Ladies Who Launch

The Garden Club of Virginia gets things done. For nearly eight decades, its Historic Garden Week has helped to revive properties both celebrated and forgotten.

Late April means Historic Garden Week, where estates from Roanoke to Williamsburg welcome the curious public for house and garden tours. And it’s more than grandmas with big purses and sensible shoes, mincing their way among ancient box. Likewise, Garden Week’s creator, the Garden Club of Virginia, is much more than ladies who lunch. Certainly more than “nosy, meddling women,” as legislators once described club members, or “scenic sisters” (this from billboard advertisers) or “a threat to progress” (utility companies, decrying the GCV’s efforts against power lines marring the landscape).

After listing these epithets in her 1970 book, Follow the Green Arrow: The History of the Garden Club of Virginia, 1920-1970, Christine Hale Martin, herself a member, winds up with this: “Among the more gentle comments was that of an amused gentleman who referred to us as ‘The Senior League of Virginia, where old Junior Leaguers go to die—but don’t.’”

Clearly, even in its early days, this gathering of women who loved gardens and gardening got people’s attention. A loose federation formed in 1920 by eight local clubs statewide, GCV at first had a raison d’etre of preserving Virginia’s natural beauty, especially its roadsides and native plants. This would soon grow—exponentially. In 1924, at the request of the president of the College of William and Mary, the group donated $500 to save a doomed stand of trees near the campus. Soon after, more trees needed saving at Monticello, and they were, thanks to funds raised through a statewide Garden Club of Virginia-sponsored flower show.

The organizers had no idea that they were sowing the seeds of what would become Historic Garden Week, a now-75-year-old tradition that has raised over $13 million dollars toward the restoration of historic gardens around the Commonwealth.

The GCV’s first restoration effort was fitting—a property associated with America’s first president. In the late 1920s, the group learned that Kenmore, home of George Washington’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis, was undergoing restoration. If restoring the house would make history come alive, club leaders wondered, wouldn’t it make sense to restore the grounds as well? The answer was yes—and who better to do it than the GCV? After forming a committee to look into the matter, the club asked the Kenmore Association for the “privilege” of restoring the plantings according to a carefully researched plan created by storied landscape architect Charles H. Gillette. The offer was enthusiastically accepted.

But such an undertaking would require money. After the May 1928 annual GCV meeting, the Kenmore Committee members, the retiring GCV president and the incoming president hatched a plan: Organize a week of house and garden tours of Virginia’s venerable demesnes, and have the owners collect admission at each.

The first Historic Garden Week, from April 29 to May 10, 1929, brought an eager public out to see old Virginia. Everyone was a little shocked at the final total: $14,000. Kenmore’s restoration was sealed.

They were downright flabbergasted at the 1930 Historic Garden Week take: $45,000. The GCV’s next—and much more ambitious—restoration venture would be the gardens at Stratford Hall, birthplace of Robert E. Lee. Contributions from Maryland’s garden club, which pitched in with its own tour for two days after Virginia’s ended, boosted the total.

“Virginia is sitting in the garden this week and welcoming the nation,” read an editorial that ran that week in the Chicago Tribune. “Hither they come to see what they can see nowhere else in the United States—gardens which in their stateliness, their abundant beauty, their architectural background and their historic settings preserve the suavest tradition of English floriculture.” At Westover, the writer counted cars—“scores upon scores of them—from 21 states and the District of Columbia.”

One of those might have carried Mary Murtland Wurts, down from Pittsburgh on a road trip with three friends. The journal she kept throughout her travels—titled Garden Pilgrimage 1930 to Virginia and printed by the Garden Club of Virginia in 1996—is a window on the Garden Week experience, complete with stops and detours, as it was then and still is now. The first day sounds almost frantic, with stops at Oatlands, near Leesburg (“Mrs. Eustis met us with a bamboo rake in her hand. We were her first guests of the tour. She is delightful …”) then Middleburg, to “see Turner Wiltshire about a horse that Allie had bought for Peggy and which had gone lame.” Next came a visit to nearby Foxcroft, then a luncheon in Alexandria, then to Gunston Hall (to be restored in 1954, thanks to Historic Garden Week). At 4:00 p.m., they reached Kenmore, at that time still under restoration. After a couple more stops, they turned toward Richmond, to meet friends for the opera that night, and drove “as though the arch fiend was on our track.” Then dinner, then La Traviata. Wurts ended the entry, breathlessly, “All this in one day.”

Other days, Wurts lingered—both literally and on the page—over spots that captivated her. “The peace of Brandon [in Prince George County] seems never to have been shattered. If it has the guide book did not tell us and we were grateful to let the beauty and atmosphere of the old place creep gently about us in a curious dream of unreality,” she wrote. “At each side of the small pillared porch bloomed lavender fountains of wisteria on ancient gnarled and rugged stands and a Gold of Ophir rose flung itself in sprays against the old bricks of the house.”

