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Gardens & Estates along the Potomac

Voluptuous hydrangeas in Old Town.
Nan Quick’s Travel Diaries Continue: Gardens & Estates along the Potomac
by Nan Quick

Over a long weekend in mid-June, I decamped from the stillness of New Hampshire to lively Old Town, in Alexandria, Virginia. My beloved companion, Toots-the-Cat, had recently died, and a trip to visit friends and to explore elegant gardens and estates seemed just the thing to repair my sorrowful mood.

After a blessedly routine journey from Boston to D.C. on the Acela (a BIG thank-you to the Amtrak-powers-that-be for their invention of the "Quiet Car"), and an equally smooth hop on the Metro from Union Station to Alexandria (www.visitalexandriava.com), I was enfolded by the extraordinarily hospitable arms of my hosts, Lisa and Gene Jankowski.
Lisa and Gene.
I first met Lisa when I was a disgruntled fifteen-year-old, just shipped off to boarding school. Then, as now, her appreciation for life's absurdities reminded me to laugh, and her appreciation for life's beauties reminded me to be grateful. I've always declared that when bullets begin to fly, she's one of the folks I'll want in my trench. And Gene, retired President of CBS Broadcasting, whose company I'd enjoyed only twice before, made me feel so welcome that we were soon comparing notes about our gardening misadventures and triumphs. He even opened my eyes to the pleasures of watching TV golf, as we hooted and cheered during the U.S. Open. Me, enjoying golf? Wonders never cease.

Since my mission, whenever I leave home, is to tromp through, and learn from, the best gardens and buildings that I can find, the Jankowskis' own back yard turned out to be the most felicitous place to begin my three days of touring. Their Old Town home was described for a recent Garden Club of Virginia "Historic Garden Week":

"This property dates to 1782, when a freestanding dwelling was constructed on five lots. The original owner was the son of John Alexander, for whom the city is named. In the living room, the original windows and fireplace mantle can still be seen. In 1966, a large west addition was built. Recently, the home was completely renovated by the current owners. In 2010, the gardens were refreshed by noted landscape designer Jane MacLeish. Known as the Sally Ann Gardens, they consist of four areas: the Parterre Garden, with Korean boxwood, tulips and lilies; the East Garden, featuring euonymus and sarcocci shrubs; the North Garden, lined with American holly and filled with hydrangeas; and the West Garden, composed of azaleas, euonymus, and crepe myrtle. There are more than 50 boxwoods throughout the gardens, some dating back 60 years."
Original 1782 dwelling.
Entrance to 1966 addition. North Garden.
Parterre Garden.
West Garden.
But the most impressive space, at least from the perspective of the Jankowskis' Scottie dog Lucy, is the huge and verdant lawn. Somehow, over the centuries, as almost every other square foot of Old Town was built upon, this Eden, where birdsong muffles the sounds of the busy world outside, matured and blossomed and remained open. A Google satellite view of this retreat shows a wonderfully unlikely expanse of green, with city all 'round.
Lucy in her Domain, with enormous Dawn Redwood – Metasequoia— in the background.
Our perfect picnic spot.
The long weekend was unblemished by humidity, or rain. Each day began with clear skies and crisp air, and progressed to a perfect, dry warmth: VERY un-Foggy-Bottomy.

Early on Friday morning, I set out over the mostly-empty sidewalks of Old Town. My first stop was the Old Presbyterian Meeting House (on Fairfax, between Wolfe and Duke Streets): founded in 1772, and where the memorial services for George Washington were held in 1799.
Old Presbyterian Meeting House.
Meandering, I peered into doorways ...
Sneak peak into an Old Town home.
... and admired sidewalk displays of gardening prowess ...
Well-trained Ivy.
Sunken garden. A perfect white fence & Hydrangeas.
Seemingly topsy-turvy gardens at Carlyle House.
Trailing Nasturtiums. Welcoming Bench.
... in neighborhoods composed of more than 4200 artfully-preserved buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. When Duc de la Rouchfoucauld Liancourt visited in 1796, he reported: "Alexandria is beyond all comparison the handsomest town in Virginia — indeed, is among the finest in the United States."

