, Fredericksburg, Virginia

I have always been a lover of history.  However, in my youth, I couldn’t grasp the concept of time further back than my own past.  To my mind, history textbooks were no different than historical fiction.  I thought, who’s to say that the past manifested itself in a certain way?  How could archaeologists look at a chard of clay and say it was 10,000 years old rather than 100, and that it was used for say, storing a herbal salve rather than the bones of a dead relative?  Of course, this was the mind of a teenager, not content to accept the word of an adult, much less a teacher, at face value.

It was not until I visited places that exist so viscerally in more than one time and place (like many sites I have visited in England), that history has become palpable to me.  Such was my recent experience at Chatham, an 18th century estate in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

What was also made clear to me is that our understanding of history is coloured by its delivery.

Chatham Manor is now owned and managed by the United States National Parks Service, and it is considered an important part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  Five of the rooms in this grand building are home to exhibits detailing the Civil War history of this home and the surrounding area and the rest of the rooms (as well as the outbuildings) are park offices.

The last private owner of the Chatham estate was industrialist John Lee Pratt, who purchased the property in 1931 and then willed it to the National Park Service on his death in 1975.  In 1984, the NPS began a restoration of the gardens at the rear (east side) of the house.  Here in the brochure, it reads in part:

If you walk the grounds at Chatham you will see that several ornamental cast concrete pineapples adorn the landscape. This colonial decoration served as a symbol of hospitality, a tradition which the National Park Service strives to continue.

I did not fully appreciate the origins of the feelings of desolation I experienced here.  At the time of our visit, I associated it with the sad and brutal reality of the battles fought in the vicinity as part of the bloody American Civil War.  During the early 1860s, Chatham was used as a staging area, a political and military meeting place and finally, a makeshift hospital, morgue and cemetery.  Its occupation by both Union and later, Confederate troops sealed its fate:  both trees and paneling were taken down to keep the warming fires going, and the grounds were trampled by wagons, soldiers and artillery.

Chatham House, probably 1863; photo from U.S. National Parks Service, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, Fredericksburg historic photos

But it was also what was left unsaid and, as far as I knew during my visit, unrecorded that left me feeling sad.

Because you see, the planted grounds here at Chatham have a history too.

In a thorough and sensitive study of Chatham’s landscape history, Zachary Rutz (a Garden Club of Virginia Fellow in 2006), has consolidated and commented upon the two centuries of its existence.   During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the grounds were planted with dozens of shade trees, fruit trees, vines and shrubs by its first owner, William Fitzhugh.  By the time Fitzhugh put Chatham up for sale in 1797 (it wasn’t actually sold until 1806), the local newspaper advertisement for the estate boasted that it was “neatly laid out in pleasure and Kitchen Gardens” with a choice collection of flowers and flowering shrubs as well as “apples, pears, walnuts, chestnuts, cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, grapes, figs, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries and currants”.  It had “two large and flourishing orchards; one of well chosen Peach trees, the other of Apple and Pear trees, selected from the best nurseries in the State.”

In the photo above, the sycamore (or Platanus occidentalis) towering over the rear, garden-side of the house is one of only a few original trees that were planted in the 19th century (sometime between 1858-1868).  The landscape of this estate was markedly different then because a veritable grove surrounded the house (locusts, linden, sycamore, gingko, ash and catalpa), providing protection from the sun and a feeling of integration with its surroundings.

The catalpa trees at the front of the house were planted during the time of Chatham’s second inhabitant, Major Churchill Jones sometime between 1808 and 1818.  They still stand today two hundred years later, albeit supported by steel supports, demonstrating what appears to be their sheer will to survive.

The devastation of the landscape during the Civil War allowed its 20th century owners to rethink the entire property.  When Daniel and Helen Devore purchased the estate in 1920, they almost immediately hired an architect, a contractor and Ellen Biddle Shipman, a landscape architect from New York City to make changes to the home and grounds.

Shipman was considered “the dean of American women landscape architects” between 1914 until 1965.  Inspired by contemporaries like Gertrude Jekyll and Beatrix Farrand, she was creating gardens in the ‘country place’ style of the day.  To Shipman, the idea that an estate garden be contained was first and foremost;  secondly, structure within the ‘garden rooms’ was essential.  She did this through the use of allées with views, boxwood and yew hedging, and nine foot tall whitewashed brick walls (the house was also newly whitewashed) enclosing the entire garden.

There was also the generous use of statuary to complete a view, emphasize an axis point and draw the visitor along a path.

