Fresh-smelling camellias, beautifully draping crepe myrtles, bright yellow Carolina Jessamine — these flowers are but a few of the dozens among dozens of botanical beauties that can be found in the grand gardens of Columbia’s historic landmarks. Historic Columbia has five such historic landscapes under its care, which collectively account for nearly 200 years of the horticultural heritage of South Carolina’s capital city, says David Simpson, the organization’s director of grounds. These landscapes include the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens, the Robert Mills House and Gardens, the Seibels House and Garden, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home and Mann-Simons Site. Each of these gardens features a diversity of period-appropriate design and collection of plants.
“The landscapes are world class,” says Michael Edens, Historic Columbia board president. “The professional staff and grounds crew, coupled with wonderful volunteers, have spent hundreds of hours researching, interpreting and getting their hands dirty to make sure that the gardens are a representation of the exact landscapes you would have seen in the 19th century. Every minute detail is reviewed and thought through to make sure we capture the feel and look — and to ensure we represent an accurate account of those homes and grounds during their time of construction and first use.”
The gardens at the Robert Mills House are representative of an early 1800s English-style landscape with formal parterres — ornamental gardens with paths between two beds — that are characterized by geometrical patterns and symmetry. The Seibels House is reportedly the oldest home in Columbia, dating back to approximately 1796. The Woodrow Wilson Family Home features Southern magnolias and a tea olive believed to have been planted by the Wilson family. Built by the fall of 1871, after Wilson’s father purchased the plot of land in 1870 for $1,850, this home has operated as an historic museum since 1933, celebrating the life of the 28th President of the United States. Closed in 2005 for a comprehensive rehabilitation, the property reopened in February of this year with a newly-designed landscape and gardens made possible by a $100,000 grant from the Columbia Garden Club Foundation.
The gardens of these homes have already been through extensive restoration projects, and careful attention is given to ensure the beauty of the landscapes remains intact and well cared for. In fact, a glorious memorial garden at the Robert Mills House, My Mother’s Garden, was just completed in 2012. But Historic Columbia is particularly excited about its latest revitalization project, currently underway at the Hampton-Preston Mansion. “These gardens are intriguing for their historical notoriety,” notes David.
The Hampton-Preston Mansion has been the focus of local and national attention dating back to the 1850s and 1860s, when the grandeur of the estate’s gardens was on display in articles in The Sentinel in Waterford New York, and The Farmer and Planter. During this time period, notable visitors included James LeConte, a scientist, travel writer and historian; Louis Agassiz, regarded by some as one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century; and John Audubon, an ornithologist, naturalist and painter, best known for his book, The Birds of America. The estate’s reputation continued to be celebrated well into the 20th century, including national press coverage for its gardens when it graced the cover of the January 1910 edition of Country Life in America.
Sadly, the gardens were neglected following the second World War. Overgrown and untended, the once beautiful gardens were bulldozed and cleared to make way for commercial developments in 1947. Fifteen years after the site opened in 1970 as a historic house museum, a new effort to restore the grounds was put in place. Over the next few decades, several plans for the gardens’ restoration were met with some degree of success. Today, thanks to the dedication of Historic Columbia, one of the city’s most heavily documented historic estates is finally undergoing an intensive, multi-year revitalization project to bring back its antebellum gardens.
To revitalize the Hampton-Preston grounds is no small feat. An initial phase of the project was completed in the spring of 2012 and included restoration of the pathway that winds throughout the southern third of the property. That first phase also included new plantings in the Welcome Garden, which will serve as an inviting space through which guests to the mansion and gardens will enter the property. When the revitalization is complete, new gardens created within the framework of the property’s antebellum period pathways will include a Fountain Garden featuring a working replica of the gardens’ original Hiram Powers fountain. Powers was a respected American sculptor who lived and worked in Florence, Italy. The renovated gardens will also include an antebellum Children’s Garden, an interactive walled garden designed to encourage exploration and discovery.
Great care has been taken to ensure the plants and flowers in the newly renovated space are indicative of those either known to have grown in the antebellum gardens or to have been available from nurseries prior to 1865. This list of period-appropriate plants includes a diverse selection of natives and exotics, highlighted by a collection of Old Garden roses.
The first documented plants at the Hampton-Preston Mansion were in 1840 and included many of today’s beloved favorites, such as the American boxwood, forsythia, camellia and the oak leaf hydrangea. Together, these plants and dozens of others create a beautiful mosaic in a picturesque setting.
Historic Columbia takes great pride in the historic landscapes it cultivates. To that end, the organization welcomes the opportunity to host events, including weddings, parties and celebrations, on the homes’ grounds. In November 2012, Historic Columbia itself celebrated its 50th anniversary with a fantastic gala held at the Robert Mills House. All of the gardens under the care of Historic Columbia are free for the public to enjoy. “We welcome everyone to make frequent use of our gardens for walks, picnic lunches and recreational activities,” adds David.
The gardens of these historic homes epitomize the horticultural legacy of South Carolina. With acres of green space, lovely settings and an undeniable charm, the homes allow guests to experience grandeur and gain a sense of the rich history that surrounds Columbia. No doubt the beauty of these landscapes allows visitors to escape the hurried lifestyle, to experience serenity, and to appreciate the great history and wonderful stories that the city of Columbia brings to its residents.
For more information about hosting an event at one of the historic mansions, contact Amy Kinard, Historic Columbia’s rental coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 252-7742, ext. 11.