It is a garden of gardens, one of the most significant in the United States, a large plot often described as the “crown jewel” among Washington National Cathedral’s landscaped areas. All Hallows Guild, the volunteer organization that has stewarded all 59 acres of Cathedral grounds since 1916, derives inspiration and comfort from it—as do hundreds of thousands of individuals (gardeners and admirers alike) who visit each year. For them the Bishop’s Garden represents a quiet oasis of stability at the heart of the Cathedral Close.
The quiet was broken on September 7, 2011. The gardens had emerged practically unscathed from an unprecedented double-whammy just days earlier, when the edge of Hurricane Irene brushed the District of Columbia after the August 23 earthquake, rattling loose stonework on the central tower. Efforts to stabilize the Cathedral were proceeding apace while engineers assessed the earthquake damage, and a huge crane had been brought on site to construct the enormous platform that still crowns the highest point in Washington, D.C. Suddenly, for reasons that investigators have yet to determine, the crane collapsed. Its cab flipped onto its back wheels, lifting the operator three stories high (he was not seriously hurt). Around 500 feet of heavy metal followed, abandoning a several-ton steel beam on the edge of the tower some 300 feet above…and hurtled to the ground.
With a surprising stroke of luck, the crane fell almost entirely along South Road; a number of cars were crushed, but it avoided a direct collision with the Cathedral. It was immediately obvious, however, that the Bishop’s Garden and the nearby Gift Shop at the Herb Cottage had been damaged. No one knew just how severely.
“My first worry was the Blue Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’),” said Joe Luebke, “and it broke my heart that I couldn’t immediately check on them.” Since 2003, Luebke has been the director of horticulture and grounds on the Cathedral Close. Planted in 1902 by Henry Yates Satterlee, the founding bishop of Washington, the trees were brought over on steamship from the Holy Land to represent “cedars of Lebanon.” Now 110 years old, they are irreplaceable—and Luebke still sounds relieved as he recounts learning that both were unharmed. But not every planting was so lucky. The trees destroyed by the crane’s collapse include a weeping cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’), a Japanese scholar tree (Sophora japonica), a southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), an Irish yew (Taxus baccata), a large American holly (Ilex opaca), and a California incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens). A crane pulley component said to weigh about a ton landed in a moss-lined pool: the goldfish were unharmed, despite a mighty splash that festooned nearby branches with water-dwelling plants. Stonework was damaged, too, most impressively the Romanesque “pedestrian arch” carved from Caen limestone in the twentieth century, whose original high-medieval counterpart (a “wagon arch”) survives in a courtyard near the great cedars.
The Herb Cottage, built circa 1904 as a “temporary” baptistry, lost one edge of its octagonal roof—as well as the huge fig (Ficus carica) that once grew before its walls. A much-loved bronze sculpture of a faun playing a pipe, Pan, was hit squarely on the head and is now being repaired. Covered over with dirt and mulch from a decimated tree, the entire small garden surrounding the Herb Cottage must be redesigned. Its hidden centerpiece, a sandstone mounting block from Alexandria, Va., where the first president once hitched his horse, was also damaged; and four sturdy memorial benches, snapped like matchsticks by the heavy crane, need to be replaced as well.
a garden of gardens
As the catalogue of damaged plants and structures shows, the Bishop’s Garden is no ordinary plot of earth. The project to beautify what was originally a large mass of dirt displaced by excavation gained its earliest and most significant momentum under the auspices of landscape designer Florence Brown Bratenahl, wife of Cathedral Dean George C. F. Bratenahl. Mrs. Bratenahl worked with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to lay out the entire Close. Bratenahl and Olmsted envisioned the expanse of greenery at the Cathedral’s foot to recall a medieval cloister garden, with carefully chosen plants and sculpture dispersed among separate “garden rooms.” Bratenahl and Olmsted focused their efforts on historic stonework and only six major species of plant: oak, ivy, boxwood, holly, yew, and rose. Trucks rumbled up dirt roads, no more than ten miles per hour, bearing enormous trees and other “unusual material” from remote Piedmont plantations. Some notable transplants were already hundreds of years old, each deemed to possess sufficient “character” for placement next to the Cathedral.