Although the garden today has been somewhat restored, most of this work having taken place by the National Park Service in the 1980s, the glory of the original Shipman garden is largely lost.   In fact, Rutz indicates that the idea of restoring the garden at all was contentious among park employees; some believed the grounds should be left barren to represent its appearance during the Civil War era.

Shipman loved variety, opulence and above all, plants.  In fact, the scope of her planting plans for Chatham are mind-boggling with her encyclopedic choice of perennials, biennials, annuals, bulbs, shrubs, hedges, vines and trees.  During the era that landowners would have numerous gardeners (the Devores had six full time gardeners) and labourers, keeping up the grounds was part and parcel of being wealthy.   But today, when funds are scarce and historical landmarks rely on government monies (the Park Service employs two gardeners/groundskeepers), gardens like these are skinned to within an inch of their former lives.

In its day, Chatham’s gardens boasted 22 varieties of climbing roses and 16 types of vines (various named cultivars of Clematis, Wisteria and others), along with hundreds of other plants.

In 1926, The House Beautiful magazine featured Chatham’s gardens and soon afterward in 1929, Town and Country followed suit.  Shockingly (to me), the Devores sold the property in 1931, just ten years after the landscape was re-born.  When the estate changed hands, John and Lillian Pratt demurred from allowing the local garden clubs and the Garden Club of Virginia to include Chatham as an ‘open garden’ once yearly.  They were irritated that those who had missed ‘the day’ would come another time and disturb their privacy.  It seems poetic justice that Rutz’s landscape history of Chatham would have been sponsored by that same Garden Club.

One of the extraordinary things about this 1920s garden is that it has been chronicled by one of the earliest 20th century American woman photographers, Frances Benjamin Johnson, in a collection of black and white images taken during the summer of 1929.  Rutz includes this series of photos juxtaposed with similar views in 2006, the summer he was researching there.  Although these photographs don’t show the colour of the wisteria blooms, or the multiple shades of green in the plantings, they are undoubtedly some of the most bittersweet and jaw-dropping images I have seen of a garden lost in time.

I encourage you to see them here, from page 47 onwards.

Signage: funny and then just plain weird

Seen this before but still love it …

We’ve all unwittingly wandered into “these types” of restaurants …

Is it just me or doesn’t a well-dressed 12 year old make everyone want to buy a Toyota?

Hmmm…baby back ribs and the Bible-belt.

Alas, no one was home – :c(

As I’ve said before:  Florida is home to the very small dog.

Molest??!  What, is this a common problem?

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina: Part II

The value of water in a landscape cannot be underestimated.  The Moors knew this (consider the Alhambra), garden makers in the Far East (China, Japan) knew this and Italian (including the ancient Romans), French and English designers all knew this.

Much of the landscape at Middleton Place was created in the middle of the 18th century.  At that time the prevailing fashion of creating gardens that were rigid and styled to within an inch of their lives was loosed and a new ‘Romantic’  style was born.  The English landscape architects William Kent and then Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown were the hands and minds behind many of these new open and rolling landscapes that settled onto the grounds of English country estates.  But not everyone was a fan: the well-known garden designer and author Russell Page (Education of a Gardener) said that Brown was guilty of

…encouraging his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and rather shapeless pools and lakes.”

It is not surprising that new American landowners would recreate this timely and elite style within their own plantation landscapes.

But on my tour of this historic American garden, I was treated to something you’d never see on the grounds of places like Hampton Court Palace:

If you’d like more history on Middleton Place, get the scoop with Bob Vila here:

Bob Vila tour of MIddleton Place

Are you a gardener? Take this simple test …

This is a test.

Depending upon how you view these pictures, you are a gardener or not.

Do you think:

a) “What a mucky mess; glad it’s still crisp enough* that I don’t have to go out there and clean up quite yet.”  (     )

b) Whatever.  Glad the snow is gone!  (     )

c) Boo hoo.  No more skiing…     (     )

d) HALLELUJAH!  Snowdrops or Galanthus nivalis( √  )

…and other sure signs of life!

So, are you a gardener?  Or like me, a gardener who clearly didn’t tidy up last fall!

* Of course, there was nothing ‘crisp’ about the day today.  It was an astounding 24 degrees Celsius, which is a record by leaps and bounds since 1939, when the last highest temperature that was recorded reached 16.1 in 1966!  And this whole week is supposed to have temperatures north of 20 … is it really March?

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina: Part I

The gardens and grounds at Middleton Place in Charleston, South Carolina, are highly orchestrated.  This is the first view you are treated to as a visitor to this National Historic Landmark today.

