By Kim Davis | [email protected]
Alexandria is home to several outstanding garden clubs whose members include everyone from certified professional gardeners and hobby gardeners exploring their green thumbs to floral designers creating stunning displays for weddings. There are also horticultural students and enthusiasts whose gardens convey sublime appeal, conservationists who fight to protect the environment, and historic conservators 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 back 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 records, our club provided hostesses for Gunston Hall in 1929. Alexandria had no houses represented on the tour until 1930. At that time the tour was dispersed to houses across Alexandria rather [than] only in Old Town,” said GCA Club president and third-generation member Cathy Tyler.
In 1952, the Hunting Creek Garden Club joined GCA to present the Old Town Tour, a partnership that continues today. Clubs rotate primary responsibility for the tour each year.
“Although our club was on the GCV tour before Hunting Creek got involved, we enjoy a camaraderie of interests,” Tyler said. “As well as sharing responsibilities in presenting the tour, we are all great friends and enjoy working together.”
The Old Town Tour is part of GCV’s eight-day nationwide event, April 23-30, which includes 128 private homes and gardens. Proceeds fund the restoration and preservation of nearly 50 historic public gardens and landscapes in Virginia and a landscape architecture fellowship program.
This year’s event features five historic private homes and gardens adorned with exquisite flower arrangements designed and executed by members of the Garden Club 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 chairmen secure a set of houses centered in a specific geographic area of the Old City to facilitate a walking tour. Once the houses and gardens are lined up, the Tour Chairs then assume overall management, appointing sub-committee chairs for specific aspects of event planning. Meanwhile, planning for the next year’s tour is already underway by any sister club that is not planning the tour for that year.
“We are grateful to the many gracious homeowners who open their homes, offering a glimpse behind the gates of historic properties and the beautiful spring gardens of Old Town,” said tour co-chair Jackie Locke.
“In addition to providing inspiration for decorating and garden design, the tour raises vital funds to restore and preserve Virginia’s historic treasures,” said co-chair Emily Jones.
Homeowners often spend months preparing their homes and gardens, undertaking updates, and planting their gardens with bulbs scheduled to bloom on the day of the visit. For homeowners involved in the annual tour, the event offers them the opportunity to not only show off their home, but also the history of Old Town as a neighborhood.
“Built in the 1790s, my residence originally backed onto an oyster processing plant, which was not uncommon at the time,” said Kristen Frykman, owner of 515 S. Fairfax St. , one of the houses on this year’s tour. “Residences, manufacturing, carpentry shops, dry goods stores and professional offices all shared this prime Old Town neighborhood.”
Frykman completed a renovation in 2019 and frequently finds oyster shells in his garden.
Visitors also appreciate the flower arrangements created by club members in each house. Each flower arrangement is designed to complement the decor and style of the home and requires months of preparation. Arrangers create artistic renderings to guide selections of containers, floral materials, and fresh spring greenery cut from members’ gardens.
This year, GCV challenged organizing teams to use sustainable materials for their designs instead of petroleum-derived materials containing toxic and non-biodegradable chemicals such as formaldehyde. Teams are turning to reusable materials such as chicken wire, flower frogs and waterproof floral tape to stabilize flowers in containers. A new durable material on the market is also being tested, but lead arranger Laura Francis has so far found it to be a difficult material to work with.
“Historic Garden Week flower arranging day is my favorite garden club day of the year,” said Francis, who has more than 20 years of experience arranging flower bouquets for events. “Each year, generations of garden club members pass down centuries-old traditions of flower arranging to younger generations. It is a privilege to be part of a culture that celebrates floral design as an art.
The club designers give all the arrangements of the house to the owners to enjoy. Many owners take the opportunity to throw parties for friends and neighbors after the visit, extending the festivities informally.
For many homeowners, the tour gives them the opportunity to learn more about the history of their historic home, which can sometimes yield a surprise or two.
Another home on this year’s tour is Mark and Catherine Hill’s home at 512 Prince St., formerly the residence of Patsy Ticer, the first woman to serve as mayor of Alexandria. The Hills discovered an unusual series of archways in their basement when purchasing the property. After some research, Mark Hill, a history buff and Carlyle House board member, discovered that the arches were likely the foundation of a small bridge.
“To our amazement, our property sits on an old creek bed that once housed a small bridge providing safe access to Prince Street from the original 1783 structure; later the arches were used to support the front part of the house built at the beginning [to] mid-1800s,” Hill said.
The other private residences along this year’s route have equally captivating stories to tell.
The core of the restored coach house at 508 S. Fairfax St. was built as a stable between 1801 and 1807 and remodeled in 1874. It was once owned by a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. The current garden has many ornamental elements including a sculpture of a female goddess from Bali.
At 206 Duke St., Alexandria’s famous connection to 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 is said to have rowed Washington across the Delaware River in December 1776 for the surprise attack on the British. The current brick townhouse dates from 1836.
The current owners renovated the property in 2013, adding eco-friendly geothermal wells that heat and cool the home. A feature of the garden is a large replica birdhouse of the Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens in Britain.
The house at 323 Duke St. was built as a long, horizontal structure around 1800. The part that currently sits on the property was a carpenter’s shop for many years. It was remodeled in the 1950s by a local restaurateur and again by the current owners who added a second floor bedroom, bathroom and skylight.
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 the day of the visit.
In addition to presenting the Old Town HGW Tour each year, the two clubs have a long history of civic beautification, conservation and education projects in Alexandria, including gardens at the Athenaeum, Alexandria Hospital , the Ramsay House and the Lee-Fendall House; conservation support for Winkler Botanical Reserve, Huntley Meadows Park and Green Spring Garden; and annual scholarships to Nature Camp to educate young people about nature.