Entry to paradise: Schuyler’s Quarry Gardens get a proper introduction

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The Quonset hut has two entryways: The post-and-beam portico at the front greets visitors and, in the back, the hut’s original sliding metal doors lead
guests to the gardens and trails. Photo: Stephen Barling The Quonset hut has two entryways: The post-and-beam portico at the front greets visitors and, in the back, the hut’s original sliding metal doors lead guests to the gardens and trails. Photo: Stephen Barling

Local lovers of native plants have a new mecca: the Quarry Gardens in Schuyler, where owners Armand and Bernice Thieblot opened 40 acres of native habitat to visitors just this spring. Those visitors will enter through a structure designed to complement the gardens’ eco-minded mission.

“This building is in keeping with the underlying focus on the environment,” says architect Fred Oesch. The Quarry Gardens are the Thieblots’ labor of love, conceived as a showcase for native plant species as well as a tribute to Schuyler’s industrial history. Soapstone has been quarried in the neighborhood for well over a century. On the Thieblots’ 600-acre property, soapstone removal stopped in the 1970s and was followed by a decade of trash dumping.

So the property wasn’t exactly pristine when the couple bought it in 1991 as a rural retreat from their home in Baltimore. Fast-forward 26 years: The Thieblots are now retired to the property full-time and have transformed 40 acres of this land into a public botanical garden of great beauty and ambition.

Photo: Stephen Barling

With the help of Charlottesville’s Center for Urban Habitats and many volunteers, they’ve catalogued 600 existing native species, propagated a number of those and planted upward of 50,000 individual plants. Nearly two miles of trails lead through plant galleries arranged around a pair of water-filled quarries whose sheer stone walls set off the ever-changing greenery.

The Thieblots needed a building to welcome visitors. As luck would have it, they’d already installed a Quonset hut—a ribbed metal barn shaped like half a cylinder—a dozen years ago, and Oesch saw a chance to practice adaptive reuse.

“Armand and Bernice knew what they wanted,” says Oesch. With only the addition of a rectilinear entryway, the Quonset hut needed to house exhibits related to ecology and history, not to mention other functions. “It’s a puzzle, working from the outside in, with a fixed volume,” says Oesch. Yet the building offered some advantages too: It was sturdy and, says Oesch, “It has an elegant simplicity to it.” It could also be easily sealed off during the winter months, when the Quarry Gardens are closed.

Oesch was able to incorporate many of the sustainable strategies that are central to his work. He specified radiant floor heating, nontoxic materials, a solar array and natural daylighting. Spray-foam insulation adds to the building’s energy efficiency, making it, in effect, “like a Thermos bottle,” Oesch says.

Under the barrel-vault roof, separate rooms and hallways were framed in so that visitors might easily forget they are inside a Quonset hut. The layout reflects the twin missions of the Quarry Gardens—native plants and Schuyler history—with about half of the exhibit space dedicated to each of those topics. The history side even includes a model railway, a reproduction of the Nelson Albemarle Railroad, which once carried soapstone products and workers.

Photo: Stephen Barling

“Part of the idea of this angular hallway was to play into the angularity of the soapstone quarries,” says Oesch. A small garden shop, an office and a classroom—the building will be available to groups such as the Master Gardeners—also find their places inside.

In keeping with the industrial history here, material choices are simple (concrete floors, beadboard wainscoting) and the exterior of the building is honest about its Quonset hut origins. Yet with the addition of the entryways, Oesch has added a measure of formality to the functional structure.

“It has two faces,” he says: the post-and-beam portico that first greets visitors who arrive from the parking lot, and a new façade tucked behind the hut’s original metal sliding doors, oriented toward the trails. “One is the public face, then there’s the face of the gardens themselves.”

Carved wooden benches made by Eric Bull, and bridges and a viewing platform designed by Charles Edwards, add to a sense of local artisanship to complement the Thieblots’ hands-on approach to conservation. Visitors can schedule free garden tours Fridays through Sundays.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere,” says Oesch of the Quarry Gardens. “It really is world-class and unique.”

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