I’ve been busy over the past nine months working on a project in the Historic District of Wilmington, NC. The Italianate-style house was built in 1868 for merchant George Washington Williams. In 1886, the Williams family added the Queen Anne East Lake parlor otherwise known as the “Bride’s Room” to accommodate their daughter's wedding reception.
The house remained in the family for three generations. After that time, it was sold and eventually turned into an “apartment” building and subdivided into eight separate apartments. The house and yard had fallen into complete disarray. Both had been neglected for decades.
The current owners have totally restored the 8,000-square foot home and returned it from multiple apartments back to single family. My mission was to design a garden fitting of such a house that would be both appropriate to the time period of the house and to the Cape Fear region.
I was first called to the site in June, 2009. I found the grounds to be in total neglect. My job was to first and foremost, design an outdoor setting that would befit such an historic mansion. It was also to present the design to the Wilmington Historic Commission and this entailed hours of preparation. My first task was to identify all the plants existing on the site. Here is that plan:
Front facade after restoration work
This Tulip Magnolia or Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia soulangiana) was the prettiest plant speciman on the site. One day I arrived on site to find this mess stockpiled underneath it by the construction workers! This is a great way to kill a beautiful tree. It should have been completely barricaded around it’s root zone. When I saw this, I had the stockpiled debris removed immediately.
This brick path was lined with liriope. Look at the condition of those azaleas! Not so good, but I imagine those plants survived with little to no care for decades!
This is the north side of the house completely defaced by construction debris. The tree in the foreground is a dogwood (Cornus florida). The tree in the midground is a large Burford holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’). In the background right side you can see the beginning of the construction of a two-story detached garage.
Here is the back of the house. Both sets of steps you see were not original to the house, but rebuilt by the first contractor, who made them extend much farther out into the landscape than the original steps. He also built them without consideration of the final grade. Because this was a tight site, construction debris was piled up every where. Most of the site was demolished by the construction debris and traffic. Fortunately, there wasn’t much there to begin with. However, the soil does not benefit from all of the compaction.
This wood screen is the original wood detailing adjacent to the back steps to the wine cellar. We repeated this theme on other structures in the landscape.
An old peach tree that was properly barricaded. Note the brick lattice wall behind it. It is in “falling down” condition. I don’t think it was original to the site as it divides the main house from what was once its kitchen and kitchen garden. However, it is sacred to the Historic Commission. We could not harm it or go near it!
Here is the southwest corner of the property. Note the tree in the foreground. It is a Persimmon. It is half dead. There is a chain link fence in the background that is being overtaken by wisteria. To the right, you can see Sabal minor palms that have volunteered on the site.
A brick walk that wrapped around the whole house. Note, the new steps in the back of the house extended several feet past the originals.
Basically, when I first came to this site, I found plants that had been randomly placed throughout the yard OR had volunteered from seed. It was survival of the fittest as the yard had been neglected for many, many years. Just one of the tasks that I had to do for the Historical Society was to identify all of the plants on site and place them on a site plan – a plant inventory.
The above photos are just some of the “before” photos. Over the next few weeks, I will post more information about this project and tell the story of its metamorphosis! It is interesting.