Garden Site 

A Portfolio of Local Garden Houses

A Portfolio of Local Garden Houses

Early in the 18th century, “Capability” Brown, William Kent, and others developed a new idiom for the English landscape style in which man’s sublime reactions to the landscape overrode his need to control it. To help evoke such a response, classically styled bridges and buildings, often taking the form of Grecian temples and pavilions, became essential elements in the vistas of grand, park-like landscapes. While over time the garden house assumed a wild assortment of romantic and whimsical forms, its intent has remained the same: to evoke an idea or emotion while at the same time defining the overriding mood of the surrounding landscape.

Today this approach to the garden house continues, and for that reason, the most successful are those designed with an eye toward theatricality. Nashville’s legion of garden designers, of course, has taken up the charge.

David Arms, the artist and designer whose gardens have often been the centerpiece of Nashville’s Antiques and Garden Show, saw the possibilities in nothing more than a rusted commercial tool shed left behind in a corner of his yard. At first he considered ripping down the simple structure, which most likely hailed from the likes of Home Depot. But as he started to tear away at it, he realized that by removing the rust, the building could be salvaged. Because the metal was ribbed, he painted the structure in stripes; using painted muslin, he made curtains to drape in the doorway. By placing a birdhouse on the roof, pots of geraniums at the door, and a painted desk and chair inside, he was able, for no more than a song, to transform the dilapidated structure into a poet’s hideaway located just outside his back door.

Landscape architect Ben Page addressed a similar problem when his client, Kathy Follin, asked him to transform nothing more than a standard clapboard garage into a garden house suitable to adorn her lush plantings. The key here was to see the possibilities. By redirecting the original driveway so that it would not transverse the back of the yard, and instead follow directly in from the street, the 800-square-foot building could function simultaneously as a garage as well as service quarters, entertainment center, and potting room. Page accomplished the latter by adding a second entrance, this one facing into the yard, and by embellishing the building with a few well-placed decorative touches that included an old door, windows, and shutters taken from the original main house. The fun was placing a trellis, now thick with climbing roses, up the facade, which links the summerhouse to the formal rose garden planted at its feet.

When consumed by a passion for a summerhouse, though, most of us have to start from scratch. When, for example, the accomplished garden designer Sally Reynolds set her heart on a garden house, she then had to resolve what form it might take. In her case, the problem was finding a style that would not only equate with the existing structures in her yard—ranging from a cottage-style arbor to a wooden deck overlooking a water garden—but would at the same time look at home among her unique collection of garden rooms.

For almost three years, Reynolds clipped out magazine photos and took pictures of garden pavilions at the likes of the Philadelphia Flower Show, until finally she came up with a sketch. She then headed out to Triune, to Country Dutch Barns, which sells two standard wood building types—a Dutch and a gabled barn—only to find that its manager, Judy Chambers, had her own stash of magazine pictures and photographs she uses to help inspire her clients. After Sally selected the gabled barn as a starting point, the two women worked together to customize a building with an extended roofline and exposed rounded rafters. An arched door was added, as well as matching shutters and window boxes. A cupola topped off the charm. The firm delivered the fairy-tale hut to the exact site that Reynolds identified—where it would end the focal point of one border, begin another, and at the same time block the view of the neighbor’s house next-door.

If one does not want to take on such a hands-on project, though, a number of first-rate designers and commercial outfits around town offer customized services. Plantsman Paul Moore had only to look to his wife Nancy, proprietor of The Porch Company, when the need arose for a new toolshed in their backyard. Wanting the building to become a focal point and yet look as if it had always been part of their garden, they sited it at the edge of the woodland, where it would punctuate the carpet of wildflowers before it. Starting out with a standard stick-frame construction, they outfitted the building with a facade of cedar siding and then erected a cedar gate in front of it, both features echoing the cedar used on their main house. Then they applied a number of woodland accents, including a tree trunk cut from the property, which supports the extended roofline as if it were a column on a porch. All told, the toolshed evokes a rustic retreat from which some Thoreau-like character might emerge at any moment.

Over the last several years, Nashvillians have also had the pleasure of Anne Roberts in their midst. An Ontario-based designer who specializes in the art of willowry, she possesses the seemingly limitless ability to wend willow into any form imaginable. For one client, she wattled a fence that conjures up a Shakespearean glen. For another, she modeled a silent butler trimmed with willow to resemble a dollhouse fit for a princess. An 18th-century-styled summerhouse in the form of a Russian dacha, inspired by Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, is among her most extraordinary achievements of late. A former surface designer, Roberts embellished the interior with an intricate mosaic comprised of pinecones, twigs, and stones.

“The first spiritual want of a barbarous man is decoration,” wrote Thomas Carlyle. Diminutive in size, and intended for use in the landscape or garden, garden houses decorate the garden just as they conjure up a paradisiacal world, one that often harks back to the idealized rural past. Found in formal or informal settings, in the midst of an open landscape, or tucked at a woodland edge, even the most straightforward of such structures leads one to wonder what’s inside—fairies or garden gnomes, perhaps, but certainly something of fanciful delight.

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