JARS v46n4 - Lakewold Gardens: A Living Legacy

Lakewold Gardens: A Living Legacy
Bart Ripp
Tacoma, Washington

The tough and the tender grow side-by-side in Lakewold Gardens. In a lush, trim dreamland where stone satyrs play mandolins and where the world rarely intrudes, volunteer gardeners toil. No radios blasting news. No newspaper racks, No CNN. No hordes of tourists clambering from a bus and clamoring for restrooms. Visitors to Lakewold Gardens must obey rules at this mannerly manor. No smokes, No snacks, No kids. Two tours a day, four days a week, six months a year.

This is a retreat for serious gardeners. Tags identifying the blue poppies and brawny redwoods are small and subdued. Visitors are expected to know the difference between a "Davidia involucrata" and a "Clarkia pulchella".

Before celebrating the glories of this lingering spring, take a peek at the past: Emma Alexander, mother of the steamship baron Hubbard Foster Alexander, built a cabin on Gravelly Lake in 1908. Known as H.F. Alexander, called "The Monarch of the Pacific," he was called "Hubby" by his wife, Ruth. The Alexanders acquired adjoining property and hired gardeners to lay out the estate. Ruth Alexander, who had a climbing rose named for her in 1935, anointed the property Inglewood.

The Alexanders are believed to have hired the eminent John Charles Olmsted, partner with his brother, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., in America's paramount landscape architecture firm, to work on Inglewood. A lattice fence, bolstered by cobblestone pillars salvaged from Gravelly Lake, runs the property's perimeter. The fence, interrupted by wrought-iron gates patrolled by tin eagles, is thought to be a relic of Olmsted's effort.

From 1924 to 1938, the maturing property, still known as Inglewood, was owned by Major Everett Gallup Griggs, president of St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company, and his wife, Grace. Grace Griggs renamed the property Lakewold, a Middle English term for "lake woods." In 1938, Griggs sold the estate to nephew Corydon Wagner, who was a lumber executive and good golfer, and his elegant wife, Eulalie. The Wagners transformed Lakewold from a nice place into paradise.

In 1958, the Wagners hired Thomas Church to make Lakewold one of America's great gardens. A tall, refined man who wore straw hats, khaki clothes, scuffed moccasins and carried a leather satchel pocked with travel decals, Church had a flexible, humane approach. He was known for his work at General Motors Corporation in Detroit, Longwood Gardens in Delaware, Sunset magazine headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., and college campuses at Cal-Berkeley and Stanford.

The Wagners ordered 200 Douglas firs chopped down to open the property and muffle the jungle. Navigated by Church, powered by Eulalie Wagner, Lakewold's expansive connection to nature began to take shape.

Come explore the 279 varieties of species and hybrid rhododendrons, the 6 different maples and, said head gardener Greg Diment, "God knows how many azaleas."

Lakewold is home to the third-largest Acer palmatum , that most airy and delicate of maples, in Washington. In New York City, the Paulownia tomentosa punches through sidewalk cracks. In the American South, it is a roadside weed, nearly as noxious as kudzu. At Lakewold, it is the empress tree, with regal purple blooms.

Lakewold is home to the largest Yoshino cherry tree in Washington. This species rings the Tidal Basin of the District of Columbia, D.C., making the other Washington a delirious tourist destination every April.

Bob Mooney of Fox Island, one of many volunteers who tend Lakewold, credits Major Griggs for arranging a shipment of these cherry trees from Japan around 1930. "I think they might have fallen off the truck," Mooney said, winking. "All but this one died."

Just west of the Wagner house, which is not open to the public, is a Rhododendron yakushimanum , found in its native state of Yakushima south of Japan. It blooms a pale pink, opening to pure white. "In 1953, Betty Windsor became Elizabeth II," Mooney said. "That year, two British botanists were cruising Yakushima. Being British, they did the natural thing. They dug it up and stole it. They sent it to the queen in honor of her coronation. "The queen sent it to Kew Gardens in London. The gardeners there quit and appropriated this one. Mrs. Wagner planted it in 1956. These yarns have been bequeathed, Like old hoes, to the Friends of Lakewold, the non-profit group that received the property, in trust, from Eulalie Wagner in 1987.

Carroll O'Rourke, a retired Weyerhaeuser executive who serves on the group's board, likes to show visitors a wishing well adorned with eagles and griffins. "Mrs. Wagner bought it at auction from Sotheby's in New York," O'Rourke said. "When it arrived by train down at Union Station, Mrs. Wagner had it brought out here in a taxi."

Lakewold Gardens, Gravelly Lake,
Lakewold Gardens, Gravelly Lake, Washington
Photo by Jean Minch

A herb garden, of sweet woodruff and pineapple mint, of yarrow and tarragon and horehound, bursts around the wishing well every spring. Down the path from these 17 different herbs is a singular grave. "Champion Woogie of High Ridge," a dog belonging to Major Griggs, was buried beneath a black bamboo in 1930.

Stroll along the lake to a massive redwood. Eulalie Wagner didn't want to prune the tree, for it shielded her from viewing, across the lake, a house whose looks she did not like.

Up on the northeast bend of the 10-acre estate is Corydon Wagner's favorite spot. He was called "Cordy", so this is Cordy's garden; nothing hokey like Cordy's Corner. A lifelong lumber man who started as a plant time keeper in 1919 and died in 1979 as one of the world's most innovative timber executives, Cordy Wagner carried tree seeds in his pockets. He liked to stroll his hidden corner in the evening, emptying his pockets. A busy grove of maples, pines, cedars, sequoias, willows and an earnest monkey's tree have grown where Cordy Wagner once walked.

There is one dove tree. Davidia involucrata has a bract like a poinsettia, white as a clean handkerchief. "It's not a leaf," Bob Mooney said. "It's a leaf-like organ. It has no known physiological function. It just looks nice."

Eulalie Wagner would approve. Her concept of Lakewold was an outdoors house, a series of rooms furnished to express her profound feelings about nature. Her favorite spot is called the Overlook. Lewisia, a prim but tough little alpine flower named for Meriweather Lewis, who explored these parts before there were malls or l-5, blooms besides Clarkia pulchella , named for his exploratory partner, the daring Virginian William Clark.

The Overlook, bursting with clematis, huckleberries and sword ferns, is a Northwest alcove where you can stop and sit on a wood chair with a squirrel carved on the back. "This is where Mrs. Wagner liked to come and pick flowers for her black-tie dinner parties," Mooney said. "I was amazed to hear that she was from Seattle. I thought she was a Southern lady."

"She was a very handsome woman with a soft voice," O'Rourke said. "She knew every plant in this garden."

"She could whack holy hell out of a golf ball," Mooney said.

Near the hedge where stone satyrs play mandolins is a fountain where water flows from a lion's mouth. During the cold snap of December 1990, the lion's head froze and cracked. An omen. Eulalie Wagner died April 9, 1991. She was 86.

Just past the Overlook, where she stood sentry in a floppy straw hat and her flower basket, is a Styrax obassia , the fragrant snowbell from the Orient. When Mrs. Wagner bought it at a Seattle nursery, the fragrant snowbell refused to fit into the back seat of her car. She tied a knot in the slender trunk. The tree, abloom with white clusters each June, seems much like Mrs. Wagner and her Lakewold - tough, tender and dependable.

Bart Ripp is the weekly garden columnist for The Tacoma News Tribune.