Keeping their eye on posterity, Bratenahl and Olmsted had created a “garden for the ages.” Tended carefully by dedicated volunteers, it flourished. But more recently, battered by time and record heavy snows, much of what made it originally so striking had begun to disappear.
Leading the Charge
One might think that the September 7 crane collapse would have been the final straw for All Hallows Guild, but nothing could be further from the truth. “We never despair,” says Carol Kelleher, her voice ringing with resolution. One of just a small handful of two-term Guild presidents, Kelleher currently helps to oversee one of the most ambitious garden-restoration plans in her organization’s 96-year history, returning the Bishop’s Garden to full glory as well as Florence Bratenahl’s original plan.
The front lines of this effort, quite fittingly, are lines. “The borders are some of the most distinctive portions of the Bishop’s Garden,” Kelleher says. “We always hear compliments about the so-called ‘blue border’ to the south, made from both blue flowers and local bluestone. Perhaps my personal favorite is the wall the crane damaged, inlaid with some beautiful ‘Gospel plaques’ from the late Middle Ages—but we’ll attend to interior boxwood borders as well.” Some of the shrubs were crushed by snowfall, literally broken apart, as she explains. Others had simply lost crispness over time or had grown out of scale. Out of respect for the historic plantings and the idea of a medieval garden, these weren’t ever clipped into shape; and given their character, any change has required a lot of consideration. The entire garden can now receive a much-needed systemic upgrade.
Peggy Steuart, a long-time governance leader at the Cathedral who has been at the center of Guild efforts for decades, conceived the plan when surveying “tremendous” snow damage in 2010. “Then and there,” she says, “I knew we had to do something major.” Three years later, she makes clear how much research the garden restoration has required. With the help of Cathedral Archivist Diane Ney and the Guild’s own meticulous records, Steuart consulted the earliest plans as well as a suite of aerial photographs and maps that record how those plans developed. “With the Guild there’s a great sense of institutional history, regarding not merely the gardens but the Cathedral and the schools,” Steuart says. “No matter what changes on the Close, we’ve made sure that the gardens are not forgotten. We take great pride in that.”
Working with landscape architect Michael Vergason, who helped the restoration of Olmsted Woods and the All Hallows Amphitheater in 2005, the restoration planners have discovered that the grassy rectangle at the center of the Bishop’s Garden was formerly shaped like the Cathedral’s nave. Over time, plantings had encroached and obscured its echo of the Cathedral’s apse. Their plans entail making that shape more apparent, moving the Prodigal Son to a new location closer to Olmsted Woods and the famed “blue border,” and returning the wheel cross to its former central location where the Prodigal Son currently holds court. New transplants will replace fallen trees, and under-landscaped areas will be beautified as intended. “We like to look at the roots of things,” Steuart says proudly, “and this restoration project is returning our most beloved garden to its roots.”
“There’s no great loss without some gain,” Kelleher agrees. “What happened with the crane only proves that. As the Cathedral building moves forward with restoration and preservation, we’ll ensure the future of its grounds.”
The Path Ahead
Luebke speaks with nothing but admiration for the restoration plan. “The members of All Hallows Guild are incredibly talented and knowledgeable. They appreciate all the subtleties that have been disrupted over time, and they’re motivated by a sense of responsibility and service.” Among the subtleties he most remembers are alternations of light and shade as one progressed through the various boxwood “rooms” of the garden. “It used to be that entering the Bishop’s Garden felt like walking into another world,” he says. “It still does, but some sense of enclosure has been lost. You enter and look over your shoulder, and you see the central tower; all the weight of that stone’s practically leaning over you. The Guild’s plans will help to fix that.”
The task of enacting those plans may seem monumental—they will take at least two years—but that is no deterrent to the Guild. Repairs to the Herb Cottage began in March. The Bishop’s Garden has resumed its schedule of tours as of mid-April. May brings Flower Mart—a festival that welcomes as many as 30,000 visitors to the Close in one weekend—and ongoing outreach about the stewardship of uniquely significant gardens and grounds. Kelleher and Steuart both feel optimistic about what they’ll be able to accomplish in a short time, much like Florence Bratenahl herself.