One stop in particular affected Wurts in a very different way. At that time, Bacon’s Castle, not part of the tour but where the group paused “in courtesy to [Wurts’] interest,” was a near ruin, “a tragedy of neglect,” she wrote of the tumbledown edifice where Nathaniel Bacon had staged his famous rebellion in 1676. Wurts left the other ladies at the car and, guided by “a staring child,” toured the house from cellar to attic, where “an old white hen [made] dusty passage ahead of us. … What a pity some one or some group of persons does not undertake the restoration of Bacon’s Castle—probably the most imposing building of its period in this part of the country.” Nearly 60 years after Wurts wrote those words, Bacon’s Castle’s Garden Week-aided restoration would be completed.

The “Garden Pilgrimages,” as the women of the GCV sometimes referred to them, continued apace. Funds were raised for restoring landscapes at Washington & Lee University’s Lee Chapel, the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace, the Rolfe-Warren House at Smith’s Fort Plantation, Wilton in Richmond, Bruton Church, the Mary Washington Monument and Monticello. GCV’s other efforts included statewide dogwood planting, as well as an effective letter-writing campaign against a highway planned for Goshen Pass, in the Alleghenies. (“I do think the more letters you write probably the more unpopular you are, and the more apt you are to get the thing done,” then-president Mrs. Thomas S. Wheelwright is quoted as having said during a 1938 meeting. “Men hate to be nagged.”)

While the Depression damped their fund-raising somewhat, World War II diverted it. In a 1940 meeting, the restoration chair proposed designating $1,000 of that committee’s budget for British civilian relief. The garden club’s president at that time, Mrs. John G. Hayes, responded, as summarized in Follow the Green Arrow, that “this was the purest piece of restoration work and that we as an organization would be very smug should we only build walls and plant flowers and fail to help with this English Civilian Relief.” Motion carried. In January of 1941, GCV leaders voted that the entire proceeds of Garden Week go to British relief.

The gift was made all the more poignant by the knowledge of where so many of Virginia’s gardening traditions had originated. “The landscape architects to whom was entrusted the research for the gardens of restored Williamsburg found evidence of a hundred sorts that the origin of these gardens was English,” wrote Douglas Southall Freeman in the Richmond newspaper. “Because this is true, the debt we Virginians owe those of our ancestors who endowed us with gardens is in reality a debt to England. It is maturing in tragic times.” Noting that many of England’s most “glorious” gardens were now given to growing vegetables to feed the struggling populace, Freeman asked, “What could be more appropriate now than that, from Virginia gardens which keep their splendor, funds should go back to Britain to be used in the same good cause for which the British have given their gardens—the feeding and relief of victims of this monstrous war?” The proceeds of Historic Garden Week 1941 totaled about $19,000. The money was sent to Plymouth in England, the adopted home of Lady Astor (née Nancy Langhorne).

That December 7, Pearl Harbor was bombed. “Gardens are victory gardens,” new president Mrs. Powell Glass told the GCV membership at its 1942 spring meeting. “All emphasis is upon vegetables. Food, it is said, will win the war. Canning is the vogue. … The fashion in war effort [is] skill.” Fund-raising efforts on behalf of British relief continued, but in the form of greeting cards and cookbooks sold—Garden Week would be dormant until after the war. The club communicated primarily through its magazine, Garden Gossip. Members contributed war bonds to the GCV treasury. After the war but before Garden Week returned, the GCV adopted an entire French village that had been bombed nearly out of existence. A few years later in Ver Sur Mer, near Omaha Beach, a street sign would read, “Rue de Garden Club of Virginia.”

After the war ended, Garden Week revived in 1947—and raised a rather exuberant total of $31,559.77, its largest since the 1930 take for Stratford Hall. The next year’s tours netted about $35,000. The beneficiaries of the first post-war Garden Weeks would be Abingdon’s Barter Theatre and the University of Virginia Pavilion gardens (see accompanying story).

To date, the GCV can boast having brought about the restoration of more than 40 properties, including the homes of just about every famous Virginian. Somewhere in Virginia, another garden languishes, waiting for the resources that will return it to its former glory. Before a property can be considered a candidate for a GCV-funded restoration, it must meet certain criteria: The property must be open to the public; there must be agreement and resources for the restoration to be maintained; and the custodians of the property must ask. Beneficiaries for each year are announced at the annual May GCV meeting.

Since 1996, a portion of Garden Week funds have also gone toward the Rudy J. Favretti Fellowship, designed to support landscape architecture students in documenting historic gardens that are privately owned. It is named for a nationally renowned landscape architect who worked on several GCV projects. In 2003, the GCV added the Garden Club of Virginia Fellowship, to provide the same service for gardens not privately held.

However they do it, the GCV tends our history in the most beautiful way. Look for those green arrows, put the top down on the car, and go.

Historic Garden Week 2010 takes place April 17-25 throughout Virginia. For more information, including details of specific tours, go to VaGardenWeek.org; Garden Club of Virginia info at GCVirginia.org.

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
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