Pavilion gardens

The University’s uncommon space

By Julian Smith (Biology '94)
Pavilion Gardens.

Pavilion Gardens.

When students first set foot within the cloistered spaces of the pavilion gardens, spiced with the scent of lilacs or the indigo accent of larkspur, they often feel the thrill of having found somewhere off-limits. The gardens — there are 10 to choose from, each with a different green essence within its serpentine walls — can make any visitor who opens their small white gates feel like they’ve discovered something secret and special. For some, they become an important part of the U.Va. experience, a place to relax and regroup from the hectic pace of university life. Until the day they leave Charlottesville, the idea of having an entire, meticulously tended plot to themselves in the midst of a community of tens of thousands remains a little unbelievable.

The pavilion gardens have been an essential part of the University’s sense of place since Jefferson first sketched out his Academical Village, but their caretakers face a host of modern concerns. Decades of heavy use and competing versions of historic interpretation have taken their toll. Today, nothing less than a full restoration is under way, and millions of dollars are being raised to pay the bill. And even though a garden is never finished — like anything living, it is perpetually a work in progress — a dedicated group of people are working to ensure that these places to learn and heal will endure.

In the 18th century, gardens provided food as well as a place for relaxation. “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” The effort and attention he put into his gardens at Monticello reveal how highly he valued the combination of aesthetic pleasure, utility and space for reflection they provided. Still, in the spirit of democracy, he intended for the residents of each of the University’s pavilions to design, plant and maintain their own gardens.

Through the 19th century, some of the pavilion gardens were carefully cultivated and tended. Others served more functional purposes, such as penning animals and smoking meat. Most fell into disrepair by the early 1900s.

In 1948, the Garden Club of Virginia offered to bring them back to life. Landscape architect Alden Hopkins, already known for his work at Williamsburg, was selected to head the project. Using period gardens such as those at Monticello and Williamsburg as models, along with gardening books from Jefferson’s collection, Hopkins drew up plans. Only plants known and grown in America by 1826, the time of Jefferson’s death, were used. Hopkins supervised the restoration of the West Gardens, which were opened to the public for the first time in 1952. After Hopkins’ death in 1960, his assistant Donald Parker finished the East Gardens, which were dedicated in 1964.

Some changes have been made over the years; six privies are now garden sheds, for example. In 1987, the Grounds were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list; in 2002, President John T. Casteen III joined Garden Club of Virginia representatives and other officials to plant two pink dogwoods in the garden of Pavilion VIII to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the West Gardens being open to the public.

In a sense, then, the pavilion gardens are not Jefferson’s. Although gardens were integral to his vision of the University — his plan detailed a set of buildings “arranged around an open square of grass and trees” that would “afford the quiet retirement so friendly to study” — the third U.S. president left the spaces between the brick serpentine walls blank in his plans. Instead, the pavilion gardens are a 50-year-old interpretation of the 1700s, re-creations that might have existed in Jefferson’s day.

The person most responsible for interpreting this vision, of reimagining what might have been and what would best fit in the future, is Mary Hughes, the University’s landscape architect. A 1988 graduate of U.Va.’s master’s program in landscape architecture, Hughes was hired by the Office of the Architect of the University in 1996. “I was lured by the thought that maybe I would find myself eating lunch in one of the gardens again,” she says.

Her job is complex, with responsibilities that range far beyond the domain of the gardens. She consults with designers on large-scale building projects around Grounds, from the new sports arena to the forthcoming South Lawn project. She also juggles historic preservation issues and community outreach. As the University expands into the 21st century, Hughes’ office is working to finalize a preservation master plan that will guide future development while preserving U.Va.’s historic setting and character.

“For the first time, we’re looking beyond Jefferson to think about the buildings and landscapes created since his time,” Hughes says. “It’s a broader view of our cultural heritage.”

This new outlook colors the office’s approach to the pavilion gardens. “We’re going back to the original designs of the 1950s, which we now recognize as a historic layer in their own right,” Hughes says. “Over the years, that approach has gotten diluted. We’re trying to reinstate the purity of the original concept.”

Many changes have been made to the gardens since their resurrection in the 1950s and ’60s, including the introduction of modern hybrid plants for reasons of easier maintenance, improved disease resistance and better bloom quality. Often, one hybrid replaced numerous “Colonial revival” species. In the upper garden of Pavilion I, for example, Delaware White azaleas replaced rhododendrons, cherry laurels, and two species of viburnum.

“The recognition of the ‘Colonial revival’ garden as a bona fide historic layer is relatively new,” says Hughes, “so it’s not surprising that earlier generations of University staff didn’t pay as close attention to the original design concept as we do today.”

When a tree or plant dies, her office consults the 1950s drawings to make sure that any replacement is faithful to the original vision. On a larger scale, when an entire garden is rehabilitated, “we make every effort to restore the heirloom or native varieties that were specified originally,” she explains. The result will be more authentic gardens, in the 1950s Colonial-revival sense, with greater botanical diversity and seasonal interest.

The garden of Pavilion III was the first to be restored by the Office of the Architect, in collaboration with the Garden Club of Virginia. Workers replaced path edgings, installed subsurface drainage to reduce erosion, and improved handicap accessibility. The garden was finished last year, and Hughes already has her sights set on the garden of Pavilion IX.

“The biggest challenge is just the wear and tear the gardens get from overuse,” she continues. While they don’t receive as much traffic as the Lawn, the pavilion gardens still need constant maintenance. “People do what tourists do anywhere,” Hughes says, describing a list of concerns that ranges from people leaving dogs in a garden while they run to the Corner for lunch to trash left by parties and flower beds trampled by school groups.