This very large, man-made pool is completely rectangular with crisp retaining wall edges and still water.  Practically, it reflects the trees and sky but emotionally it slows the mind and brings quiet to the soul.

And if you look closely, you’ll see that directly across from this viewing point, there is an opening in the hedging marked by two tilting trees.  Through it you’ll see a sundial as a distant focal point.  As a result, the visitor is made curious and wants to see more.  But first,

You look left:

And then you look right:

But it’s not until you see the pool from the side that it reveals itself totally …

And then, not to make too fine a point of it, if you’re like me, you get weak in the knees, steady yourself, catch your breath and continue your visit …

Because this place is not only spectacular in its vistas and open spaces, but also its axial pathways.  They proceed in straight lines, edged with massed plantings of camellias and azaleas, a favourite in plantation gardens of the south.

Much like English gardens of the time (I’m thinking especially of Hidcote), long straight views are used repeatedly to draw the visitor into the experience…

And as I remarked, not all views are sheltered; many are open and geometric.

Even in the south, the winter months can still be cold and dreary enough to make evergreen hedging and clipped topiary a valuable structure in formal gardens.

In contrast to these formal constructions, the natural marshland along the river edge of the property belies the history of this plantation.

Much like Magnolia Plantation, which is actually just a stone’s throw away, the riches that this place produced came from its cultivation of rice during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The grounds at Middleton Place were first settled in the late 17th century, with the main house built in 1705.  This home has since been destroyed, first by fire near the end of the American Civil War and then the finishing blows were dealt by a massive earthquake in 1886.  The curved staircase at the rear and a segment of wall are all that is left.

The south flanking wing, however, was restored in 1870 just in time to withstand the rumblings of the earthquake that came sixteen years later.

The last resident of this southern wing was J.J. Pringle Smith (a Charleston lawyer who was cousin to the last direct descendent in the Middleton line, Lilly) and his wife Heningham who called it their off-season home (they lived in less hot and humid conditions during the summer) from 1925 onwards.

It was their rejuvenation of the original gardens over the next fifteen years that resulted in the Garden Club of America giving it their highest accolade in 1941, the Bulkley Medal, declaring the gardens there “the most interesting and important in America.”

More on my visit later…

Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, Charleston, South Carolina

While we were down south, we visited three plantation gardens, each very different.  First I’ll introduce you to Magnolia Plantation, which is located in Charleston, South Carolina.

But before I go any further, let me remark on the ‘elephant in the room’, that is slavery.  It is no secret that during the late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries the plantation economy in the American south was powered by generations of blacks who were originally taken from their African homes to work the land ensuring that these estates could prosper.  The rich plantation keepers owed their bounty to these enslaved black men, women and children.

Magnolia Plantation honours this history by offering a 45 minute tour called “From Slavery to Freedom” three times a day.  We were unable to go on it, however, because it was a tram tour that would only accommodate dogs that could be carried (!) and Skye is no lap dog.

Notwithstanding that oversight, from the little bit of reading that I have done, my biggest surprise is how the ‘slave’ community in South Carolina (and Georgia) was just that:  a community of blacks — a combination of those recently brought from afar, those who had come years earlier or who had been born into slavery in America (this community of blacks in the low country of the coastal south became known as the Gullah culture).

In his book, The African American Odyssey of John Kizell, Kevin G. Lowther traces the life of a young African boy who was given the name ‘John’ by his American owner after he arrived in Charleston in 1773.  This area was populated primarily by black slaves since the early 1700s (“5,833 slaves and twenty-four free blacks in 1770 outnumbered the 5,030 resident whites”) and it was within this community, and not just the ‘White’ world, that the newcomer would have to find his way.  If you’d like to read more about what it was like to live in the Low-Country during the height of the plantation economy through the eyes of slaves, go to this wonderful website here.  According to Lowther, in the latter half of the 18th century and beyond, the so-called ‘Negro’ slave in this part of America lived within a surprisingly autonomous, structured and racially dignified world.  In many ways it was almost parallel to, rather than subservient to, the white population.

Magnolia Plantation was founded in 1679 by Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann.  They traveled to this area on the banks of the Ashley River from their home in Barbados and with slaves originating largely from West Africa (what is now Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea), made it into a thriving rice plantation. These African blacks brought with them a knowledge of rice cultivation (which had been taking place on the African coast for 3,000 years) but they also brought tropical illnesses like malaria and yellow fever.  Because the climate during the hot summer months in Georgia and South Carolina was the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, thus also for the spread of these diseases, the white landowners (who had no resistance to them) usually retired from the swampy coast to the urban centres during a substantial portion of the year, leaving the cultivation of the crops and running of the estate to their slave workforce.  As a result, the ‘Gullah’ culture was able to thrive without much interference.

