There’s a special presence in the garden of architect Anthony Wilder that gives it an almost magical quality. He and his wife acquired the property about five years ago from the estate of an elderly woman who had devoted her life to the garden for 50 years. The work she put into it is evident everywhere. The three-tiered back yard is filled with old roses and azaleas, boxwood and quinces and magnificent, stately old trees: a huge willow oak, an enormous deodar cedar and a perfectly shaped Japanese katsura tree.
From the front, the house looks like a traditional Washington-area center-hall colonial. But Wilder’s subtle design details are very noticeable upon closer inspection.
The inviting flagstone front walk curves gently up to the portico, where small seats on each side of the porch—designed and constructed by Wilder—offer visitors a place to rest and enjoy the view. Japanese river stones edge the front beds. An aerial hedge of European hornbeams lines one side of the front drive, and a stepped-up stone edge leads the eye to the gate and the back yard.
When you open the front door the center-hall tradition comes to an end. “We basically broke out the whole back,” said Wilder. He removed walls and doors, repositioned part of the front staircase and built an addition on the back of the house with large glass panels stretching from one side to the other. When you walk into the house, you can see straight back into the garden.
According to Wilder, the azaleas lend a Japanese air to the garden, and his intention is to reinforce the Asian feel. As you step out the back door, there are insets of polished black Japanese river stones on either side of the brick stoop, up near the house. Columns supporting the narrow overhang match similar ones inside. The flagstones on the patio are set on the diagonal, giving the impression of a much larger space. A hot tub has been installed at the edge of the patio, surrounded by evergreens for screening. Large, irregular stepping stones with more black river stones in between them lead to the gate at the side of the house.
The serene lawn stretches to an old stone stairway, with a rose-covered arbor at the top that takes you up to the second level. Wilder has put in a row of leyland cypress along one side to enclose this garden. On the other side, he built a low stone wall to define the area. There’s a slight upward incline to the lawn at this level, ascending on up to another rose-covered arbor, which is the entry to the third garden “room.”
“This is just the most incredible piece of property,” says Wilder. “There’s just something magical about it, and you feel the essence of why she [the former owner] chose it.” Wilder has new plans for the garden, but he doesn’t want to change the spirit of what is already there.
He’s planning to transform the third level of the back yard into a Japanese-inspired “meditation room” enclosed by tall bamboo. He envisions a Japanese-style structure with a glass front, a lily pond with koi and a flagstone patio. The Japanese katsura tree that’s in the corner, an almost perfect specimen, will be left undisturbed.
Wilder is also going to take advantage of the water that runs through the property 30 inches or so underground. Water from the natural underground source will be tapped and pumped from bottom to top, creating a creek that will spill water over a series of stone steps cascading down one side of the garden to the patio below. The existing arbors will be widened and seats will be built into each to take advantage of the views from every level. On one side of the house, he’s going to allow the bamboo from the neighbor’s yard to come across onto his property, enclosing the narrow side yard where he’s planted tree peonies along with hostas, ferns and other shade-loving perennials.
Finally, Wilder is determined to observe, as far as he can, the wishes of the former owner. “Her spirit still roams the property,” he said, “and I’ve heard so much about her as a person, I’ve just got a certain resonance with her.” He’s sure she’d be happy if he “doesn’t disturb things” too much. He said it’s almost as if she said to him, “This is for you, and I know you’ll take care of it.”
Jane Berger is a Washington, DC, landscape designer and publisher of www.gardendesignonline.com. Photographer Lydia Cutter is based in Arlington, Virginia.