Under the Garden Club of Virginia’s 2010 William D. Rieley Fellowship, scholar of landscape architecture, Sonia Brenner (UVA MLA 2010), spent 3 months researching the garden and landscape at Salubria.
The following is a summary of her fascinating report, SALUBRIA: AN INTERPRETATION OF ITS GARDEN AND LANDSCAPE HERITAGE, which can be read in its entirety at the Visitors Center.—Kathy Ellis
Gov. Spotswood’s attention was drawn to the Rappahannock River region because it was an area as yet unclaimed by wealthy planters, and sizeable iron deposits were found there in 1712.
With a skilled business eye, Spotswood intended to dominate the local fur trade, defend the frontier, and increase his own power and wealth through agriculture and industry.
Over time Spotswood amassed about 83,000 acres in the western Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley, part of which he designated Spotsylvania County in 1720.
When Governor Spotswood moved to Fort Germanna, he brought into Piedmont Virginia his aristocratic tastes, rooted in England and Tidewater Virginia.
When he married and brought his bride, Butler Brayne Spotswood, to the site today known as the “Enchanted Castle,” he brought her to an elegant home suitable for a lady of her social standing.
As he had done at the Governor’s Palace, Spotswood designed and built a falling garden with three terraces adjacent to the house, establishing a commanding view over the Rapidan River and surrounding landscape.
Spotswood died in 1740, and his widow married the Rev. John Thompson two years later. Although there is no proof, it is probable that John and Butler Thompson began plans for the falling garden at Salubria at the same time they planned the house’s construction.
The falling garden (see 5th bullet on opposite page) was a status symbol strongly associated with Virginia plantations, and may have appealed to the Thompsons as they constructed their grand house.
Practically speaking, soil removed during excavation of a new basement was often used to form the slopes and terraces of such a garden, and Thompson owned the labor force necessary to carry out such a large scale earthwork.
Falling gardens were very popular throughout Virginia. “In fact, terraced falls were so admired in Fredericksburg, that in 1777, eight lots were for sale with the notation that four were already ‘well improved with a good falling garden.’” (Virginia Gazette May 2, 1777 and Feb. 5, 1780)
In nice weather, a guest at Salubria would have arrived by horse or coach, entered the north door, and had an expansive view through the open south door onto the terrace and the falling gardens with soft breezes bringing the scent of flowers. While the north landscape was visually impressive to an arriving guest, the south side was the more intimate, private side of the house, used for entertaining.
Salubria’s falling garden, located just beyond the south terrace, has three constructed terraces, separated by two built slopes, imperfectly aligned with the main axis of the house.
Over the centuries, the slopes have been worn down somewhat by erosion. Originally, the falling garden would likely have held visually pleasing plantings of flowers but also useful vegetables and herbs for household use.
Other falling gardens around Virginia include those at the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg (c 1716), Dan’s Hill, Danville, Carter’s Grove, Sabine Hall, Kingsmill, Charles Carroll Garden Annapolis MD, Montpelier, Woodberry Forest, Chatham, Federal Hill, Stratford Hall, Menokin, many more. Fall Hill, the Fredericksburg home built by John and Butler Thompson’s descendants ca 1790, also had falling gardens.
Falling gardens and the great house of Salubria were only one piece of a much larger working plantation complex. Many outbuildings, barns, ice house, slave quarters, would have all been included but, today, are undocumented and remain to be explored.
Later alterations to the landscape include the establishment of the Grayson family graveyard at the south end of the middle terrace in the 19th century. This changed the tone of the gardens from a social center to one of memorial.
Then, in 1955, Mr. and Mrs. George Harrison hired Alden Hopkins to initiate a landscape design for their intended move to Salubria. Hopkins established a formal plan for the boxwood ring and many trees that we know around Salubria today.
Sonia’s research incorporated the entire site of Salubria, aerial mapping, the study of antique photographs and documents, and gathering oral history. Additionally, as so often happens, Salubria has enchanted Sonia and inspired her to continue her independent research into falling gardens, an “understudied subject that has a lot of potential.”
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Salubria follows many of the principles of country place design as described by Arthur Shurcliff in “The Gardens of the Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg.” Among the rules still visible today:
- Build on good high land, well drained, not too far from river transportation.
- If the site is not adjacent to a river, it should look directly toward a fine cross country view.
- The site of a place should have straight vista of approach, not too steep or undulating to prohibit a long straight driveway.
- Site should be built across both vistas mentioned above (river/countryside and approach).
- Site should have ample level ground around house for a symmetrically placed front yard and back yard, both should be large. If you can’t make them level, you may break them into a series of terraces or “falls” to make flat symmetrical surfaces.
- Yards should be square or rectangular. If rectangular, make yard twice as long as they are wide. Or, use ratio of two to three, or three to four.
- Gardens should be placed either on the axis of the retired side of the house or symmetrically each side of the house axis, or asymmetrically at one end of house.
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From “Early American Gardens” blog:
“As the 18th century dawned, American colonists were growing richer & found themselves with enough free time to think about designing the grounds around themselves to project their new wealth & power. The gentry began to employ professional gardeners who often planned for land on one side of their employer’s house to become a falling garden.
“Many well-to-do homeowners intentionally chose their home sites on naturally sloping ground or on the bank of a river. They intended to plant level grassy (or more intricate) garden areas as part of a series of terraced falls or graduations with sloping turf fronts & sides. Often when the dwelling house was newly built, the earth, clay, & rubbish removed for cellars & foundations were used to shape the terraced falls. Hills were intentionally cut into slopes & flats where owners & guests could walk.
“Visitors would usually approach the formal entrance to a house by a flat carriage way. Guests asked to stay for a while, often would be invited to take a walk in the terraced garden on the opposite side of the home. People usually walked between these flat levels by means of grass ramps. Each individual descent was referred to as a fall. Gentry owners showcased their genteel taste in gardening on these terraces, which served as their stage to those passing by or visiting. . . .”