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A Natural Balance

A landscape project transforms the appearance and stimulates the eco-diversity of an 18th-century Maryland estate.

Project: Wye Hall, Wye Island, MD

Architect: Graham Landscape Architecture, Annapolis, MD; Jay Graham, FASLA, principal, Kevin Campion, ASLA, associate

Contractor: Wye Nursery, Hillsboro, MD

By Lynne Lavelle

Wye Hall estate on Maryland's Eastern Shore was built in the 1790s for William Paca, a member of the Continental Congress, signatory to the Declaration of Independence and governor of Maryland. Inspired by the 18th-century English landscape style, Paca sited this original house – a red-brick Federal-style mansion – high up on an earthen terrace. Following a fire in the early Victorian period, the house was first replaced in a contemporary style, then with a replica of the original five-part Palladian in 1935, which was later extended with a pavilion and garage in the 1990s and in 2000.

Shortly after purchasing Wye Hall in 1999, the new owners hired Annapolis, MD-based Graham Landscape Architecture (GLA) to develop gardens and a conservation master plan for the estate, one that would acknowledge both its history and its wider environmental significance: The property forms part of the 2,500-acre Natural Resources Management Area, managed by the Maryland Park Service, whose natural systems provide habitat for wintering waterfowl populations, ground nesting birds and other native wildlife.

The main house was separated from a second residence, a converted stable, by a 50-ft.-wide pine plantation. As both had been used as a hunting retreat, the gardens had not been a priority in some time and lacked subtlety and variety. Besides aesthetic concerns, their condition was cause for environmental concern – when GLA principal Jay Graham and associate Kevin Campion inspected Wye Island, something was missing. "The island itself is a natural conservation area and a preserve for birds," says Campion. "We found waterfowl, geese and birds of prey such as ospreys and hawks. What we didn't find were ground-nesting birds because that habitat did not exist. There were no meadows where the birds could lay their eggs and survive without birds of prey seeing them. While those birds are not endangered, they were missing from the equation."

The firm came up with a program that combined architecture, archaeology, garden design, agricultural science and environmental resource management. To aid the work, the clients leased 100 acres surrounding their 80-acre property. "The clients themselves have a very strong sense of stewardship of the land," says Campion. "From the beginning, they wanted to learn about and preserve the story of the place and the land that they purchased. Some significant archaeological information was not on the land they owned but on the adjacent land, so being able to control and work with that area was helpful in telling the story."

As previous excavations had uncovered a well close to the main house, GLA had reason to believe that broader archaeological research would be fruitful. The firm recommended that the clients commission Mark Leone, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland to determine historic layers and corridors. Among Leone's discoveries was that the terrace upon which the house sits had been hand built by slaves. "It was an incredible feat," says Graham. "In the winter time, you can see a circle on the horizon from where they pulled from the earth and made these platforms basket by basket. The archaeologists could see where each basket-load had left its mark."

The excavation revealed historical subsurface gardens, which the clients did not intend to restore but wanted to leave intact. New gardens were added in those areas that had already been disturbed and, in keeping with 18th-century English landscaping principles, functional gardens such as kitchen, cutting and wilderness gardens were placed away from the formal axis. "Informed by the archaeologist, we learned more about the 18th-century gardens and felt that the west side was a good place for the wilderness garden, which has typically less order and access to it and more winding paths whose destination, in this case, was an overlook of the meadow and island," says Campion.

"At the foot of Paca's Annapolis house was one of the first known wilderness gardens in America," says Graham. "We thought that if he had done a wilderness garden in the Annapolis house, he would be inclined to do another at his retirement home, but we couldn't find where it was. Since the client wanted something on the west side, we loosely interpreted his taste and did a garden of American natives."

The clients proposed that the driveway split the axis of the portico – a setup that was not in keeping with a typical English mid-18th-century arrival sequence, which served to showcase the owners' wealth and deliberately isolate the house. Further archaeological research confirmed the position of the slave quarters and in turn, the historically appropriate position of the driveway. After eliminating the 1930's front parking court, the firm reinstituted the driveway that leads to an entrance on the east side. From here, guests would have been shown to the porticoes on the north and south sides to view the property. "This notion of a driveway that approached the front door would not have happened," says Graham. "In those days, you would have been arriving by ship, then you would have gotten on a horse or buggy and ridden up towards the stable and turned towards the house and past all the signs of wealth, one of which would have been slave quarters."

Brick-edged gravel paths, as well as a brick walkway across the gravel path and lawn, provide exterior circulation and connect the house to the views beyond. Similar to Jefferson's approach at Monticello, colorful seasonal plantings appear as foundation plantings from a distance and free-floating beds define inner and outer gardens. Throughout the landscape, layers of plantings represent several periods of the house, from 19th-century lindens, 20th-century boxwoods and recently introduced 21st-century fragrant sumac. The pool and tennis courts are gently situated away from the original house site. "We were trying to be as respectful as possible," says Graham.

Graham Landscape Architecture has created a model of stewardship for the Eastern Shore area. New transitions between low and high grasses, formal and informal gardens, hedgerows and forest buffer provide food and shelter for wildlife – as well as visual interest – and the firm used native plantings to stabilize the shoreline and moved crops inland to avoid fertilizer runoff. It is hoped that these measures will have a "ripple effect" far beyond Wye Hall. "We have a better balance of open space, agriculture, meadow and forest," says Graham. "There is a lot of erosion along the Chesapeake Bay. It's usually a combination of wind-driven water, tide and boat traffic. Each situation is different but of course as the water rises, the degradation of the shoreline is going to worsen. While the clients didn't restore the shoreline that they don't own – that the state owns – they have restored their shoreline and are looking to widen the buffers."

As a result of rigorous historical and environmental research and careful editing of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century elements, Wye Hall today feels timeless. "It's what we call making it look inevitable," says Graham. "There were so many layers and through various studies, we began to learn which features belonged to which layers. As we did that, the question became, 'Which era are we aiming for?'" In the end, dramatically 20th-century elements, such as the swimming pool by the guesthouse, a 1930s driveway close to the south portico and a planting of pine trees that obscured the water views, were outlasted by traditional landscape precedents. "We worked very hard to make sure that nothing was overdone and that it didn't have a dated look – especially a 20th-century dated look," adds Graham. "The dominant feeling is one of great relaxation to me. It is very peaceful."  

 

 

 
 

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