The Story Behind The Gardens of Annapolis’ William Paca House

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In Annapolis, Maryland there’s an impressive brick mansion that towers over the city’s historic district. Built in the 1760s, the home once belonged to William Paca, a signatory to the United States Declaration of Independence and third Governor of Maryland. In the 1960s, the property underwent a painstaking restoration. And today, the William Paca House and Garden is a faithful representation of what a Colonial-era residence used to be, offering visitors a quiet respite in the heart of this capital city.

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RESTORATION OF THE GARDEN

Aided by two seemingly unrelated events, the restoration of the William Paca garden took an unusual course. Separated by almost two centuries, the events ended up providing important details about the original garden. The happy coincidence enabled historians and horticulturalists to recreate the original 18th-century landscape, complete with buildings and plants, with near-perfect precision.

The first event took place in 1772 when Charles Willson Peale (1741-1847) painted a full-length portrait of William Paca in front of his garden. The painting documented key architectural features of the landscape. These included a red brick wall, central pathway, two-story white summerhouse and a Chippendale-style bridge.

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Portrait of William Paca by Charles Willson Peale

The second event took place over a century later during the early 1900s when the house functioned as a hotel for the U.S. Naval Academy. To make room for new dormitories, the Academy added fill dirt to a portion of the property. By happy accident, the soil acted as a cushion, preserving all of the brick foundations of Paca’s original garden and outbuildings.

According to Joseph Sherren, an intern with the curatorial department,

“It was one of those happy accidents that come about once in a lifetime.”

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Main view into the William Paca Garden

Using the details in the Peale portrait along with what was revealed in the excavated foundations, researchers and historians gradually reconstructed the bones of the original garden. They then consulted Colonial-era garden manuals and plant lists to determine what plants might have grown in the various spaces.

Today the garden is composed of a series of terraces enclosed by shrubbery and brick walls, a style characteristic of colonial gardens in the Chesapeake region. The third terrace slopes down toward a pond and the Wilderness Garden. And the property’s focal point, the two-story white summerhouse, presides on a small hill at the end of the garden, just like it does in Peale’s painting.

TOURING THE WILLIAM PACA HOUSE GARDEN

The tour begins on the uppermost terrace, which was designed to serve as a platform for entertaining and for viewing the garden. It is the first glimpse a visitor has of the garden.

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The next two levels are laid out in parterres. The Rose Parterre (on the left) features many heirloom roses including alba roses, which were being grown as far back as the Middle Ages. There is also a broad assortment of companion annuals and perennials. During my afternoon visit,  the flesh pink rose ‘Maiden’s Blush’, purple allium, verbena bonariensis, perennial foxglove and tropical-looking yellow canna lilies were all blooming.

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Rose Parterre

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Close-up of purple verbena bonariensis

The Flower Parterre, which lies directly opposite from the Rose Parterre, was designed to provide three seasons of colorful flowers. At the time of my visit, pink and apricot daylilies, soft pink echinacea and purple liatris were all in bloom. Spiky blue veronica, golden lantana and lavender-pink Stokes’ asters rounded out the mix.

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The Kitchen Garden features a colonial-style shed and trellises and latticework crafted from branches and string. I observed lush crops of salad greens, snap peas and squash growing in raised beds, a tiny shelf stacked with herbs planted in terra cotta pots and many heirloom varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries and figs trained as espaliers. (Products made from the fruits, herbs and vegetables grown in the garden are sold in the gift shop.)

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Kitchen Garden

On the second terrace, the Holly and Boxwood Parterres provide year-round interest with their carefully maintained geometric designs.

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Boxwood Parterre

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Holly Parterre

The Summerhouse is the focal point of the garden. It lies in the wilderness area, which consists of a series of meandering paths through beds of mixed plantings. Reminiscent of the ‘picturesque’ style of gardening that was popular in Colonial America during Paca’s time, the miniature, thumb-shaped building is reached by crossing a Chinese-style latticework bridge that spans a fish-shaped pond.

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The upper floor of the two-story building served as a viewing point for the garden during the summer while providing the Paca family with cool garden breezes from the Chesapeake Bay.

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Tail-end (literally) of the fish-shaped pond

 

THE ART OF DRAINAGE 

Paca was an innovator when it came to designing ways to channel the natural runoff across his property. He built a system of drains that diverted water into pleasing garden elements. At the lowest level of his garden, he constructed a brick canal to direct water into a spring house. It is a key architectural element in the lower terrace of the garden.

Today, the natural spring, which is still active in the spring house, feeds the pond. In Paca’s day, the water was also repurposed for household use.

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One of Paca’s brick canals used to drain water from the garden

 

The State of Maryland and Historic Annapolis bought the Paca mansion in 1965 to save it from demolition. They spent the following decade restoring the house and garden. In 1971, the site was recognized as a National Historic Landmark. For more on the house and gardens, click here for the website.

The property hosts the annual William Paca Garden Plant Sale on Mother’s Day weekend every year.

 

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