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Millpond in Thomasville, Georgia (Photos by James R. Lockhart)

Seeking Eden peeks behind the garden gates into Georgia’s most beautiful and historic hidden green spaces

Eighty-five years ago, the Peachtree Garden Club documented nearly 160 publicly and privately owned Georgia gardens dating from the mid-18th to the early 20th centuries in a seminal publication titled Garden History of Georgia 1733–1933. Now, the status of those original 19th-century parterres, Colonial Revival gardens, Country Place–era landscapes, rock gardens, historic town squares, college campuses and an urban conservation garden have been updated in Seeking Eden: A Collection of Georgia’s Historic Gardens.

Researched and written by Staci L. Catron, director of the Cherokee Garden Library, Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center, and Mary Ann Eaddy, a former educator and retiree from the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the book is illustrated with 365 color photographs by James R. Lockhart. A companion exhibition featuring Lockhart’s photographs, historic documents from the Cherokee Garden Library, postcards and historic landscape drawings will run at the Atlanta History Center’s McElreath Hall from April 25 through December 31.

In advance of the book and exhibition launch on April 25, Catron, Eaddy and Lockhart sat down with ArtsATL to talk about what they call their “epic adventure,” the significant impact of the women who envisioned these historic gardens and landscapes and the everlasting appeal of cultivated sanctuaries.

ArtsATL: How do you define Eden?

Staci L. Catron: For me, Eden is a sanctuary, a private world or space you create for yourself, your family, friends or neighbors.

Mary Ann Eaddy: I think of the Biblical Garden of Eden in the sense of perfection. So many of these gardens were an expression of the gardeners’ religious faith, and some were not. But all of them were seeking some sense of perfection or serenity in one place.

ArtsATL: Why do we need gardens?

Catron: It’s as basic as breathing air for those of us who garden and need gardens. Architecturally and otherwise, metropolitan cities all over the world are becoming very concrete, very sterile, very cookie-cutter. We’re lucky to have organizations like Trees Atlanta and Trust for Public Land, groups that really advocate for green spaces, because cities without places to gather outside are cities without soul. I think gardens are intrinsic to being happy and healthy, particularly in urban settings.

Mary Ann Eaddy, James R. Lockhart and Staci L. Catron (Image courtesy the authors/Atlanta History Center)

ArtsATL: What was the criteria for selecting the gardens featured in Seeking Eden?

Eaddy: We wanted to share in-depth essays on about 30 of the gardens that were featured in Garden History of Georgia 1733–1933 and explore what happened to these gardens since 1933. We also wanted to show how beautiful they are, which is where Jim’s photography came in. We sought geographic distribution across the state, and wanted to feature both public and private gardens . . . with enough integrity [relative to their original design] left so people could understand that these were historic spaces.

ArtsATL: With so many extenuating circumstances — blight, changing tastes, fire and war — how untouched or unchanged can any garden be if it’s living, breathing, dying and going through cycles.

James R. Lockhart: Nothing is exactly the same as when the first owner planted the first plant, but the basic underlying structure is still there.

Eaddy: Historic places change and evolve over time in order to survive. With rare exceptions, these are not museum gardens. But many of the gardens featured have maintained their basic form and plant materials. Our oldest garden dates from the mid-1700s down on the coast at Wormsloe [State Historic Site near Savannah].

ArtsATL: What are some of the classical elements of an historic garden?

Lockhart: We saw a lot of boxwoods, which was an historic plant for so many of these gardens.

Catron: A lot of them have allées, intricate patterns, terracing and varying fence styles.

ArtsATL: What are some examples of garden designs that were influenced by world travel?

Catron: Beech Haven is probably one of the more eccentric ones that’s just gorgeous! The family patriarch and his daughter traveled in Asia through his mission work with the Presbyterian Church around the turn of the last century. They came back to Athens and created this retreat where Asian influences can be seen in the stone lanterns, a camelback bridge and even plant material. Of course, our own Swan House Gardens that [architect Philip T.] Shutze designed has a beautiful blend of Italian and English influences. And we have been importing plants from all over the world, originally through port cities like Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, for a very long time. The height of that trend was in the 1780s. Some of the nonnative species we now consider our own are camellia japonicas, English boxwoods and bulbs — from butter and eggs daffodils to over-the-top fancy species from South America.

Oak Hill Gardens on the Martha Berry Estate in Mount Berry, Georgia

ArtsATL: Formal elements in a garden are to be admired, but eccentric touches are what make a garden enchanting. What is the most enchanting design documented in Seeking Eden?

Catron: Cator Woolford Gardens heading out to Decatur, Georgia, has some very interesting elements, including rock benches and rock center pools, in an otherwise formal, traditional landscape. Luckily, it’s been restored by local gardener and artist Cooper Sanchez.

Eaddy: A lot of people might not think of Rock City Gardens on Lookout Mountain as an historic garden, but it’s a prime example of an unusual place that has historic value.

ArtsATL: What is the philosophy behind walled gardens, and when did they fall out of fashion?

Eaddy: It’s an English tradition. Some of the early antebellum gardens dating from the 1700s in Savannah and Charleston are walled.

Catron: They fell out of favor in the late 19th century but had a resurgence in the 1920s and ’30s in Southern cities. Interestingly, they’ve never been a thing in Atlanta. From the 1970s through today in Charleston and Savannah, there is a tradition that if your garden gate is open, even if it’s a walled garden, visitors are welcome to enter at will. You’ll see that tradition in New Orleans as well.

ArtsATL: Traditionally, gardens were planted first followed by the house. What is lost when the home becomes the priority?

