It took more than two years, with an eye toward historical integrity, to bring this spectacular garden back from the brink of wildness.
NOT LONG AFTER landscape architect Jason Morse set in to restore a garden lapsed into disrepair, he learned that the Seward Park property he was working on had figured prominently in Seattle horticultural history.
The clues were there. The estate is grand in size, with an Arthur Loveless-designed home and a spectacular setting on Lake Washington. New owner Phil Feldsine and his partner, Jill Hofstrand, had uncovered the formal bones of the place, including remnants of a tennis court, classic lily pond and overgrown boxwood parterres outlining old rose beds. “But the landscape itself was very sad,” says Morse, of AHBL.
Morse’s challenge lay in dealing with nasty glacial soil and serious groundwater issues while bringing the nearly 2-acre garden back from the brink of wildness. Drainage issues were pressing. And the plant palette needed updating with cultivars more adaptable than those available in the 1930s through the 1950s, when the garden was at its peak.
The stately house, designed in 1927, was recently restored to its leaded-window, peaked-roof, stuccoed elegance. Aaron Mollick of Stuart Silk Architects designed a new carriage house/garage, and Morse worked with Silk’s office to find appropriately aged-looking brick for the parking court and pathways.
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Feldsine was adamant that Morse’s design and planting honor the historical integrity of the property. “For months during the early phases of design, Phil and I peeled back the layers of the garden, trading old newspaper articles, maps and anything else we could find about the site,” says Morse. Luckily, they turned up an irrigation plan from the 1930s that delineated many of the garden’s original features.
They learned that many fundraisers, horticultural competitions and lavish garden parties were hosted by the estate’s original owners, Mr. and Mrs. Don Palmer. He was a University of Washington track star and later a prominent doctor and UW professor. Mrs. Palmer was a founding member of the Lake Washington Garden Club and the Arboretum Foundation. A story about a primrose-bedecked party in the Palmer garden ran in a 1939 edition of The Seattle Times, claiming, “it was quite the most super-extraordinary garden event ever staged in the city of Seattle.”
Inspired but undaunted by the past, Morse set in on the 2½-year project, working with Roberts Wygal as the general contractor. Existing plants were evaluated, moved, removed, pruned or replaced. A large Japanese maple was transplanted to a corner of the house, with camellias and smaller trees along the front walkway underplanted in masses of hostas, astilbes and autumn fern. In the large beds near the new parking court, Morse added native vine maples, dogwoods and sweeps of textural foliage plants.
The more formal part of the garden was to the side of the house, and here Morse renovated the lily pond, capping it in brick. Crusty old concrete pavers were replaced with handsome bluestone cut into similar sizes and shapes as the original hardscape. Morse designed sturdy pergolas to reflect the timbered architecture of the house and to support a wisteria over the lily pond. Wide new steps descend down the hillside to create a processional feel as you walk through the refurbished boxwood parterres. The hedged beds have been planted with updated versions of traditional plants, like ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas and easier-care carpet roses.
The lower garden was cleaned up, pruned and left largely intact, with the stone stairs, rose garden, fountains and terraces remaining from the original design. Beds of lavender, a vast parrotia, mahonia and stately fan palms remained from earlier days. Morse replaced the roses with newer, healthier, more fragrant cultivars. As a focal point of the lower lawn, Feldsine designed arches, as shown on early plans, to support cascades of deep pink ‘American Pillar’ roses.
Morse describes his work on the old estate as simply connecting the various axial lines to integrate the upper and lower gardens and complete what was originally envisioned. He also freshened up the planting palette, and even improved upon the original grandeur by adding an arbor-topped belvedere, or outlook, to the upper garden. This timeless-looking architectural feature offers a private, shady spot to pause and look out over the old palm trees and rose arches to the lake beyond.