Crops like rice, indigo, cotton and then tobacco were harvested in the swamps and fields and taken down the Ashley River to the ports of Charles Towne and Savannah, further south.

Simple wooden barges were built to transport these goods and there was a thriving business from this and other riverbank plantations.

This property stayed in the Drayton family until Thomas Drayton’s (the original owner’s great-grandson) death in 1825.  He had no male heirs so the property was willed to his daughter’s sons, primarily Thomas (the elder son) and secondarily, John Grimke.  The only condition was that these boys changed their family name to Drayton – a small price to pay to inherit their mother’s family estate.

But while studying for the priesthood in England, the younger Drayton, John, was summoned to take the reins of this grand estate.  It seems his brother Thomas had been shot on Oak Avenue during a deer hunt, and died on the home’s front steps.

The young and remaining Drayton continued his plan to be a minister and so entered a New York seminary in 1838.  While he was studying he met and married the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer, Julia Ewing.  They both returned to Charleston and Drayton took on the task of managing the estate and continuing his theological studies.  The extent of the work doing both took a toll and he contracted tuberculosis.  Determined to get well on his own terms, Drayton decided that fresh air and managing the gardens of the estate would cure him.  And miraculously it did.

Drayton wanted to make Magnolia a place of beauty and romance for his wife.  Even today, this estate is known as the quintessential “romantic” southern garden.  And boy, it sure is.

It was during this 19th century Drayton’s stewardship of Magnolia Plantation that the gardens began to really flourish.  Drayton must have been a frustrated horticulturist because he was smitten by both azaleas and camellias, the former which he introduced to American gardens and to cultivation outdoors rather than simply under glass.

Our visit coincided with the last week in February so the azaleas were just beginning to bloom.  But the camellias (Camellia japonica) were in the midst of their glory.

Camellia japonica 'Pink Perfection'; Japan 1875

Magnolia was the first garden in America to plant azaleas outside. In the spring, hundreds of thousands of blooming azaleas grace the paths and lake basins. Their reflections in the lake’s dark waters are utterly stunning. Hundreds of varieties of Indica, Kurume, Satsuki, Glen Dales, native azaleas and other hybrids are in Magnolia’s collection. New varieties are added annually.

Working with The Great Gardens of America Preservation Alliance in 2010, Magnolia identified 15 varieties of Indian Azaleas previously thought to be extinct. They are being propagated to share with other preservation-minded gardens across the nation. One of Magnolia’s primary objectives is to locate and preserve these older azalea varieties for future generations to enjoy.

(From the Magnolia Plantation website)

When the Civil War erupted in the American south, plantation estates were laid bare and many never recovered.  Their workforce was liberated and the scale of production they had maintained could not continue.  Magnolia’s very existence was at risk.  Whether Drayton saw this as an opportunity or a hail-Mary, it is no doubt the conversion of his estate into a tourist destination for plant lovers during the 1870s was what saved it.

Regular excursions were made from Charleston that took sightseers down the river to visit the renowned gardens at Magnolia-on-the-Ashley.  Whereas a carriage ride over bumpy roads would take upwards to three hours a distance of 13 miles, the journey by paddle-wheeled steamer was just one hour long past picturesque riverbanks.  Others would reach the garden by South Carolina railroad and were let off across the river, to be ferried to the plantation dock by ferry.

It may also be that his compassion towards his slaves (he incorporated schooling into their daily schedule under the guise of religious instruction despite the ardent disapproval of his wealthy white congregation) ensured that they stayed on with him after emancipation, thus ensuring the continued glory of the gardens.

What was once the schoolhouse is now the Public Relations Office on the grounds.  And another of the modest cabins houses washrooms — beautifully presented for today’s tourist.

The gardens here at Magnolia blend the feeling of an untouched wilderness with carefully tended artifice.

As a tourist of the 21st century, you are treated to more than just gardens:

Here is the welcoming committee:  a very noisy group of guinea fowl.

And their more regal relatives:  the peacocks.

Meet a muddy goose …

And don’t be fooled by these chubby faces; nobody ever feeds these beasts!  They will scratch and nudge and stomp their feet until you give them a handful of fresh grass..

And if *you’re* hungry, don’t worry.  Unlike many tourist eateries, the small cafe at Magnolia is an excellent provider of quality treats and home-made food… you will not leave unsatisfied.

There is nothing at this wonderful place that was a disappointment.  If you get a chance, make a point of visiting. In fact, spend the day.

And did I mention, dogs are welcome?