How Do You Know When an Extraordinary Garden is in Your Midst?
article by Maré Brennan | photography by Martin G Meyers
You may pass it every day, never knowing what lies beyond a hidden path or behind an evergreen hedge. How do we, as a country, preserve beautiful gardens, private and public, so that all may see them, with free access to enjoy them at any time of year?
The answer lies in an unprecedented collection of over 7,500 American gardens which are photographed and documented at the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Gardens (AAG). Images in the collection, which show views from the 1870s to the present, include such features as garden furniture and ornamentation, fountains, sculptures, fences and gates, parterres, and garden structures, to name a few. The design styles represented range from large Italianate estates to herb and rose gardens, cottage and patio gardens, and urban parks.
The core of the Archives is a collection of nearly 3,500 hand-colored glass lantern slides dating from the 1920s and 1930s along with approximately 37,000 35mm slides of gardens that date from colonial times to the present. The gardens documented in this extensive collection illustrate the design work of dozens of landscape architects including Marian Coffin, Beatrix Farrand, Lawrence Halprin, Hare & Hare, Umberto Innocenti, Gertrude Jekyll, Jens Jensen, Warren Manning, the Olmsted Brothers, Charles Platt, Ellen Biddle Shipman, and Fletcher Steele. The collection was donated to the Smithsonian in 1992 by the Garden Club of America (GCA). This organization helps support the AAG with ongoing research and development activities. Through its national network, GCA members continue to expand the collection by photographing and documenting contemporary gardens.
By turns, the Monroe Garden Study League, member of the Garden Club of America, has been responsible for submitting several outstanding Monroe gardens which are represented in the Archives, including ELsong Gardens at the Biedenharn Museum; Nosegay Garden, which had been the gardens of former Louisiana Governor and Mrs. James A. Noe; Boxwood Court, a new addition to the Smithsonian which features over 250 boxwoods; and Bayou Zen, a peaceful retreat on the shores of Bayou DeSiard. It is Bayou Zen that we explore today to learn what wonders lie behind its modern, yet tranquil façade.
Bayou Zen is an artistic and intriguing combination of structural and landscape architectural design. The present owners are only the second family to occupy this home built in 1961 by architect F. A. Wardlaw, who studied and worked with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Bayou Zen sits on a slooping two-acre site that extends into the historic Bayou DeSiard. The theme of ‘water’ is introduced initially at the home’s entrance lawn where plantings of large, Natchez white crepe myrtles rise from a sea of Liriope (Liriope muscari ‘Big Blue’).
At the rear of the house, and connected directly to the house with aggregate decking, is an inviting water element. The geometric vanishing edge pool constructed by the owners visually links the house and pool to the bayou. From various vantage points in the pool and house, the pool edge appears to be spilling into the bayou, evoking a sense of tranquility and continuity in an urban setting. The relationship between the house, land and water is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater,” built in near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the family of Edgar Kaufmann Sr., in that it blurs the line between indoors and out by its incorporation of water and water views.
The home’s interior, elegantly appointed, relies on a restrained oriental palette. The interior embraces the exterior through a series of glazed openings across the entire rear façade. The oriental theme is reinforced in the landscape and at the pool by aesthically positioned Japanese plant material: Japanese painted ferns (Anthyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’), Japanese Iris (Iris ensata), Cutleaf Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum dissectum), Acer palmatum ‘Virdis’ (Greenleaf Japanese Maple), and moss-covered stones and graceful containers.
Descending to the bayou’s edge through a naturalized landscape, one arrives at a large geometric ‘floating’ dock, which encompasses the stately trunks of the elegant native Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum).
This creative and dramatic landscape embraces the water theme one last time when, from the dock, steps descend mysteriously beyond sight into Bayou DeSiard.
The landscape architect responsible for Bayou Zen is Rachel Lilly, principal of her own firm since 1983, who has designed and restored gardens throughout the East Coast, including Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York (Long Island), Massachusetts (Cape Cod), Virginia and West Virginia. Her practice is dedicated primarily to residential, estate and farm landscape architecture, master planning and garden restoration. Mrs. Lilly is considered an authority on Charles Gillette, a prominent landscape architect in the upper South that specialized in the creation of grounds supporting Colonial Revival architecture, particularly in Richmond, Virginia. He is associated with the restoration and re-creation of historic gardens in the upper South and especially Virginia, and is known for having established a regional style—known as the “Virginia Garden.”
A lingering view from across Bayou DeSiard as the cypress trees turn exquisite shades of burnt sienna and cinnamon and the garden’s Japanese maples add hues of crimson that ombré into gold reveals the Bayou Zen landscape as a whole, and all is Zen with the world.