Add to that the everyday preoccupations involved in keeping a garden alive and beautiful — fertilizing, raking, weeding, repairing benches and gates, clearing paths, and fighting plant diseases — and you have a to-do list a mile long. “The gardens have some bumps and bruises that need to be addressed,” Hughes admits. “We’re ticking them off one by one.”

Funding is an even bigger concern. The ongoing state budget crunch has meant numerous cutbacks. “Budgets shrink but the landscape complexity keeps increasing,” she says, “so you’re trying to do more with every dollar. Inevitably, that bleeds time and attention from the pavilion gardens, which are very maintenance intensive.”

The Garden Endowment Project, begun in the late 1990s, could change all that. The goal is $5 million: $500,000 for each of the 10 gardens.

A horticultural staff of five would be ideal, Hughes says. Currently, Facilities Management assigns a crew of three full-time workers to the pavilion gardens, depending on budgeting, plus seasonal hires during the summer months. There aren’t enough resources yet to manage volunteers.

Reuben Rainey, a professor of landscape architecture at U.Va., is doing as much as anyone to get the word out. In a series for public television titled GardenStory, Rainey and Rebecca Frischkorn, a Charlottesville landscape designer, are showing how gardens can transform lives. “We’re trying to expand people’s awareness of what gardens are,” he says, “to show that they’re not just places to grow flowers and vegetables.”

Four half-hour episodes, scheduled to air in June on public television stations in Charlottesville and Richmond, describe outstanding gardens in Virginia, West Virginia and Massachusetts. A chief concern is how they have inspired their designers and visitors, from scientists to artists. The episode on U.Va.’s Lawn and pavilion gardens, titled “The Garden as Classroom,” shows how essential the green spaces are to University life through conversations with students, faculty and alumni.

“Jefferson was a classicist,” Rainey says. “He’s part of the tradition that goes back to Plato’s Academy and ancient Athens.” Democratic symbolism is everywhere, starting with the shared common space of the Lawn, which serves both practical and symbolic functions, from impromptu touch football games to the ritual of Final Exercises. “The gardens work in concert with the Lawn — they complement it.”

Jefferson’s decision to leave the details of the pavilion gardens in the hands of its residents is another example of the egalitarian society he hoped to create in miniature. The Lawn and gardens should be viewed in the context of Jefferson’s original concept of the Academical Village, Rainey says: students and faculty living together around a common space — the Lawn — and a common repository of knowledge — the Rotunda.

Nearly two centuries later, all that green is still open to everyone. The gardens are used for many purposes by a diverse crowd, not all of whom live or work at the University. “People in the neighborhood are free to use them,” Rainey says. “Families of patients undergoing intensive care at the U.Va. hospital come to the gardens for stress relief.”

Some couples even choose to tie the knot in the gardens. Rainey himself booked the garden behind Pavilion VII for his daughter’s wedding reception. Art classes find subject matter here, sketching the many species of flowering plants. Landscape architecture students also use the gardens as a classroom, learning plant identification and different aspects of design.

“I think U.Va. may be unique in how the gardens are integrated into student life,” says Rainey. “Universities around the country have wonderful botanical gardens” — he mentions Duke, his own alma mater — “but they’re often off to one side. The U.Va. gardens are closer to the center of things.”

Having green space at the heart of a community can be quite beneficial. According to U.Va. psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we’re drawn to living things and environments that have open space, plants and water, like savannahs and grasslands.

This urge has been termed “biophilia” — literally the “love of nature” — and was popularized in biologist E.O. Wilson’s 1984 book of the same name. Psychologists call these feelings of safety and vantage “refuge” and “prospect,” respectively. “The gardens are wonderful in terms of refuge,” Haidt adds, “while the steps of the Rotunda are better in terms of prospect.”

Being outside is good for us, according to psychological research examining the effects of spending time in nature as compared to man-made environments. Spending time in a natural setting seems to calm and recharge the mind, both because of what it offers and what it doesn’t.

Unvarying environments tend to be boring, Haidt explains, while busy or intense settings, such as sporting events or final exams, capture your attention so completely that there’s no room for reflection. Natural settings like gardens are somewhere in between, he says. “They’re beautiful but don’t demand our full attention.”

“In many ways, the ability to pay attention is like a muscle,” Haidt adds, “and it can get tired.” In the high-pressure environment of college, places like the pavilion gardens serve an important purpose. They give students and faculty a place to refresh themselves, and might even foster happiness and healing.

Haidt and Rainey have teamed up to test that hypothesis with a study involving hospital patients. They will take a group of patients outdoors and put half in gardens and half in other locations. The subjects will be asked to do various tasks, including writing about traumatic events they’ve experienced. Researchers will monitor the patients’ physiological signals, such as cortisol levels, associated with stress and depression. The patients’ writings will also be evaluated by graduate students for emotional depth, honesty, conceptual complexity, insight and optimism. “Our prediction is that, if gardens are catalysts for healing, then the people there will do a better job of writing, and they will be healthier down the road,” says Haidt.

Was Jefferson aware of these healing properties when he planned the University? Haidt, who has studied Jefferson’s writing extensively, thinks so. “He was a brilliant intuitive psychologist — he had great insight into emotions and the mind.”

This article originally appeared in the summer 2005 issue of Virginia: The University of Virginia Alumni News.