Historic Gardens of Athens

Athens Historian Volume V (2000)

by John C. Waters

Pleasure gardens have always had a special aura about them, in part because of the original concept of a garden as a special place removed from the hustle and bustle of the world – a Valhalla, a sanctuary – perhaps best exemplified by the Garden of Eden. They also tend to be ephemeral, reflecting the vision of their owners, and all too often that vision does not survive much beyond the owner’s lifetime.

Originally pleasure gardens were a luxury reserved for those with means, both money and available labor, but beginning in the mid-19th century, the idea of residential pleasure gardens was popularized by books written by Andrew Jackson Downing. Thereafter, the practice of creating a pleasure garden was gradually embraced by the nation’s emerging middle class until today when no new home is considered complete until it has been “landscaped.” Pleasure gardens, even today, are highly individualized expressions of design utilizing plant materials that evolve through time, and as such can provide invaluable records of the time period and the people who created them. However, because most gardens are created for the personal enjoyment of their owners rather than the general public, they are rarely very well documented and the insights they might engender are all too often lost to posterity.

Within the Piedmont area of antebellum Georgia, the parterre garden was one of the most popular and distinctive high-style garden forms of the period. Notable examples of this style were recorded at Rose Hill Plantation in Elbert   County,  the  John  Thomas  Grant House and the Stevens Thomas House (see right) in Athens, and the Kolb-Pou-Newton House in Madison. Of these four gardens, only two survive: one in Madison and one in Athens.

The Athens survivor was constructed as a pleasure garden at the John Thomas Grant house on Prince Avenue. Now the University President’s Home,  this  house  dates  from 1857 and is thought by many to be the most elegant Greek Revival house in Georgia. Located between the street and the house, the pleasure garden is enclosed by a decorative wooden fence and has a “a particularly dignified design, carrying heavy plantings of magnolia, cedar of Lebanon,  cherry laurel and tree box.”1  Many of the older boxwoods in this garden succumbed to disease in the early 1960s and were replaced about 1965, but the integrity of the original design has been maintained and continues to delight visitors.

In this instance, a personal garden has endured and become a public treasure, in a sense emblematic of the preservation ideal. It was developed a short time after the sale of the University’s first Botanical Garden, which had been founded in 1831, opened in 1833, but lasted only until 1856.  That garden was immensely  popular  with  the townspeople, who flocked there, especially on the weekends, to “take the air,” to see and be seen, and to enjoy the horticultural and natural beauty. Due to its financial condition, the University sold the garden for $1000 in 1856, ending a discussion for its abandonment which had been initiated in 1842.2

Despite the financial straits  of  the  University,  Athens  was prospering in the 1850s and elegant homes were being constructed on spacious grounds along Prince Avenue and on the newly-opened Milledge Avenue. The typical homestead required more land than necessary today, including space for cows, horses, chickens and pigs; a vegetable garden, a well, plus outbuilding such as a detached kitchen (for fire safety), a smokehouse, barn, enclosures for domestic animals, a carriage house, stables, and other attendant structures to support the household. Once these necessities were taken care of, a pleasure garden, surrounded by a decorative fence or hedge, was often constructed.

Documentation of some of Athens’ early gardens was provided in the 1930s when the Peachtree Garden Club of Atlanta spearheaded the publication of a book of Georgia’s early gardens as a means of commemorating the bicentennial of the founding of the colony of Georgia.3 Descriptions of thirteen Athens gardens, both early and modern, were featured prominently in the book published by the club: only one of the early gardens and two contemporary gardens survive today.

The early Athens gardens which did not survive were located at the Camak House, the Bishop Cottage, and the Stevens Thomas place. We know that numerous other historic gardens in Athens did not survive to be listed in the 1930s book, including the boxwood parterre garden that provided a transition between Milledge Avenue and the original Lucy Cobb  Institute   building.   Given  the  scale  and  opulence  of  the antebellum houses remaining today, and the popularity of gardens in Athens, it is probable that pleasure gardens would have been found at such locations as the  Lehman-Bancroft House, both Howell Cobb houses, Moss-Side, the Treanor House, the Phinizy-Hunnicutt House, the Taylor-Grady House, the  Taylor-Lumpkin House, the Franklin- Upson House, the Ware-Lyndon House, the Hamilton-Phinizy House, the Chase-Yancy House, the  Sledge-Cobb House as well as those houses that were the homes of Joseph Henry Lumpkin, T.R.R. Cobb, A.P. Dearing, and James Hamilton.

