By Kim Davis | [email protected]
Alexandria is home to several exceptional garden clubs whose members include everyone from certified professional gardeners and amateur gardeners exploring their green thumbs to floral designers who create stunning displays for weddings. There are also students and dabblers of horticulture whose gardens convey sublime curb appeal, conservationists who fight to protect the environment and historic preservationists who work to restore important Virginia landmarks.
On April 23, two local clubs, the Hunting Creek Garden Club and The Garden Club of Alexandria, will present the 89th annual Old Town Alexandria Historic Garden Week home and garden tour, a beloved springtime tradition that dates to 1929.
GCA was the sole presenter of the fledgling Garden Club of Virginia Historic Garden Week statewide tour for 23 years.
“According to historical documents, our club provided hostesses for Gunston Hall in 1929. Alexandria did not have homes represented on the tour until 1930. At that time, the tour was dispersed in homes throughout Alexandria rather [than] only in Old Town,” GCA Club President and third-generation member Cathy Tyler said.
In 1952, Hunting Creek Garden Club joined GCA to present the Old Town tour, a partnership that endures to this day. The clubs rotate primary responsibility for the tour annually.
“Although our club participated in the GCV tour before Hunting Creek became involved, we enjoy a camaraderie of interests,” Tyler said. “Besides sharing responsibilities in presenting the tour, we are all great friends and enjoy working together.”
The Old Town tour is part of the GCV’s eight-day statewide event from April 23 to 30 encompassing 128 private homes and gardens. Proceeds fund the restoration and preservation of nearly 50 of Virginia’s historic public gardens and landscapes and a research fellowship program in landscape architecture.
This year’s event showcases five historic private homes and gardens adorned with exquisite floral arrangements designed and executed by garden club members as well as six historic public properties located in Alexandria and Fairfax County.
Preparation for each year’s tour begins two years in advance, as tour chairs secure a collection of homes centered within a specific geographic area in Old Town to facilitate a walkable tour. Once the homes and gardens are lined up, the tour chairs then assume overall management, appointing subcommittee chairs for specific aspects of event planning. Meanwhile, planning for the following year’s tour is already underway by whatever sister club is not planning the tour that year.
“We are grateful for the many gracious homeowners who open their homes, offering a glimpse behind the doors of Old Town’s historic properties and beautiful spring gardens,” tour co-Chair Jackie Locke said.
“In addition to providing inspiration for décor and gardening design, the tour raises funds critical to the restoration and preservation of Virginia’s historic treasures,” Co-Chair Emily Jones said.
Homeowners often spend months preparing their homes and gardens, undertaking updates and planting their gardens with bulbs timed to bloom around the day of the tour. For homeowners involved in the annual tour, the event provides them with an opportunity to not only show off their home but the history of Old Town as a neighborhood.
“Built in the 1790s, my residence originally backed up to an oyster processing plant, which was not uncommon at that time,” Kristen Frykman, owner of 515 S. Fairfax St., one of the homes on this year’s tour, said. “Residences, manufacturing, carpentry shops, dry goods shops and professional offices all shared this early Old Town neighborhood.”
Frykman completed a renovation in 2019 and frequently finds oyster shells in her garden.
Visitors also delight in floral arrangements created by club members within each home. Each floral arrangement is designed to complement the décor and style of the home and involves months of preparation. Arrangers create artistic renderings to guide selections of containers, floral materials and fresh spring greenery cut from members’ gardens.
This year, the GCV challenged arranging teams to use sustainable materials for their designs in place of petroleum-derived materials containing toxic, non-biodegradable chemicals such as formaldehyde. Teams are pivoting to reusable materials such as chicken wire, flower frogs and waterproof floral tape to stabilize flowers in containers. A new sustainable material on the market is also being tested, but head arranger Laura Francis has so far found it a difficult material with which to work.
“Historic Garden Week flower arranging day is my favorite garden club day of the year,” Francis, who has more than 20 years of experience arranging floral bouquets for events, said. “Generations of garden club members pass along age-old flower arranging traditions to younger generations each year. It is a privilege to be part of a culture that celebrates floral design as an art.”
Club designers give all the home arrangements to owners to enjoy. Many homeowners use the occasion to host parties for friends and neighbors following the tour, extending the festivities in an informal way.
For many homeowners, the tour gives them a chance to learn more about the history of their historic home, which can sometimes yield a surprise or two.
Mark and Catherine Hill’s home at 512 Prince St., formerly the residence of Patsy Ticer, the first woman to serve as Alexandria’s mayor, is another of the houses on this year’s tour. The Hills discovered an unusual series of archways in their basement upon purchasing the property. Following a bit of research, Mark Hill, a history buff and Carlyle House board member, discovered the arches were likely the foundation of a small bridge.
“Much to our astonishment, our property is located on an old stream bed that once held a small bridge providing safe access to Prince Street from the original 1783 structure; later, the arches were used to support the front portion of the house built in the early [to] mid 1800s,” Hill said.
The other private residences along this year’s tour route have equally compelling stories to tell.
The nucleus of the restored carriage house at 508 S. Fairfax St. was built as a horse stable between 1801 and 1807 and remodeled in 1874. It was once owned by a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. The current garden features many ornamental elements including a female goddess sculpture from Bali.
At 206 Duke St., Alexandria’s famous connection with George Washington comes to life. The house was originally a frame structure built in 1794 by George Coryell, whose father was George Washington’s guide during the Revolutionary War. The family was said to have rowed Washington across the Delaware River in December 1776 for the surprise attack against the British. The current brick townhouse dates to 1836.
The present owners renovated the property in 2013, adding environmentally friendly geothermal wells underground that heat and cool the house. A feature of the garden is a large birdhouse replica of the Grand Pagoda at Kew Gardens in Great Britain.
The home at 323 Duke St. was constructed as a long horizontal structure around 1800. The part that is currently on the property was a carpentry shop for many years. It was renovated in the 1950s by a local restorationist and again by current owners who added a second-floor bedroom, bath and dormer.
The tour also includes six notable public properties, including Carlyle House; Lee-Fendall House; River Farm; George Washington’s Mount Vernon; Green Spring Gardens and Gunston Hall.
Tickets are available for $55 at www.vagardenweek.org and at the Alexandria Visitor Center, 221 King St., on tour day.
In addition to presenting the Old Town HGW tour annually, the two clubs have long histories of civic beautification, conservation and education projects in Alexandria including gardens at The Athenaeum, Alexandria Hospital, Ramsay House, and Lee-Fendall House; conservation support for Winkler Botanical Preserve, Huntley Meadows Park, and Green Spring Garden; and annual scholarships to Nature Camp to educate youths about nature.