In Annapolis, Maryland there’s an impressive brick mansion that towers over the tiny streets of 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. The property had seen many changes over the years until in the 1960s, it underwent a painstaking restoration. Today, the Paca House and Garden is a faithful representation of what a Colonial-era residence used to be, offering visitors a quiet respite in the very heart of this capital city.
RESTORATION OF THE GARDEN
The restoration of the William Paca garden took an unusual course, aided as it was by two seemingly unrelated events separated by almost two centuries. The pair of events ended up providing important details about the original garden, its buildings and plants, enabling historians and horticulturalists to recreate the original 18th-century landscape with near-perfect precision.
The first event took place in 1772 when Charles Willson Peale (1741-1847) painted a full-length portrait of Paca standing in front of his garden. The painting documented key architectural features of the landscape, including a red brick wall, central pathway, two-story white summerhouse and Chippendale-style bridge.
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 popular with visitors to 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 filler 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.”
Main view into the William Paca Garden
Drawing on the details in the Peale portrait as well as what was revealed in the excavated foundations, researchers and historians gradually reconstructed the bones of the original garden. Researchers 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 red brick walls characteristic of colonial gardens in the Chesapeake region. Four parterres, laid out in precise geometric shapes, make up the middle terrace of the garden. The third terrace of the garden slopes down toward a fish-shaped pond and the Wilderness Garden. 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.
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.
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 verbena, perennial foxglove and tropical-looking yellow canna lilies were all blooming.
Close-up of purple verbena
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.
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.)
On the second terrace, the Holly and Boxwood Parterres provide year-round interest with their carefully maintained geometric designs.
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.
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.
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.
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.