If These Trees Could Talk
APR. 20, 2021
Wandering through three Annapolis gardens on a journey through time
Gardens are more than noble trees, graceful paths, and colorful flowers. Heart-wrenching tales of love, hate, suffering, and ultimately death lay beneath and even within a garden’s seemingly innocent beauty. Since its founding in 1649, Annapolis has served as much more than a bustling port; its attraction as a cultural and social hub became the backdrop for many of America’s most important political events that impacted this city down to its roots, which have grown deep and strong. Along our streets and past its gardens have strolled some of the great names in American history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Carroll, and Samuel Chase, among many others. Their homes in other parts of the country reflect a deep commitment to architectural style and impeccable gardening, and the places they and others lived while in Annapolis are no different.
Within its current boundaries, at least a hundred buildings dating back to the 1700s still stand, mostly on their original plots, surrounded by some of the same trees, boxwoods and rhododendrons that gave these structures their indelible character more than 300 years ago. History is not merely a chronology of brick-and-mortar-based events; the very soil, trees, and plants that have been nurtured and protected for decades—in some cases, centuries—have stories all their own. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than within the green leaves and above the deep roots of the Government House Gardens, the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College, and the Charles Carroll House Gardens.
Like politics, horticulture has an extensive and fascinating history. Enclosed gardens have been uncovered dating back to approximately 10,000 BC. While many famously stood out as unique, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (900 BC)—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and Ptolemy II’s “Garden of Egypt,” cultivated on land reclaimed by draining Lake Moeris (300 BC) The Romans created garden-design manuals in order to replicate their rather sophisticated methods. Ever since the genesis of humans sculpting nature in order to impose a cultural stamp on their surroundings, ornamental gardens have generally exhibited four prevailing characteristics or themes: First, an expression of beauty; second, a display of a society’s taste and style; third, an expression of philosophy, such a Classicism or Romanticism; and fourth, a display of status. Expand
The Government House and Gardens are home to Maryland’s Governor and First Lady, and boast lush magnolias, willow oaks, yew, firs, boxwood hedges, azaleas, and rhododendrons.
Our first stop is the magnificent Government House and Gardens, the residence of Maryland’s governor since Oden Bowie in 1870, the year it was completed. Situated on land between Church Circle and State Circle—the location of the Maryland State House—Government House is graced by two acres of luxuriant gardens behind an elegantly wrought iron fence and several original gates surrounding the property; while inside, the wrought iron benches placed selectively throughout the grove date back to 1924.
The layout “creates a garden to be enjoyed by the passersby,” according to Jay Graham, the landscape architect. Lush magnolias, willow oaks, yew, firs, boxwood hedges, azaleas, and rhododendrons are visible along much of the perimeter; these specimens were carefully chosen to illustrate the plants most commonly found in Maryland. Three beehives maintained within the flowerbed garden produce the famous “Governor’s Gold” honey, a local delicacy.
From 1935–36, a major facelift of the building took place along with a final phase of additional construction in 1947 that gave the home its current appearance. In 1990, the century-old gardens underwent another restoration when Governor William Donald Schaeffer and his first lady, Hilda Mae Snoops, sought to remake the outdoor courtyard into the focal point of the mansion. Jay Graham worked with sculptor Lyle Beddes to design a Victorian-style “Annapolis Fountain” incorporating sculptures of animals and plants identified with the Chesapeake Bay, such as blue crabs and terrapins, and Maryland-specific references such as the Baltimore Orioles. The fountain was erected where it could be viewed from Church Circle, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, and the state legislative offices. In keeping with Maryland’s tireless efforts to be financially and ecologically efficient, the privately funded fountain recycles the water it uses. Within the garden, the original paths were reimagined using a butterfly pattern inspired by the walkways of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. These paths guide the visitor along the formal flowerbeds planted in cannas, salvia, vinca, and the ever-popular marigolds and petunias.
St. John’s College campus sits on 35 acres and played an important role during the Revolutionary War, as both a meeting site for the Sons of Liberty (at the Liberty Tree, which sadly fell in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd) and hospital encampment for thousands of French soldiers who fought for the American cause (a bas relief monument still stands on campus honoring the French who died on site).
Our second stop, the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College, sits on 35 beautiful acres and is just a few blocks away from Government House. In 1696, the King William’s School was established where St. John’s College now stands. On the grounds stood the now-famous Annapolis Liberty Tree, a noble tulip poplar, and one of many Liberty Trees scattered throughout the 13 colonies that served as meeting sites for the “Sons of Liberty,” disgruntled colonists seeking redress, or “liberty,” from the injustices of English rule. Of particular concern to them was the Stamp Act of 1765 that taxed all printed material in the colonies. By 1766, two famous Annapolitans joined the ranks of the Sons of Liberty—Samuel Chase and William Paca, both of whom eventually joined Charles Carroll as signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. What treasonous conversations must have gone on beneath that 120-foot tall tree.
In 1781—five months after the Marquis de Lafayette encamped with American soldiers in Annapolis from March 12 to April 6—roughly 4,000 French soldiers fighting alongside the United States set up a military hospital on the school’s grounds, not far from the Liberty Tree. The French lost over a thousand men during America’s fight for independence, with dozens of them buried right under the campus ballfields between the main office buildings and College Creek. Little do today’s students know that when they spread out their spring blankets on the grass to catch up on their reading while soaking up the sun, they could be sitting above makeshift graves containing French soldiers who died so that America might be free. The hospital’s survivors soon marched on to Yorktown to fight with General George Washington’s Continental Army that forced the British to surrender on October 19, 1781.
