It is fairly easy to prophesy that for several years to come, as spring comes round, the Virginia Garden pilgrimage will be staged for some artistic and historic causes. It will become like Washington’s famous cherry blossom show an event to be looked forward to each year — Barbara Trigg Brown, Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, Washington Post, April 27, 1930
Baseball has Opening Day, Capistrano the Swallows, Augusta the azaleas, and Washington, the Cherry Blossoms.
Although taking place in the final week of the April, Virginia has a storied spring tradition, too. Known in some circles as “America’s Largest Open House,” Historic Garden Week attracts thousands each year across the commonwealth.
Hosted as always by the Garden Club of Virginia, this year marks the 85th Annual Historic Garden Week. From the Potomac tidewaters to the Appalachian Mountains, nearly 200 private homes and historic sites will swing open their doors to the public for a peak into a slice of Virginia history that combines preservation, landscape beauty and history. Monies collected help fund the care, maintenance and restoration of historic public gardens, provide fellowships and support state parks.
We thought we would dip into the newspapers and see how this cherished event began and evolved, with an emphasis on Alexandria. A key source is “Follow the Green Arrow, The History of the Garden Club of Virginia, 1920-1970,” by Mrs. James Bland Martin of Gloucester.
The history of having and maintaining a garden in the state of Virginia goes back to its early colonial days. In speaking of the ones in Williamsburg, an article at the Colonial Williamsburg website (“A Williamsburg Perspective on Colonial Gardens”) tells us:
The colonists tended to create the gardens they remembered, or their parents remembered, in the England of William and Mary. Consequently, these styles persisted longer in America where they had been adopted than in England where they had been fashioned.
Mary Newton Stanard (“Colonial Virginia: Its People and Customs”) touches on gardens in the colony. At the plantations, popular was a circle driveway from porch to gate, with each side planted with trees, shrubbery or flowers. Some homes featured shrubs including the dwarf box and tree box.
The flower garden at the Brandon plantation west of Williamsburg (sold for a cool 17M in 2014) was considered ideal with its terraces, grass walk, magnolia, mimosa, and other ornamental trees.
It’s always hard to say who was the first, but the Ladies Garden Club of Athens, Georgia is given credit as the first such organization in 1891. Perhaps they were inspired in part by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.
Also influential early on was Helena Rutherford Ely, who was a founding member of the Garden Club of America. Her first book, “A Woman’s Hardy Garden,” 1903, went through sixteen reprints.
Another rising beacon in Virginia was the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, founded in 1889. They wear the blue ribbon of being the nation’s first statewide historic preservation organization.
It’s also difficult to know exactly what inspired and motivated the early pioneers of what became known as the Garden Club of Virginia, which formed in 1929.
Martin did write that the Garden Club of Virginia “sprang from a true love of gardens, a love inherited from the grandmothers who built so lovingly and so well the gardens of yore.”
Other factors also moved things along. Some of the ladies desired knowledge of the proper care of flowers and historic gardens. Some wanted to see better landscape beautification efforts (boo to the billboard signs!). Some wanted school kids to get exposed to gardening. And although the billboards were a thorn in the side of the ladies efforts, the Good Roads Campaign of the 1920s also paved the way transportation-wise.
And without a doubt there was the Colonial Revival movement. As the Colonial Williamsburg website points out:
Preservation fever swept America in the 1920s. Virginia, with more colonial buildings than most states, was hard hit. Private individuals and preservation societies snapped up derelict plantation homes and restored and furnished them for personal use or to open to the public.
Warrenton, a charter member of the Garden Club of America, was the first organized garden club in Virginia in 1911. The James River club then brought together the original eight clubs (Albemarle, Augusta, Danville, Dolly Madison, Fauquier and Loudoun, James River, Norfolk and Warrenton) in Richmond.
Mrs. Thomas S. Wheelwright, President of the James River Garden Club, wrote the charter which included beautifying cities, towns and highways, and conservation. This was the birth of the Garden Club of Virginia in 1920.
In October 1928, the eight founding clubs met in Fredericksburg. This brigade of women had seen seven more clubs sign on, with more to come. The members expressed their desire to plant the grounds at Kenmore, the plantation home in Fredericksburg built (1770s) by Betty Washington Lewis, George Washington’s sister.
Such things, of course, take money. A member proposed to have a visiting garden week throughout the state. Admission fees would raise funds.
With a purposeful stride, the ladies sprung into action and contacted the owners of some of Virginia’s storied homes.
The first Historic Garden Week took place April 29 to May 10, 1929. More than $14,000 was raised, from the admission of fifty cents. The Post reported good turnout in Winchester and Clarke County. Hotel registers showed visitors from cities in the north and east. Homes on display included the former residence of Major General Daniel Morgan, Scaleby, Audley, Carter Hall, Saratoga, Annefield and Fairfield.