Catron: Really good designers, landscape architects and mindful homeowners still take a balanced approach to home and garden design, but most people today are willing to sacrifice green space in order to maximize interior square footage. Visit any in-town neighborhood and you’ll see five bedroom/three-and-a-half bathroom homes being constructed on long narrow lots that used to have very quaint Victorian homes or craftsman bungalows. The homeowners are not thinking about an Eden for themselves, nor their neighbors, nor the birds, nor the squirrels or anything else. They’re not concerned about the outside; they’re only concerned about staying inward.

ArtsATL: An early steward of the Battersby-Hartridge Garden in Savannah shared what she considered the best piece of gardening advice: “You are going to make your own mistakes.” Why did you want to share that wisdom with readers?

Eaddy: Mrs. Hartridge talked about being really nervous when tackling her garden as a young woman. But when a friend gave her that advice, she said it kind of released her. I thought the insight might help gardeners relax about tackling their own spaces.

Dunaway Gardens outside of Newnan, Georgia

ArtsATL: Gardens like those at the Governor’s Mansion in Atlanta and Andrew Low House in Savannah are well-known to most Georgians. What are some of the more obscure gardens featured?

Catron: Although some gardeners know about Dunaway Gardens outside of Newnan, it’s still relatively unknown among people living in metro Atlanta, but well worth multiple visits.

Eaddy: It was started by an actress [Hetty Jane Dunaway] who wanted to form a company where she could train actors, directors and others in the craft within a garden setting. She built a rock and floral garden and a 1,000-seat stone amphitheater that opened in 1934. From all accounts, it was a success. But time passed, the war came and people’s tastes changed. She died in 1961, and everything seemed to fade away. In 2001, a woman named Jennifer Bigham and her husband stumbled onto the fallow property, discovered the bones of the garden were very much in tact, brought it back to life and opened it to the public. The story to me was how the garden was conceived by one woman then brought back to life by another woman.

Lockhart: I photographed the property in the mid-80s for the National Register of Historic Places, and at that time, the only thing that was really visible was the amphitheater. It was so totally overgrown I could not find any of the underlying structures out there at all. When I returned three years ago, I was absolutely blown away when I saw what Jennifer has done for that garden.

ArtsATL: Jim, you’ve documented more than 1,600 nominations to the National Register of Historic Places over a 32-year career as photographer for the State of Georgia, Historic Preservation Division, and contributed to dozens of books about historic architecture and landscaping in the South, including Thomasville: Unique History, Elegant Homes, and Southern Hospitality and Madison: A Classic Southern Town. What do you want your pictures to convey?

Lockhart: Ideally, I would like to transport the reader, if only for a moment. It’s impossible to do in a single image, but one of my goals in all of my photography is to make you feel like you are there. It’s a documentation of what is there at that particular moment.

ArtsATL: It seems a recurring theme among the gardeners you’ve interviewed is their desire to share. Would you agree?

Eaddy: Oh yes! The property owners have welcomed us in, and many of these women involved are garden club members or master gardeners. They meet, commune and share information on their gardens and love the public to see it.

Catron: And a lot of them share plants. Atlanta has a huge network of people who constantly, unofficially swap plants all the time. Then, when you’re walking in your own garden, and you look down at a camellia, and someone you love gave that cutting to you, and you’ve nurtured it and it is now part of your story? It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Sapelo Island, Georgia

ArtsATL: Prior to the Civil War, enslaved people in Georgia provided the labor to build many of the now historic gardens. Was it hard to find documentation stating who was responsible for what aspects of creating these gardens?

Catron: I think it’s very important to acknowledge the people on the ground actually doing the work, understand their personal interests and what they put of themselves into these gardens. You have to understand plants to garden . . . so it was frustrating not being able to give credit where it was due. But [finding documentation that acknowledge the contributions of enslaved people] was almost impossible. We could use census records to know how many enslaved people were on a certain property, but the real story is still not told.

Eaddy: More research really needs to be done on the roles of African Americans in these gardens. Staci and I found records lacking, but I think it would be worth investigation.

ArtsATL: What is the smallest slice of Eden featured in this book?

Eaddy: Maybe the Battersby-Hartridge Garden and the Andrew Low House Garden.

Lockhart: I’m thinking of the Stephenson-Adams-Land Garden on Ponce.

Eaddy: That’s right! It’s a private residential garden in Druid Hills, done in the 1930s. It’s a lovely garden that’s had three separate owners, and they’ve all maintained the linear garden going off the back porch.

ArtsATL: Do you experience gardens differently when looking at them as a writer/scholar/photographer, as opposed to someone simply communing with nature?

Lockhart: I think I would like to go back to the gardens now that this project is done, and view them again from a nonphotographic standpoint. When I visited all of these gardens, I was there working and looking and trying to find a good angle.

Eaddy: What a great idea!

ArtsATL: Seeking Eden will appeal to scholars, professionals, historic preservationists and anyone who loves leafing through pretty pictures. Who is your target audience?

Catron: I hope it appeals to not just gardeners and garden historians, but everyday people. Back to where we started the conversation, I feel like there’s a lot of disconnect between people and the natural world. If seeing Jim’s  gorgeous photographs in the book, if that just makes people want to go outside, I’ll be thrilled!

Seeking Eden launches as a book and exhibition with a panel discussion, book signing and reception at the Atlanta History Center on April 25 at 7 p.m. Proceeds from book sales benefit the Garden Club of Georgia’s Historic Landscape Preservation grants and scholarship program, a matching grant program that gives seed money for nonprofits and communities to restore historic gardens and landscapes that are open to the public across Georgia.