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.

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