The Kenmore grounds were restored to their historic beauty. Through the years, the GCV has funded the restoration of gardens at almost 50 historic homes. Some of their early ones include Stratford Hall, Woodrow Wilson’s Birthplace (Staunton), Monticello, Gunston Hall and Woodlawn.
Alexandria was not one of the original eight garden clubs, but soon joined in 1930 (Fairfax County joined in 1935). The city’s first garden club launched in 1925. Miss Mary Lindsey, a social leader in the city, nurtured things along.
The following year the Alexandria club hosted a flower show in the city at Market Square. The types included peonies, iris, flowering shrubs, perennials and annuals and the ever popular roses.
A complete list of homes that opened their doors on the Alexandria tours is well beyond this look, but such a list would be long and impressive. The 1933 event no doubt put visitors agog. On hand were 609 Oronoco (former home of Benjamin Hallowell School), 607 Oronoco (Robert E. Lee’s childhood home which was “beautifully restored”), the telescopic beauty we now call the “Lee-Fendall House,” the attractive Greek-Revival home at 414 North Washington Street (demolished in the 1960s), 317 S. St. Asaph, hosted by the Hulfish family, 601 Duke Street, the famed Dulany House, and 404 Duke, former home of the Barrett’s, and for a short period of time Richard Bland Lee.
Some homes have been open several times through the years.
One early member of the GCV was Mrs. Gardner Boothe (Elizabeth Peelle) of Alexandria. She was a key figure, serving as the Director-at-Large in 1935-1936 and Vice President from 1936-1938. A native of Washington who lived most of her life in Alexandria, she served on numerous boards in the city and was active in her husband’s campaigns. Gardner L. Boothe (1907-1990) was born and raised at 711 Princess Street. Boothe performed pro bono work for the GCV and was known throughout the city and state as someone who served the public for many years as a legislator and in other leadership roles.
Hetty Cary (Mrs. Fairfax Harrison, 1871-1943) had local connections, too. Her husband was Fairfax Harrison (1869-1938), whose mother was the novelist Constance Cary Harrison. Constance Cary’s memoir centered on Vaucluse, the family home just outside Alexandria (burned down in 1861). Her Belhaven Tales is set in the town. Fairfax Harrison was an author, too, including the essential “Landmarks of Old Prince William.”
Hetty put her time and passion into the Garden Club of Virginia and landscaping at Belvoir, their home and spread of land in the foothills near Marshall.
The Board of Governors of the GCV met in Alexandria in 1947, with a great desire to get back to speed after the war years shuttered the house and garden tours. Their meeting took place at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Matheson. She (Emma Topkins), served two terms as president of the Alexandria club.
What a treat it must have been for the board members. In 1938, the Mathesons had purchased a small home overlooking the Potomac about halfway between Alexandria and Mount Vernon and close to Fort Hunt. George Washington once owned the hilltop land, a part of his plantation he called River Farm.
The Mathesons transformed the smaller dwelling there into a 12-room mansion. They planted boxwood, magnolia, and wisteria to create a little piece of Virginia heaven. They hosted an annual spring garden show. This couple embodied the spirit of the Garden Club of Virginia, using their time and passion for good causes. They would also be pleased to know the American Horticultural Society has called the house there home since the 1970s and is open to the public.
In 1942, the Alexandria Garden Club formed a “Junior Club,” made up of daughters of active members. The following year, they changed their name to Hunting Creek Garden Club. In 1954, they were officially recognized by the GCV. This group co-hosts HGW in Alexandria, along with the Garden Club of Alexandria. Several years ago they provided funding and gardening expertise to Community Lodgings, a mentoring program in Alexandria.
Alexandria was praised at a meeting of GCV in the mid-fifties for its fund raising efforts through the years, as well as the skilled gardening hands of Mrs. Howard B. Bloomer, Jr. She won dozens of ribbons in the States as well as overseas.
The Guide Book for Historic Garden Week has grown from humble beginnings to this year’s lavishly illustrated 240 pages. In the days before the Internet, event planners depended on the printed matter. As early as 1955, the Virginia Department of Highways placed Green Arrow signs on the roads. The Garden Club of Virginia published the guide book. In later years they would be available at places like the Alexandria Visitors Center. In 1955, one had to write to the Garden Club in Richmond.
The Garden Club of Virginia suspended the event during World War II, but a variation of the show went on in some locales. In November 1944, eight garden clubs in Northern Virginia held a benefit tour for the Alexandria Hospital Auxiliary. The groups were the Garden Club of Alexandria, the Hunting Creek Garden Club, Fairfax Garden Club, Woodlawn Garden Club, Hillside Garden Club, Washington Garden Club of Alexandria, Alexandria Women’s Club and the Belle Haven Women’s Club.
