History: Virginia Gardens

The East Garden

Within months of the purchase of Stratford, the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation sent a telegram to The Garden Club of Virginia requesting them to restore the gardens. The Garden Club agreed and proceeded to raise funds from individual gifts and proceeds from Historic Garden Week tours of 1930, 1931 and 1932.

Ha-ha wall

Arthur Shurcliff of Colonial Williamsburg was hired to make the initial archaeological investigations in 1930. Workmen digging excavation trenches, then state-of-the-art, along a line of wire fences south of the Great House quickly found the foundations of a ha-ha wall and the old road bed. While the list of discoveries in the ground increased daily, documentary research and recordings of oral history from area residents added to the abundance of information.

From these initial investigations, it was evident that the garden was located east of the main house and had been originally laid out with careful attention to levels and grading. However, all that remained was a flat area overgrown with weeds, a crumbling brick wall of uncertain origin and some ancient beech trees. Herbert Claiborne of Richmond made a topographic survey in 1931 to determine the number and level of the garden terraces.

Restoration Plans

Restoration Plans

Under a grant from the Clark Fund for Research in Landscape Design, Harvard University arranged for its associate, Morley Williams, to complete research at Stratford and draw plans for restoration of the garden. By October 1932, plans for the layout of the garden and walls, as well as the roadway and vista to the Potomac, were approved by all parties.

The garden was restored to the period 1700-1812 as suggested by a letter dated 1790 from Thomas Lee Shippen, grandson of Stratford’s builder, in which he described the gardens”

…Stratford the seat of my fathers is a place of which too much cannot be said, whether you consider the venerable magnificence of its buildings, the happy disposition of its grounds, or the extent and variety of its prospects….It was with difficulty that my uncles who accompanied me could persuade me to leave the hall and look at the gardens, vineyards, orangeries and lawns which surround the house.

Sadly, many descriptions such as the one above gave no clue as to whether or not the garden was planted in the 18th-century manner – including ornamentals, fruits and vegetables – or merely planted with ornamentals.

Landscape architect Morley Williams designed the brick walls to enclose the four hundred foot long garden space, built walkways, and defined four terraces descending to a restored 18th century ha-ha wall at the east end of the garden. Elaborate parterre beds, edged with boxwood, were constructed and planted with a variety of bulbs, annuals, and perennials. The few old trees still surviving in the garden area were incorporated into the plan. Espaliered fruit trees were planted along some of the brick garden walls. In 1936, restoration architect Fiske Kimball designed the Georgian style house over the Lee family burial vault that terminates the view down the central garden axis to the east.

In 1955, Alden Hopkins, Shurcliff’s successor as landscape architect at Colonial Williamsburg, was hired by The Garden Club of Virginia to simplify the unmanageable boxwood design and introduce more variation in height and color to the garden. He eliminated several parterre beds, created a central walk access to the upper terrace and through the center oval, and planted crape myrtles and flowering shrubs for added color and yellow locusts for shade.

Today the center of the garden is a large grassy area with a circular arrangement of shrubs reminiscent of Williams’ original oval design. In 1984, an English armillary sphere was placed in the central oval.

The West Garden

In 1942 The Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation engaged New York landscape architects Innocenti & Webel to make plans for the development of the area west of the main house and the grounds surrounding the house. The west area was planned as a service area, bordered by brick walls to the north and south, with a grassy drive as a center axis.

Plan West

New Proposed Plan

Proposed geometric beds of herbs and flowers bordered a curved grassy area planted with large trees. Further along the center axis were located rectangular vegetable beds. Included in the original plan were cold and hot frames, an orangerie, a shed and a spinning house.

It was then World War II had its effect on Stratford’s garden plans. Because of a Conservation Order by the War Production Board, it was extremely difficult to purchase the bricks for the walls and walks. General B. F. Cheatham, Stratford’s Superintendent, skillfully negotiated the channels of red tape and within months the walls were constructed. However, by this time galvanized pipe to extend irrigation to the west area could no longer be procured. After the magnolia trees and holly hedge were planted, the entire garden planting scheme was temporarily abandoned.

In 1963, the geometric flower bed outlines were finally installed. With the elaborate planting plan of Innocenti long forgotten, these beds were uniformly planted with annuals of a single color. Alden Hopkins of Colonial Williamsburg created a planting plan for the flower beds in 1959, but it was never used because Stratford lacked adequate staff to maintain the design. The vegetable garden plots were established in 1981 by Stratford’s horticulturalist Ron Wade to complete the development of the west area. A few years later, Calloway & Associates created a plan for the flower beds that employed the use of varying heights of perennials and annuals, as well as herbs and small shrubs. These interesting beds were installed with stepping stones leading into the plantings to give visitors opportunity to see the specimens at close range.

After several years of archaeological investigations in the area west of the Great House during the mid 1990s, the flower and vegetable beds were redesigned by Master Gardener Jacqui Shoaf. Brick walking paths were added to the geometric flower beds for easier access to the plantings.

In the late 1990s the herb beds were replanted by Thomas Moles, Director of Plantation Operations, and Stratford’s garden crew with the guidance of garden consultant Donald Haynie of Buffalo Springs Herb Farm. Although archeology indicates that the area west of the main house was historically not a garden space, the West Garden, planted with varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs that were grown in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, currently serves as an educational tool.