Secret gardens: UVA’s pavilion gardens harbor history

The Gardens at The University of Virginia on Easter Sunday. Photo by Eric Kelley The Gardens at The University of Virginia on Easter Sunday. Photo by Eric Kelley

Here’s a fairly well-kept secret about Charlottesville: If you walk uninvited into one of the gardens just off UVA’s Lawn, in the Academical Village, you will not be breaking any rules. They are open to the public.

You wouldn’t necessarily know this, because the gardens are surrounded by Thomas Jefferson’s famous serpentine walls; the design does not especially seem to invite passersby. This is no accident. In the beginning, the pavilion gardens were “an extension of those residences,” said Mary Hughes, University landscape architect. “In the early configuration, you could only enter from a pavilion or a hotel”—that is, the larger buildings along the Lawn and the East and West Ranges. “There were no outside gates like now.”

Jefferson determined that the gardens would be enclosed by walls and would connect the pavilions, which still serve as faculty residences, to hotels, which were dining facilities. As at Monticello, he intended the gardens to be “completely integral to the experience of the house,” said Hughes. “Beyond that he left no particular instructions.”

And so, over the nearly 200 years since the complex was constructed, the gardens have reflected a variety of purposes and aesthetics, changing along with the times.

In the early days, faculty residents tended to be hands-on with their gardens. Each was allocated not only the garden immediately outside the pavilion, but also five acres for raising vegetables and 10 acres of pasture. To fill their walled gardens, some professors sought out ornamental trees and shrubs. And, frequently, they built things. “A 19th century household required outbuildings,” said Hughes—“kitchens, privies, smokehouses. The garden areas started filling up with these buildings that you want close to your house.”

No two gardens in the Academical Village are alike. At Pavilion Garden VIII, for instance, intimate flower beds mingle with the main garden of crepe myrtle, rose of sharon, and chaste trees. An hourglass path is lined with oakleaf hydrangea and roses, while the lower bank of the landscape see goldenrain trees and a formal orchard. Photo by Robert Llewellyn

With the advent of indoor plumbing and electricity, the gardens began to shift away from utility and toward pure enjoyment. These days, they are more public than ever. The Garden Club of Virginia restored the gardens in the mid-20th century, and UVA now maintains them as public spaces. They are planted with native species and others that we know were available in Jefferson’s day.

“It’s a blessing and a curse for the residents,” said Hughes. “There’s no maintenance, but it’s not yours to manipulate.”

In the case of Pavilion IX, whose residents—Nursing School Dean Dorrie Fontaine and her husband, Barry—are profiled on page 45, the garden is a welcome presence, and easily viewed from two rear porches. It also plays host to impromptu picnickers as well as weddings and other formal events. Like other pavilion gardens, its design is an exercise in sometimes extreme historic preservation.

Photo by Robert Llewellyn

“If something dies, we replant with the exact same plant,” said Hughes. A small, otherwise unremarkable ash tree in the Pavilion IX garden amply illustrates this point. On the spot where it now stands, the pavilion’s first resident planted an ash tree in 1826. Later, the pavilion was home to William McGuffey, who—according to legend—tested stories for his famous McGuffey Reader by reading them with children of other UVA faculty under the ash tree.

Known ever afterwards as the McGuffey Ash, the tree became a giant, shading most of the garden. “In the late 1980s,” said Hughes, “the tree had become so decrepit that it was determined a hazard and removed”—but not before tissue samples had been sent off to Cornell University for an attempt at genetic cloning.

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Photo by Eric Kelley

This failed. However, a cutting from the McGuffey Ash was successfully grafted onto rootstock from another tree. “In the late ’90s, we replanted,” said Hughes. “It is progeny of the original tree.”

Other species in the Pavilion IX garden include tulip bulbs (hundreds of new ones went in this winter), boxwoods, and peonies. With the Garden Club’s restoration in the ’50s, landscape architect Alden Hopkins designed the lower section, below the dividing wall, as an edible garden. “The beds are laid out in a more utilitarian, rectilinear fashion,” said Hughes. A central path is flanked by rows of Albemarle Pippin apple trees, and figs and pomegranates are tucked into the curves of the serpentine walls.

Revision of the gardens is ongoing. Hopkins’ restoration was partially based on an engraving that, it turns out, shows a version of the gardens that never actually existed. Archaeological evidence will continue to surface. Yet one thing is a constant: Strolling, lunching, or lounging with a book in these walled spaces, on a sunny day in April, is a true pleasure for Charlottesvillians—all of us.

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Photo by Eric Kelley


Continue the tour

An exploration of the great outdoors doesn’t need to stop at UVA’s Pavilion gardens. Charlottesville is bursting with rich botanical history, and the upcoming Historic Garden Week provides an opportunity to discover some of the most beautiful spots outside of Jefferson’s serpentine walls (and a few
within them!).

Founded in 1929, Historic Garden Week originated as an effort to save some of Jefferson’s trees at Monticello. The Garden Club of Virginia financed the campaign by organizing a flower show, and the tradition has blossomed into a week-long event that still funds the preservation of historic gardens like the ones at the Little Mountain. This year
from April 26 to May 3, Historic Garden Week features more than 250 gardens, private homes, and historic landmarks across the state.

Tours in the Charlottesville area will take on a historical perspective. In addition to a special lecture at Monticello and open tours at UVA (including the pavilion gardens), guests will have the opportunity to visit the house and grounds of Esmont, Morven, and Albemarle’s Redlands, as well as areas of Bellair Farm. Each of the homes will exhibit stunning homegrown flower arrangements arranged by one of 3,300 Garden Club of Virginia volunteers, making this event the largest ongoing volunteer effort in the nation. And according to the Director of Historic Garden Week, Karen Miller, the flower arrangements are breathtaking. “When you walk in, it’s like you are stepping into the pages of a magazine,” Miller said.

The tour doesn’t stop there. If you’re inter-
ested enough to hop in the car, Richmond’s historic Byrd Park and Maymont’s 100-acre garden are featured, along with private homes and landscapes in Gordonsville and Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro.

Even for novice gardeners, the event offers something for everyone, including a chance to rediscover Charlottesville from a different perspective. As Miller put it, “Who doesn’t want to be in Charlottesville on a Sunday looking at beautiful homes and gardens?”—Stephanie DeVaux

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