One of the most interesting historic gardens in Athens today is the front garden of the Meeker-Barrow House on Dearing Street. It is believed to have been designed in the 1850s by Prosper J. Berckmans of Augusta, who later established Fruitlands Nursery on the site of what is now the Augusta National Golf Course. It is a mystery why this garden was omitted from the 1930s survey, unless it was not recognized as an early garden.

The modern gardens cited in the book included those at the homes of Mr. and Mrs. E.R. Hodgson House (now Alpha Delta Pi Sorority), Mrs. E.K. Lumpkin, one of the founders of the first garden club in America (now property of Young Harris Methodist Church); Mrs. R.E. Park; Mrs. Henry Reid; Mr. and Mrs. Lamar C. Rucker; Mr. and Mrs. Bolling Sasnet; and the Misses Upson (now Sun Trust Bank on Prince Avenue); Mr. and Mrs. C.A. Rowland, and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity. The two contemporary gardens that still exist today are those planted by Mr. and Mrs. Rowland at  “Beech Haven” and a small remnant of plantings at the SAE House, which may have survived from the original pleasure garden developed for Ross Crane at that site.

Since the 1930s, the concept of what is historic and how to evaluate resources in the process of making that determination has changed. Now, resources that are 50 years of age or older and having other aspects of significance are considered to qualify as historic. Thus the gardens considered modern in the 1930s are now historic.

Other Athens gardens that currently qualify as historic include the Founders’ Memorial Garden5  on the University of Georgia campus, developed under the direction of landscape architect Hubert B. Owens in the  1940s and 50s, in what has been described as the Colonial Revival style  and usually associated with architecture of the same stylistic name;6  the  grounds of Arnocroft on Milledge Avenue, the home given to the Athens Junior League by Eugenia Arnold Blount Friend, which reflect the design conventions of the 1930s.

While not ordinarily considered a garden as such, Oconee Hill Cemetery, an example of the rural Victorian cemetery movement, was based  on the concept of a landscaped park in terms of the English theory of the “picturesque,” in which art and nature are combined, and qualifies in that sense as a historic garden. As has been the case in numerous historic cemeteries across America, Oconee Hill Cemetery is now the focus of efforts to retain and restore its historic character as a part of the heritage of Athens.7

In considering the tremendous loss of historic garden resources in Athens since the antebellum period, one must note that with only one exception, the University’s first botanical garden, all of the historic gardens were privately owned. Thus the fate of these early gardens was entirely in the hands of individuals and their survival was dependent upon the degree to which the gardens met the needs and desires of the subsequent property owners and reflected the lifestyles of the times. Economics, land use, and the degree to which later occupants had an interest in gardening obviously were major factors in the survival of early gardens. Consequently, the dearth of information regarding the gardens of antebellum Athens suggests a great opportunity for research by landscape historians. For a city which prides itself as the home of the “Tree that Owns Itself” as well as being the site of America’s first garden club, it is unfortunate that more has not been done to preserve or reconstruct these historic gardens for the study and enjoyment of future generations.

An educator, author and preservation activist, Prof. Waters iscurrently Director of Graduate Studies in Historic Preservation for the University of Georgia’s School of Environmental Design.

1           Marye, Florence. Garden History of Georgia 1733-1933.  (Atlanta: Walter W. Brown  Publishing  Company,  1933;  reprint  Savannah:  Kenneckell  Printing Company, 1976), p. 78.

2            Dyer, Thomas G. The University of Georgia: A Bicentennial History, 1785-1985. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985), p. 81.

3           Garden History of Georgia, pp. 72-80, 147-162.

4            Scott Van Valen. The Landscape of the Lucy Cobb Institute: Its History and Management.  (An  unpublished  Master  of  Landscape  Architecture  thesis, University of Georgia, 1993), pp. 37-48.

5           Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 1972.

6           Hitchcock, Susan Lee. The Colonial Revival Gardens of Hubert Bond Owens. (An unpublished Master of Historic Preservation thesis, University of Georgia, 1977).

7            Oconee Hill Cemetery Study: A Preliminary Appraisal. (An unpublished study by the  Preservation Advocacy  class, Master of Historic Preservation Program, University of Georgia, Fall 1972.)