Things haven't changed much since then.
Historic Alexandria plaque.
Typical Old Town streetscapes.
On Fairfax, at Prince Street, the pink columns of the Athenaeum stopped me
in my tracks. This building, erected in 1852, was where Robert E. Lee once
conducted his banking, and is currently an art gallery and performance space.
The Athenaeum.
I followed the cobbled stones of Prince Street down toward the Potomac ...
Prince Street cobblestones.
... and arrived at the still-sleepy City Marina, where I watched as, every several minutes, airplanes made their descents over the River toward National Airport, which is a few miles to the North.
City Marina in early morning.
Quiet boardwalk. Redevelopment Lurks.
My morning perambulations completed, I returned to the Jankowskis', and Lisa and I set out for the Virginia countryside, passing the links of the Belle Haven Country Club, which undulate alongside the Potomac.
Our dinnertime view from the terrace of the Belle Haven Country Club.
As we drove south on Route 235, we passed Mount Vernon (www.mountvernon.org), where over two dozen tour buses idled by the gates, belching exhaust and mobs of visitors. Happily, Lisa and I had enjoyed George Washington's home years before, during less populated times, so we zipped past the crowds, and headed toward Washington's much more tranquil Distillery & Gristmill, located 3 miles south of his main estate. However much occupied Washington was with America's affairs, he never failed to also attend to his personal prosperity. A smarter farmer and businessman than our George would be hard to find.

The Mount Vernon website states that he "erected a large stone gristmill in 1771 to increase production of flour and cornmeal and to be able to export high quality flour to the West Indies, England, and Europe. In 1797, Washington's Scottish farm manager James Anderson encouraged him to build a whiskey distillery adjacent to the gristmill. The distillery was the largest in America, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799, making it one of the most successful economic enterprises at Mount Vernon."

As the Scottish toast goes: "Freedom and whiskey gang thegither!"
Washington's Distillery & Gristmill.
We stopped next at Woodlawn, the 126-acre estate that was given by Washington as a wedding gift to his adopted granddaughter and his nephew. The main house, designed in 1800 by Dr. William Thompson, architect of the U.S. Capitol, is undergoing renovations, and is temporarily closed.
Main house at Woodlawn.
However, on those same grounds, well out of sight of the Georgian manor, Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House (www.popeleighey1940.org) now rests on its third, and hopefully permanent, site. The tale about how, in 1939, Loren Pope, a $50-a-week copy editor, persuaded the famous architect to design a modest family home which followed Wright's Usonian design precepts, about how Pope struggled to secure the $7,000 needed to build it (yes, that's seven thousand), about how that house was later condemned by the Commonwealth of Virginia to make way for Interstate 66, and about how that house was then moved, not once, but twice, and came to be under the protection of the Woodlawn estate, is too lengthy to recite here.

I recommend a visit to the Pope-Leighey House; perhaps you'll be fortunate enough to meet their Docent, Fairfield Butt, the knowledgeable gentleman who guided our private tour. If you visit on a warm day, breathe deeply and enjoy the crisp scent of the aged cypress planks which cover the walls, inside and out. Watch the way light changes and refracts throughout the spaces. And, if you're tall, duck! The carport ceiling by the front entry is only 6'5'' high, and the front door tops off at 6'2".
Front elevation of Pope-Leighey House.
South elevation, with living area to the left and child's bedroom to the right.
Dining terrace, with bedroom wing to right.
End of living room.
Detail of living room windows. Herb garden outside of kitchen window.
Living area.
Dining area.
At our next destination, Gunston Hall, the plantation home of George Mason (author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights), we were returned to the glories of the 18th century (www.gunstonhall.org).
Mason was a prickly sort, but utterly brilliant. He was among the first to call for liberties such as freedom of the press, religious tolerance, and the right to trial by jury. He viewed slavery as a "slow poison," but owned many slaves.

George Mason
A rabid anti-Federalist, Mason read widely, thought deeply, and wrote prolifically, but found political life distasteful. He also bred prolifically, and of 12 children sired, a hearty nine survived to adulthood.

Mason contributed significantly to the formation of the Constitution, but, when the time came for signing, he refused, objecting that the proposed document lacked a "declaration of rights." His opposition, before and during the Federal Convention, probably cost him his long friendship with his neighbor, George Washington, and rendered him less famous to future generations than his peers.

Perhaps coming into an inheritance of 20,000 acres at the age of 10 encouraged Mason's unwillingness to negotiate or compromise, but the quality of his writings helped ultimately to construct the foundations for our Constitution, and for our Bill of Rights.

But, to Gunston Hall itself: As we entered the property, the main house appeared: far distant, and apparently small.
Distant view of Plantation House.
Sunshine battered us on the dusty drive, and Lisa and I sought shade under the long tunnel of magnolia trees that flank the path to Mason's home.
Magnolia Walk.
As we got closer, the Plantation House assumed dimensions more in keeping
with our expectations ...
Approaching Plantation House.
... and I circled the house, to view all sides.
North elevation.
North-East elevation.
East elevation, with parterre of 200-year-old boxwoods.
The distant Potomac, as seen from the Viewing Mounts.
Former South-facing site of the Regular Garden.
A docent was waiting on the front porch, where she delivered a 15-minute talk about Mason's life and times. We then joined 3 other visitors for a tour inside the house. Clearly, the multitudes who visit Mount Vernon never proceed southward to discover the nearby and just-as-interesting Gunston Hall.