Only two years later, in 1783, the Annapolis Liberty Tree again stood witness to history as George Washington resigned his military commission before Congress inside the Maryland State House. In 1911, the graves of the French soldiers were honored with a monument erected along the banks of College Creek. The bas relief of a mourning maiden stands on a plinth, nestled in a grotto of tall firs and redbuds, surrounded by honeysuckle and a bed of perennial flowers. While the monument still overlooks the sunny, campus meadow, the beloved Liberty Tree that stood sentinel over those unmarked graves for over 200 years, succumbed to Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
There is, however, a happy footnote to the Liberty Tree’s demise; in 1889, St. John’s College had arborists create a scion, a tiny grafted tree with identical DNA that was planted on the college’s grounds. Since then, over 200 seedlings grown from seeds taken from the 1889 scion have been planted throughout the state and, once flourishing, sold to the public so that Marylanders can own and replant a piece of American history right in their own gardens. This way, Annapolis’ Liberty Tree lives on, as does the nation it represented.
The Charles Carroll House Gardens (seen in the foreground with two distinctive chimneys) features vast, terraced gardens, hedges, and trees. The Colonial-era mansion now shares is location on the bank of Spa Creek with St. Mary’s Parish and schools (which also manages the property).
Our third and final stop is the Charles Carroll House Gardens, on the banks of Spa Creek. The plot of land on which today’s house and garden stand began as a modest farm with a small dwelling when purchased in 1687 by the first of four Charles Carrolls. He lived in three separate homes on the site, the last of which, constructed by combining the first two, contained 29 rooms and served as the birthplace, in 1737, for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the son of Charles Carroll of Annapolis and the grandson of Charles Carroll the Settler. The expansion of the house continued until 1790, at which time the imposing four-story brick structure now visible was completed.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence, became one of the richest landowners in the colonies. Even today, his home and gardens reflect his wealth, taste, and style. He confidently demonstrated the qualities of leadership both in life and on land, transforming his home into a palatial estate by his affluence and stature. Carroll’s grand design had two components: First, he wanted the view of Spa Creek and the waterfront below his house to appear closer to the mansion; second, he wanted the Carroll House to seem even bigger when looking toward it from the water. The scale was everything, so to achieve these goals, he enlisted optical illusions; geometric designs that fool the eye.
Over a thousand West African slaves owned by his family implemented Carroll’s architectural vision by carving five elegant, terraced gardens arranged in an abutting triangular design using the width of the grand, brick house as the base of the highest right triangle. The original, 400-foot-long stone seawall—still there today—supported the layered components. As a result, the terraced gardens cascade from the top level, bringing the Creek into view “closer” to the home; while, looking toward the estate from Spa Creek, the mansion appeared farther away and thus much larger than it was in reality.
Archeological digs in the gardens and the house’s foundations have revealed religious and social artifacts that once were cherished possessions of the enslaved laborers who brought Carroll’s dream to life. The beauty of the triangular terraces today remains, in many ways, a tribute to not only their unimaginable suffering as slaves but also to their impressive landscaping skills.
Carroll’s architectural sleight-of-hand served another purpose; it augmented the property’s strengths while disguising its deficiencies. According to the Architectural Institute of America, “The four decreasing widths of the terraces and the retaining wall hide the ground floor, the least attractive part of the house, and distort the distance to the house…From inside the gardens, foreshortening of the terraces and framing of the waterside…make the distant shore look closer, opening the views between the house and the far shore of Spa Creek.”
Today, while traveling by boat beneath the Eastport Bridge or by car over it, gaze to the west; the Carroll House stands shoulder to shoulder with St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Look carefully, and the illusions remain—the vast, terraced lawns draw the eye toward the distant mansion.
Charles Carroll’s home is one of only 15 owned by signers of the Declaration of Independence that still stand. Not only did the unique layout of the gardens reflect Carroll’s wealth and importance, the house and its gardens also symbolize how much he was willing to sacrifice for the cause of freedom, and by extension, how much he would not have accomplished had the British won. After the Revolutionary War ended, Carroll went on to serve simultaneously in both the Maryland legislature and the United States House of Representatives from 1789–92. He laid the cornerstone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827. Finally, at 91 years of age, he was invited to attend the first Democratic Party convention that nominated Andrew Jackson for re-election. (Carroll didn’t attend and died shortly after that). In 1825, his son, Charles Carroll of Homewood, died. After the war, his remains were interred in the gardens, the only Carroll to be buried on the site.
The property was passed down from Charles Carroll of Homewood to his daughter and granddaughters until it was conveyed to the Redemptorists in 1852, after which it began a series of religious affiliations that continue to this day (the home has been managed since 2017 by the St. Mary’s Parish). During this time, the home lost the original frame house that dated back to 1687 and underwent a series of major exterior and interior renovations from 1983 to 2001 as well as another round of construction in recent years. The garden has similarly undergone a continuous transformation, but even today it continues to reflect the distinct personality of its original family.
Seldom does one encounter so much history and beauty in such a relatively short walk. How many times have you walked from Spa Creek to College Creek, right past the Carroll House, the Government House, and St. John’s College, without realizing what truly momentous events took place there? The next time you stroll this revolutionary path, pause for a moment and allow yourself to be mesmerized by the dazzling array of plants, trees, shrubs, and mosses lying in perfectly manicured gardens on the grounds of some of this city’s great historical properties, beckoning to residents and tourists alike.
You see, the compelling history of Annapolis does not exist solely in its physical structures—its churches, houses, inns, taverns, streets, schools, and parks. Often overlooked, but equally important, is the history on and in the land. While creating breathtaking gardens takes time and effort, these gardens remind us of the interdependence of humans and nature. Sometimes we learn a great deal from what is removed from the land, such as historical artifacts, while other times, the lessons of time are taught by what remains living on top of the property. It is up to all of us to continue to preserve the deep roots of our nation’s past, found not only in the history books but still growing in the soil.