Rock Garden Restoration

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation has selected the recently restored Jacqueland Rock Garden at the AHHH as the 2015 Restoration Award winner.

The historic rock garden is a serene nature haven for families in health crisis

The Rock Garden adjacent to the Atlanta Hospital Hospitality House (AHHH) is bringing quiet enjoyment to family members of patients at some of Atlanta’s 31 hospitals. Set in a mature oak-hickory forest native to the Georgia piedmont and surrounded by evergreen hemlocks, the newly-restored Rock Garden dates from 1926 and again facilitates quiet contemplation and supplies a place of beauty for those residing at the Hospitality House to connect with nature. The Jacqueland Rock Garden is open to the public during daylight hours.

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Historic relevance

In the early twentieth century, Druid Hills was developed as a fashionable streetcar neighborhood just east of Atlanta. The Woolford Estate was begun in 1919 and the main “Jacqueland” residence was designed by architect Owen Southwell and built in 1926. The grounds are attributed to landscape architect Robert Cridland. Along with the entrance, a clubhouse, terrace and gardens, the south lawn and Italian stairs, shrub borders and woodland paths, there is an extensive Rock Garden that includes water features of waterfall, pool and fountain. Spencer Tunnell, award-winning landscape architect of the Olmstead Linear Park 2013 Restoration in Druid Hills, provided historical perspective on why the restoration of the Woolford Rock Garden is important to Atlanta.

A popular gardening trend of the 1920s, the rock garden was an accepted design element for estate gardens. A chapter of Cridland’s book, Practical Landscape Gardening (New York: A.T. De La Mare, 1916),covers the “Wild Garden and the Rock Garden.” At Jacqueland, Cridland situated the Rock Garden next to the main house on topographically steep terrain and included a figure-8 stepping stone path that enabled the Rock Garden to be viewed from every angle. The Woolford Rock Garden was featured in a December 1929 Atlanta Journal Magazine article, “700 Rock Gardens in Atlanta.” It detailed a Tom Thumb golf course immediately adjacent to the house, a cascading waterfall, and a lower level with a heart-shaped pool and moated fountain. In an old family photo, the daughter of the house is pictured in the 1920s seated on the stone couch at the fountain that remains an appealing detail today.

Philanthropy to the rescue

Neglected for nearly 50 years, the Rock Garden had experienced erosion and had become buried beneath soil, ivy and wisteria vines. In summer 2012, Mrs. Sara A. Hehir, Chair of The Sara Giles Moore Foundation, visited AHHH to learn more about its mission and became interested in what lay beneath the tangle of vegetation. Mrs. Hehir knew that the garden was something special that she wanted to see restored. She quietly did research over the next year to find the right person and recruited artist/gardener Cooper Sanchez for the job. The Sara Giles Moore Foundation funded the restoration project. Mrs. Hehir explained, “The restoration of the historic Rock Garden and its unique water features is a great opportunity to provide solace for the residents of the AHHH. The trustees of The Sarah Giles Moore Foundation are pleased to have made an investment that will promote the health and well-being of the AHHH community, while preserving the character of this historically significant structure.”

Atlanta Hospital Hospitality House Executive Director Melissa Connor was then able to initiate the restoration of this historic landscape feature. “We are delighted to discover just what a historic treasure AHHH has in the Rock Garden which is right outside the door,” noted Ms. Connor. “Our guests arrive at the Hospitality House in a fragile state during a stressful time of health crisis in their lives. It is our hope that the musical water and the serene natural world will be a healing help and provide additional consolation for the residents of the AHHH.”

Restoration specifics

Selected to tackle the renovation, artist and Oakland Cemetery head gardener Cooper Sanchez visited the site for the first time in September 2013 and viewed the tangle of vegetation with anticipation. Describing 50 years of neglect, he said, “The Rock Garden was covered with English ivy, poison ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, privet, wisteria, and Virginia creeper, plus mulberry and mahonia that had overrun the garden. It was apparent that rocks were out of place and rubble had been added to the site, with contractors dumping debris over the years. Bits of brick, cinder block, granite curbing, and rock from elsewhere on the property had been dumped there as well. The stepping stone path was not visible, having sunken to a depth of about four inches from decades of leaf debris from hickory, oaks, and tulip poplars. This improved the soil, but was a testament to how long the garden had been abandoned.”

The initial clean up also involved an inventory of existing plant material. Structural plants were evaluated, with diseased and misshapen plants removed and the remaining pruned to provide height and structure. Sanchez remarked, “I chose the healthiest dogwoods and woody ornamentals to save, and I definitely put in more trees than I took out.”

The rock path

Mr. Sanchez continued, “Revealing the structure of the stepping stone path was one of the most exciting parts of aspects of the project. The more time I spent there, the more I realized how much thought and planning had gone into the garden structure. Bringing the stepping stone path to the surface really accentuated the design.”

Eight foot pry bars lifted each and every path rock, on the average about the size of a desk top and more than 250 pounds each. “Whew!” At approximately 2 feet x 3 feet x 16 inches thick, the path rocks were flat-topped with rounded bottoms, massive, heavy, dense and hard to move. After moving about a dozen by himself, Mr. Sanchez settled on a team of three men, who shimmed the raised rocks underneath with slate, rock and soil to prevent re-sinking. He acknowledged, “That was a chore. We basically tried to raise the stepping stones two to three inches above surface. Each rock was handled at least 3 times, and they were reset with their own weight settling them into the ground.”

The water features

The original topography had a change of grade of approximately 25 feet from the top to bottom of the sloping garden. A natural-looking grotto became the “headwaters” or source for the water. “It looks like underground spring flowing 15 feet over a six foot drop into first pond, and after the first pond is full, it flows 12 feet and drops another another six to seven feet to the lower pond, which acts as a “moat” for the bubbling fountain. We brought in Jim Higgenbotham from the Atlanta Botanical Garden maintenance staff, to assist. “He could see the potential,” enthused Sanchez. “He could visualize.” The team installed new pipe, and one powerful new pump with enough power to push the water to the waterfall and to make the moated fountain gurgle.

Plants

The rocky structure of the garden is softened by the planting of woody ornamentals and perennial plants of the traditional Southern shade garden. According to the original landscape architect’s written words, “The introduction of small, compact growing shrubs will give an appearance of stability to the rockery and deter the eye from taking in too much at one time.” Mr. Sanchez followed Cridland’s directive, “The arrangement of the plants should be in clumps or colonies of one variety . . .” Pockets of soil between the steps are newly planted with creeping groundcovers to unify the Rock Garden landscape.

At the foot of the Rock Garden and throughout the property grow some of the most spectacular mature Carolina hemlocks (Tsuga caroliniana) in the United States. Due to their separation from the main population of native hemlocks in the eastern forests of America, these may be protected from infestation by the destructive hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae). Efforts are proceeding to have them evaluated for champion tree status by the Georgia Forestry Commission, and/or included in the National Register of Big Trees.

For more information on the Rock Garden or to contact the AHHH Executive Director Melissa Connor, Cooper Sanchez, or the Sara Giles Moore Foundation, please contact Geri Laufer, gerilaufer@gmail.com or 404-586-0686, or Lillian Ansley at 404-367-2727.

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