The Passage, or Center Hall, bisects the house, and has doors on both West and East sides, allowing Potomac breezes to ventilate the entire structure. Passages were used as reception rooms, waiting areas, summer parlors, and occasional ballrooms. Every bit of the classical woodwork was carved by Gunston Hall's exceptionally talented slaves. Today's patterned wallpaper, known as pillar and arch, is merely conjecture about how things looked in 1759, because no evidence remains of the wallpaper that first adorned these walls.
Passage, or Center Hall.
Gunston Hall's Dining Room is one of the most important early examples of Chinosierie in America. Unfortunately, interior picture-taking is prohibited, so I wasn't able to get close-ups of the over-the-top woodwork, with its swooping pagoda peaks and joyous Oriental filigrees. This is a room in which I could dine forever!
Dining Room.
Apart from the restrained grandeur of Gunston Hall's three 1st floor public areas (The Passage, Dining Room, and Living Room), the remaining spaces (on the 1st floor: Family Dining Room, and Master Bedroom; on the 2nd floor: dormitory-like bedrooms, to house the many Mason offspring) are pleasantly plain and utliltarian. George Mason certainly possessed the means to have built a far larger, and more opulently-appointed home. Instead, a sense of just enough and perfectly right pervades this extremely pleasant and livable place.

On Saturday morning, after an al fresco breakfast, Gene and Lisa and I strolled up to King Street, where the Alexandria Old Town Farmers' Market is held, every Saturday (Market Square, 301 King Street. Year-round, 7AM-Noon). I can vouch for the quality of produce, which we feasted upon for the remainder of my visit.
Saturday Farmers' Market.
After all of Friday's gallivanting, Lisa and I decided to have a less rambunctious Saturday afternoon, and so contained ourselves; a visit to Georgetown's
fabulous Dumbarton Oaks would serve very well (www.doaks.org).
Map of Dumbarton Oaks, Museum & Gardens.
But first, a word about the origins of Dumbarton Oaks:

Mildred Barnes was richer than Midas; heiress to a fortune, compliments of her father, a lucky investor in Fletcher's Castoria, a laxative for children that sold like gangbusters for decades. Yes, great wealth is usually generated this prosaically; and in Mildred's case, it's easy to imagine what envious people muttered about the stuff that generated her lucre. But Mildred married Robert Bliss, a career diplomat and civil servant, and together they did more than simply lead luxurious lives, although the extent of their household spending was mind-boggling. Their more-more-more collecting of artifacts resulted in a house that's a massive display case, rather than a home (which further sharpened my appreciation for George Mason's frugality). But the Bliss-team also matured into humanitarians and art patrons, and because of them Georgetown contains one of America's most splendid gardens.

We toured the main house, along with the museum that's attached to it ...
Museum at Dumbarton Oaks.
... which specializes in Byzantine and Medieval studies, and is now under the
wing of Harvard University ...
Byzantine Gallery at Museum.
... and then the 45 acres of gardens, which were planned in the 1920s for Mildred Bliss by the landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who was the niece of Edith Wharton, yet another grand-opera gardener.
Mildred Bliss. Beatrix Farrand.
Main Gate to Gardens.
South & East Lawn pathway.
Orangery.
Pebble Garden.
Swimming Pool.
Urn Terrace.
Rose Garden. Finial in Rose Garden.
Rose Garden.
View from Rose Garden down toward Cutting Garden.
Ellipse.
Fountain Terrace.
Well-trained fig vines. Kearny Baldacchino.
Crown of Kearny Baldacchino.
Cloud Terrace Installation, by Andy Cao, at the Arbor Terrace.
Arbor Terrace finial. Gate to Fountain Terrace.
Terrior Column. Approach to Lovers' Lane Pool.
Lovers' Lane Pool.
Lest one forget Mildred & Robert Bliss!
Not a grass blade, nor a plant stalk was out of place. Lisa and I inquired about the gardening-power needed for such precision, and learned that Dumbarton Oaks employs 12 full-time gardeners, whose work is supplemented by the efforts of scores of volunteers and independent contractors.

And Sunday? How could this day top the fun of the two previous?

Well it did ... but quietly. We chattered, prepared simple meals using our bounty from the Farmers' Market, marveled at the perfect weather, went for massages, tossed endless balls for Lucy (who tried valiantly to train me how to throw properly), and were TV-mesmerized as the world's best golfers were beaten into a collective pulp by the rigors of San Francisco's Olympic Club Golf Course. Imagine, I finally know what Bogies are (the kind that aren't named Humphrey)! The important thing was to simply hang out, together, which Lucy would have preferred we'd done, all along.
Lucy and her well-chewed rubber ball.




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