Charles Gillette: Gardens in Virginia
Much of the credit for Agecroft Hall’s elegant gardens belongs to the designer who originally laid them out: Charles Gillette. Beginning his career in New York, Gillette was a landscape architect best known for his work in the South during much of the first half of the 20th century. His gardens can be found at many Virginia colleges and universities, corporations, and urban housing developments in Richmond. Gillette also designed gardens and outdoor spaces at many large, private estates, including Agecroft Hall. In his day, having a Gillette garden was considered a status symbol – but even today real estate listings boast about Gillette gardens.
At Agecroft Hall, Gillette implemented many of his usual techniques to create the layout of our beautiful gardens. Gillette like to create “rooms,” using masonry and native plant material to form separate, distinct spaces in the larger, overall, garden space. A prime example of this is our sunken garden. Reminiscent of the garden at Hampton Court Palace, the garden is hedged by boxwoods planted on masonry shelves. At the center stands a circular pool, a common element in Gillette designs to draw visitors into the gardens.
Gillette liked to create structures in the garden using any leftover building materials. At Agecroft Hall, he used the ancient timbers from the original manor house to build the Banqueting House overlooking the meadow and the river beyond. He also added a gazebo at one entrance to the sunken garden. While highly decorative, these structures also serve an important function for visitors strolling through the gardens by providing shade from the summer heat and cover from sudden rainstorms.
One of Gillette’s guiding principles was that landscapes should connect people to nature. As a result, he deliberately designed the setting to minimize the impact of automobiles and roads. Prior to becoming a museum and, therefore, needing a larger parking area, Agecroft Hall had a long, meandering drive that delivered guests to our outer courtyard where they would be dropped off before the car passed into our inner courtyard, out of view or parked in the garage, in what is now our Visitors’ Center. The experience of driving into Agecroft allowed both guests and homeowners alike to make a grand entrance into the estate. Luckily our front lawn is still vast and our drive somewhat winding, to create a spectacular first impression of the house and grounds.
The gardens at Agecroft Hall are a delight to see any time of year. Over the course of nearly a century, the gardens have evolved, thanks to decades of hard work by Bessie Williams Morton and a series of dedicated horticulturalists. However, the structural design first set out by Charles Gillette remains unaltered. He created a framework inspired by English garden design that showcased native Virginia plants to create a landscape that complements our beautiful manor house. Please come visit our gardens this summer to see them for yourself.