I am fascinated by the old boxwoods of Tudor Place, an historic estate in Georgetown.
In 1805, soon after she and her husband purchased the property, Martha Custis Peter, the granddaughter of Martha Washington, planted (or more likely, directed to be planted) an ellipse of Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ in the center of the drive on the north side of the house.
For the Tudor Place Foundation, who received the estate in 1983 from a direct descendant of Martha’s, they must be a much-loved treasure and (I suspect) a big preservation headache.
Today, the ellipse is over 5′ tall, as one might expect, given its age. When I toured the property almost ten years ago during a Landscape Design class, the teacher fretted that it was too large for the original design and for the scale of the house and drive.
At that time, the boxwoods were nearly as tall as now, but still nicely filled out all around. As such, I found them impressive, but not particularly interesting.
However, in February 2010, Washington had the deepest snows in over 100 years. The damage to the boxwood ellipse and to many other old specimens at Tudor Place was severe, and the hedge’s interior was opened to view in many places. Now the ellipse shows interior volume as well as exterior.
My sympathies to the Foundation, but I find the old shrubs’ new negative spaces and sculptural qualities beautiful and rather moving, and I took photo after photo.
There are other old boxwoods in the north-side garden, like these in a planting bed near the old “tennis lawn.”
And these along a walkway near the bowling green.
I wonder how long they will be left in place, given their current condition. I find them beautiful, but they don’t really conform to a classic neat Federal or Colonial Revival aesthetic. But who wants to replace bushes planted by the step-granddaughter of the father of our country?
If they were mine, I think I would want to turn the old ellipse’s design somewhat inside out and fill many of the open spaces with the contrasting foliage of other perennials planted inside them — as is happening among some of the equally ancient boxwoods at the Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral. I’d like to see a few Rudbeckia maxima flowers waving over the center (although whether the ground beneath the ellipse, full of old roots, would support more plants is a practical question).
The rest of the Tudor Place garden is lovely as well, with the center north-side area symmetrically squared off in true C.R. style with brick and gravel walkways.
The well-maintained property actually shows off an interesting continuum of original and reconstructed functions and design styles from the last two centuries.
According to an archaeological study and plan by the University of Maryland, the planting of the south-side lawn, which contains the 200-year old tulip poplar and once had a view of the Potomac River, has changed relatively little since the building of the house (and therefore is of little archaeological interest). And, of course, the ellipse is also truly from the Federal period.
The walkways and rose/knot garden existed in their current layouts by the 1830s. But the knot garden was destroyed in the 1860s by intruders seeking boxwood for Christmas wreaths. It was replanted by the last Peter owner in the 1930s, using old family plans, although he moved it to the opposite side of the center walkway.
The northeast-side garden with lawn and curving beds was an orchard and a tennis lawn before its current 20th century design. On the west side, there is a 20th century bowling green and a fountain on what had once been a wooded area.
A pretty 20th century patio, “Japanese” teahouse, and arbor sit off the west wing of the house, more or less in the location of the 19th century kitchen garden. They look Tidewater southern more than anything else.
The garden is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. There’s a small charge of $3. See this link for information about touring the house.
To see more photos and a garden plan, click “Continue reading” below and click on any thumbnail scroll through large pictures.