Historic Garden Tour: The Dolley Madison Garden Club Turns 100

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.

TIVOLI

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.

GASTON HALL

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. 

WINDHOLME

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

 

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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.