In 1952, Alexandria seemed to pull out all the stops by opening the doors to nine homes clustered south of Prince and west of Lee (similar to this year’s offerings). Perhaps someone dubbed this one the “Washington’s Physicians” tour. Included were Dr. Dick’s House at 209 Prince, Dr Craik’s House at 210 Duke and the Dr. Brown House at 212 S. Fairfax.
For those interested in the history of Ghost Tours in Alexandria, be sure and check out the 1956 Historic Garden Week. In an article in the Post, the writer lavished attention on the allegedly haunted house at 708 Wolfe Street. The Wolfe Street home was not on the tour, but the article likely drew visitors to it.
The planners for the garden club events in Alexandria got creative in 1958. Flower arrangements were shown inside homes as well as the Episcopal High School and tea was served at the Virginia Episcopal Seminary.
One of the joys of taking a Garden Week tour is seeing just how much care and historical attention some home owners give to both the interior and exterior. Some homeowners pull out all the stops. A Post article in 1972 touted the home (built in 1870) at 311 S. St. Asaph Street. Landscape architect Victoria Angel (author name Victoria Kasperski), was laying out a garden there that included tulips, dogwoods and azaleas, as well as hanging baskets of fuchsias and geraniums. Her book was a complete how-to guide for gathering and conditioning flowers, foliages, fruit and vegetables.
The Washington Post always did a good job promoting Historic Garden Week. The tradition was praised in 1981 by Post writer Harriet L. Blake. No doubt raising eyebrows in the District, she wrote:
Some people think cherry blossoms mean spring in Washington. Real Washingtonians know the true signs of spring is the advent of the house and garden tour season.
In 1989, the Post’s coverage seem to reflect how competitive the annual spring tradition had become. Georgetown had a long-standing spring tradition with their House Tour and separate Garden Tour, and Maryland took pride in their annual House and Garden Pilgrimage Tour.
“Tours Beckon With History, Color, Music and Food” said the headline.
The gardens have always been at the heart of the tours, but the homes were their dancing partner.
Marylou Tousignant wrote about the home of Jeanne and Ronald Goldfard, saying:
they turned Alexandria’s oldest standing firehouse into a one of a kind home. It’s not even necessary to have a garden, apparently.
Tour goers in Alexandria got a treat in 2004 when Patrick and Lynnette Camus agreed to show their ten feet wide home on North Pitt Street. Both were architects and threw out the old school books. Adrian Higgins of the Post quoted them as saying they wanted to demonstrate that as the next generation of Old Towners they don’t have to live in a world of boxwood and antiques.
Still, as always, plenty of tradition was still at hand, including Robert E. Lee’s childhood home and the neighboring Hopkins-Lee House (609 Oronoco).
Although Old Town does have some roomy back yards, the typical lot is a half-acre. In 2005, an article in the Post discussed the small space challenge. Betty Spar put her small but impressive evergreen garden on display. Far from being a novice, Spar was a professional horticulturist at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington.
Several years ago, Amy Bertles of the Hunting Creek Garden Club made an astute observation on the small space topic. Quoted in the Gazette, she said:
“People don’t expect to have these amazing gardens behind these homes that can appear tiny from outside.”
The unsung heroes of the Historic Garden Week are the garden club members and the volunteers. They got some recognition in a Post article in 1996 (“Ladies of the Club: Virginia Garden Week Organizers Roll Up Their Sleeves to Keep Tradition in Bloom”).
The article also focused on the other set of folks who help keep the rite of spring event alive. These are the home owners who sometimes spend a lot of coin and time to make their house worthy of a magazine cover.
That year, Donna and James Hackman created a garden with a formal boxwood hedge, lily pond, tree peony collection, an allee of crab apples and an English-style double border filled with flowering plants.
Rebecca Bostick, chair of the Hunting Creek Garden Club explained the delicate process of asking a home owner if they would be willing to host. Some decline, citing privacy concerns. Many agree, with the fund raising in mind.
The Garden Club of Virginia has grown from the first eight clubs to almost 50. This year’s Historic Garden Week in Alexandria will feature four homes clustered south of Prince and east of S. St. Asaph. Purists might raise an eyebrow, as that number is one below the typical five.
But included in the price of admission is the Carlyle House. Don’t miss the back yard there, with its box wood parterre and canopy of trees that serves as Old Town's Valhalla.
The admission fee, while steeper than some can pay, goes to a good cause.
And best of all, the opening of the houses across the state are another sign of springtime, with its warmer days and garden delights.
Ladies, thank you.