Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Renovation of an Historic Garden

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.

 Photo by Wilmington Historic Foundation

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


IMG_1605Original Front Gate with new steps

IMG_1606   Side View of new front step area and existing brick walk and wall to remain.

IMG_1592 Front yard is neglected and overgrown, but that lamp still works.

IMG_1594  Underneath those weeds is a Mock Orange (Philadelphus sp.) and a few scraggly azaleas.

IMG_1596Side yard looking toward the “Bride’s Room” which as was noted above, was added onto the house in 1886.


IMG_1602 Another view of the “Bride’s Room” and side porch from the Street.  This side yard was one of the sunniest spots in the yard.


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!

IMG_1612This 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.

IMG_1613 We liked the brick lattice work we found beneath the porch. 


IMG_1616Here 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.

IMG_1618 Here is the back door to the kitchen.  It will terminate a future axis in the landscape.

IMG_1614 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!

IMG_1620 A row of Camellia sasanqua was planted to subdivide the yard.  You can also see a bit of a brick path that wrapped around the whole house.

IMG_1622 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.

IMG_1624A new home for the HVAC units and an old Nandina domestic growing at the corner of the house.

IMG_1639 Another Sabal minor that volunteered on the site adjacent to the back wall.


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.


  1. Thanks for a very full description of the 'before' and what the project entails. Can't wait for the 'after' shots.

  2. Ooooooh that looks like a great project! Cannot WAIT to see the icing on the cake. Beautiful home!

  3. Pam,
    This is so intriguing. Thanks for putting up all those photos. Contractors seem to always want to stack their equipment under trees. I suppose they can't help it.

  4. I guess I understand the plant inventory but I'm guessing nothing is worth keeping. I'd thing that many 8K square foot city houses might have a longer life fitted out as a duplex or triplex.

    From what I can see this is a real beauty.

  5. Thanks all for your comments.

    Terry- You guessed wrong about the plants! I did end up keeping MOST of them. Follow along with me to see what happens to them!

  6. What a great blog. I had no idea how to begin a garden renovation. Your step by step description of the site and its plants are a detailed guide to what to look for.

    I have 58 timbered acres with a pre Civil War log cabin and all kinds of overgrowth, rocky outcroppings and mature trees. Where does one begin with this. Well, by visiting people who know what they are doing who write in clear terms and who have good sense.

    Thank you so much. I will visit your site regularly for more instruction and inspiration. Ann

  7. I can't wait for the result of this renovation. I'm planning to renovate our old house's garden too. When my mom died, no one took care the garden. Maybe I'll ask the help of my contractor about DIY renovation planning. Before summer comes, we must bring back the beauty of our home's garden. I'm sure, if the garden is renovated, this place is perfect for family gatherings.


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