I’m early for my appointment with Steve and Mary Caroline Stewart. I don’t mind, though. It’s the Historic District of Charleston.
I enjoy a walk around the block until I approach the Montagu Street residence. Solid walls enclose a four-story house built in the early 1800s on 1.25 acres, one of the largest residential properties in downtown Charleston.
The gardeners are at work on a Sunday. I’m about to go to the front door when I realize the gardeners are the Stewarts, who are known to be hands-on when it comes to maintaining their property.
They purchased the house in 2004 and later the house next to it, which, according to Steve, was part of the original property. They razed the second house to make room for the spacious, ornate gardens that landscape architect Sheila Wertimer would design in 2005.
Mary Caroline was involved in the design process, providing copious lists of plants that she wanted to use. “I wanted pink to be the major color in the garden in addition to parterres and an axis design,” Mary Caroline says. “There’s color throughout the gardens at all times of the year.”
When the gate closes behind me, the sounds of Charleston fade away like stepping into another world. Water is a primary factor that contributes to this sense of privacy, and there are several fountains to be discovered throughout the gardens. Not only does the trickling water screen outside sounds, but it also lends a cooler feel to each outdoor room.
“In the early 1800s,” Steve says, “bragging rights went to the owner with the coolest house, not necessarily the biggest.”
And the Stewarts carried this concept into the garden, developing several sitting areas that take advantage of breezes and shade in addition to the water features.
“The gardens are designed to mimic the style of the house,” Steve says. “The front of the house is formal, but as you walk to the rear of the house, it becomes informal. In the same respect, the gardens are more formal near the house and become informal the further you walk.”
Much of the gardens are defined by straight lines and geometric parterres. The paths lead from one outdoor room to another. Sculptures, fountains or plantings direct my views with each discovery of a new room.
Oystershell paths originally were proposed to reflect old Charleston, but the Stewarts felt like that would require too much maintenance and be an inappropriate material near the pool. Instead, full brick paths were constructed on a sand base with swept mortar, but the loose seams and shifting bricks made it difficult to clean. Later, brick paths were mortared onto a concrete base.
As we walk out of the main garden next to the house, we enter the croquet court: a large square of manicured St. Augustine turf that serves many functions, such as weddings or fundraising events. Steve prefers to mow and edge the lawn rather than have the gardener do it. On one end is the largest of the water features: a 20-foot-long reflecting pool.
The poolhouse is in the corner of the property, farthest from the house but designed to architecturally reflect it. The area is surrounded by large beds of colorful annuals and perennials and statuesque Japanese maples. The poolhouse contains a kitchen and eating area with views all around the property, including the pool with an infinity edge. The cabinets were milled from sycamores that were removed during excavation, and the floor is visually anchored in the center with an antique millstone. The domed ceiling is a parabolic reflector that echoes back sound when I stand on the millstone.
We walk along the back of the property toward the carriage house. Originally built for horses, the carriage house is Greek Revival architecture and was no longer structurally sound. The Stewarts reinforced the infrastructure before converting it into a utility area with an apartment above it. Steve shows me how some of the original mortar has flaked away to reveal sand behind it, explaining mortar was expensive during the time of original construction and sand was often used to cut costs.
We step through a vine-covered arbor into the cutting garden that is next to the carriage house, an informal garden filled with a variety of perennials, espaliered magnolias on the back wall and Mary Caroline’s favorite oakleaf hydrangeas. This is where Mary Caroline likes to experiment with different plants, and it’s such a refreshing change from the formality in the rest of the gardens.
We approach the back of the house from the cutting garden. At one time, this was the work area that mostly was exposed soil and no landscaping that the Stewarts have transformed into a welcome area with mature crape myrtles and manicured turf. This area is contained by the tack house and kitchen house on each side.
The kitchen house (Federal architecture) was built in the early to mid-1800s with a Greek Revival portico added in 1850. It served as the slave dormitory, where cooking and chores were done, but now is leased to tenants. Steve says, “Many of our renters are college students that enjoy the surroundings but also appreciate the security of the walled property.”
Steve points out a conscious design detail that I failed to notice. “There’s very little sign of the 21st century in the landscape because all meters, all electrical boxes and all pipes are hidden.”
He shows me the utility room in the single-story tack house that contains the gas-powered backup generator and all the meters. Downtown Charleston typically has low water pressure due to the age of the municipal pipes, but the tack room contains a booster pump to supply the property all the water pressure that’s needed.
There are no air-conditioning units to hide since the house is heated and cooled by geothermal energy. The geothermal system is expensive but, as Steve points out, paid for itself in about six years, cutting their annual energy costs by about two-thirds.
We walk along the narrow portion of the property alongside the house, where citrus trees grow in planters, and circle back to the main garden on the other side of the house, where we started. We climb the circular staircase that takes us to the porch, where a breeze cools us down.
From this vantage point, we can see much of the gardens accentuated by stately Italian cypress and fruiting American hollies. This is one of the coolest gardens around the city.
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A view of the gardens from the second-story balcony on Montagu Street.×
Many of the views include sculpture or water, guiding guests through the gardens.×
The kitchen house and former stables have been refurbished as living spaces.×
The checkered entrance invites guests to the Montagu St. home.×
The family dog sniffs around the ajuga groundcover in the informal cutting garden.×