It was a perfect, sunny day and the homes were spectacular. This was my first time attending Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, and the Dolley Madison Garden Club’s ‘Centennial Tour’ didn’t disappoint. It was an extra-special event, as it also marked the club’s 100th anniversary. And to commemorate the occasion, two historic residences were open to the public for the very first time.
IT ALL BEGAN IN ORANGE, VIRGINIA
The Dolley Madison Garden Club was founded in 1919 in the town of Orange (population 2600) in the Madison-Barbour Rural Historic District. Located about 20 miles east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the area boasts one of the best-preserved and most scenic rural landscapes in America. Roughly half of the district is covered by forests and the rest by fields and pasture.
The scenery is vast and mesmerizing. Colored a rich green, the rolling terrain laps like waves at the foot of the mountains, broken only by a patchwork of two-lane rural roads, many of which date back to the Colonial period.
A CIVIL WAR HERITAGE
But stunning landscape is not all the Madison-Barbour District has to offer. What also sets it apart are the large number of structures surviving from before the Civil War. Still actively managed as working farms, many of these properties are unusually large – ranging from 100 to over 2000 acres. Moreover, they include some of the finest country houses in Virginia.
In particular, Orange is known for its large estates. Barely glimpsed down winding lanes or nestled in forests high on hilltops, many of them represent the finest examples of Federal and Georgian-style architecture. And a number of them contain gardens that rival some of the best in England.
According to the brochure, this year’s properties were chosen to reflect the guiding principles that inspired the Dolley Madison Garden Club’s founders. That is, to protect the agricultural heritage of the area, stimulate horticultural advancement and undertake improvement projects to enhance the lives of those in the community. I’d say the homes and gardens more than accomplished their mission. Indeed, touring these beautiful properties made for an enlightening and exciting day.
Located on a secluded hilltop near Somerset, Tivoli is considered the grandest of all the district’s 20th century houses. A perfect example of Colonial Revival style, the 24-room brick mansion is surrounded on three sides by a two-story portico supported by gigantic Corinthian columns. Built around 1903, its barns and outbuildings are today home to one of the finest equestrian training facilities in the world.
In addition to its opulent architecture, the stand-out for many people is the mansion’s spectacular wrap-around porch. Painted a glossy black, it provides the perfect counterpoint to the velvety green lawns below.
TOURING TIVOLI’S GARDENS
Among the most talked about in the area, Tivoli’s terraced gardens are a stunning representation of English garden style. Designed by landscape architect Charles Stick, the series of ‘outdoor rooms’ form a seamless link between home and garden.
Visitors typically begin their tour at a small parterre tucked in a corner behind the mansion. Centered around a statue of St. Francis, the horseshoe-shaped garden comprises both English and American box. In true English fashion, low, sheared hedges contain a mix of seasonal bulbs and annuals, while just beyond, a flight of steps leads up to the next series of gardens.
Left of the stairway, a tree-lined alley acts as a central walkway. Bordered on both sides by pleached hornbeams, the alley draws a clear distinction between the upper terrace gardens. Held aloft by smooth grey trunks, the shaped leaves form a beautiful canopy, adding an important vertical element to the space.
To the right of the hornbeam alley is a rectangular garden composed of a pair of matching parterres. Centered between the precise box hedges is a white bench. At the time of our visit, a raised border of bright white azaleas framed this classic garden seat. And just beyond, a dark green hedge provided the perfect backdrop.
This lovely space, found at the far end of the hornbeam alley, provides a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside. The slender, dark brown trunks of the bright green trees beyond line up with the opening.
On the other side of the house, a grass walk leads the visitor past shrub borders to the family pool. Its formal setting and strict lines are accentuated by the informal mix of shrubs and trees on the slope above.
Erected between 1909 and 1910, Gaston Hall sits at the end of a sweeping, tree-lined drive amid rolling pastures. The impressive red-brick home features a main two- and a half-story block with central portico supported on either side by symmetrical one-story wings. The design, which echoes that of Montpelier, is typical of the early 20th century Colonial Revival style.
In fact, the home was originally built by William and Annie duPont for their son and his wife (a founding member of the Dolley Madison Garden Club.) The duPont family owned Montpelier at the time.
Today, only boxwood, century-old peonies and a small temple remain of the original formal gardens. However, the present owners, with the help of landscape architect Rachel Lilly, have substantially revamped the landscape. In recent years, they created a new plan on three terraces incorporating a large parterre, shrub and perennial borders, a woodland garden, a kitchen garden and a garden folly. Like Tivoli, the gardens follow a traditional English garden scheme.
A view across the pool to the back of the house reveals the home’s stunning Colonial Revival architecture.
On a terrace above the pool, there is a large parterre. Sectioned into four quadrants, the sheared hedges contain a lively mix of bulbs and perennials. At the corners, ball-shaped boxwood accentuate the strong geometrics, while in the distance, flowering trees provide a colorful backdrop.
Located at the far end of the parterre, the kitchen garden echoes the overall scheme of this formal garden. Bordered by hornbeams (which provide protection against the wind), it also serves a practical purpose. Just the same, the neat rows of herbs, vegetables and lettuce still lend this space a distinct ornamental quality.
This circa 1728 two-story manor home has previously never been open to the public. The main house evolved from a traditional timber box frame to the multi-level home it is today. Sold to the Peters family of New York in the mid-twentieth century, it was significantly expanded over the years to make space for an extensive art collection.
The mother of the owner, Mrs. Harry Peters, planted the original gardens in the mid 1940s, which later grew to include a number of exotic trees. Today, these stunning specimens are a legacy of the horticultural interests of the family.
In recent years, Windholme’s current owners (who also have an extensive art collection) have revamped the gardens to mirror the original work done by the Peters family. As with Tivoli and Gaston, they extend outward from the back of the house in a series of ‘ outdoor rooms.’
Directly behind the main patio, a shade garden provides a cool respite from the bright sun. Enclosed by hedges, it is accentuated by masses of variegated hostas whose cream markings glint in the sun.
Not far, a guest cottage (one of numerous outbuildings) adds charm to the garden.
As do whimsical sculptures that invite contemplation.
Unfortunately we ran out of time to tour the last property called ‘The Residence.’ Dating to 1793, the Federal style, two-story house was built by William Madison, sixth child of James Madison, Sr. Birthplace of the Woodberry Forest School, it is today the home of the Headmaster.
To learn more about the history of the Dolley Madison Garden Club and its programs, click here for the official website.