March 11, 2015

Digging a Garden, Unearthing a Treasure: The Rediscovery of Dunaway Gardens

  • By: Sophia Dembling
By Sophia Dembling

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Hetty Jane blasted the Great Pool out of granite as a swimming pool. It has several tiers of cascading water.

It all started with a little recreational trespassing.

"Everybody trespassed," says Jennifer Bigham. "Gazillions of people had done the same thing."

So she and her husband, just to satisfy their curiosity, climbed over a little fence to explore the ruins of Dunaway Gardens in Newnan, Georgia.

At first glance the property looked like little more than kudzu and swamp. But Bigham, who lives in nearby Peachtree City, saw magic.

"I fell in love with it almost immediately," she says. "It had an ethereal beauty. It was really quiet, there weren’t any birds, light filtered through the overgrowth. It looked like the secret garden in the children's book."

Dunaway Gardens didn't start as a secret. The 25 acres of hanging and sunken gardens, ponds and paths and rock walls, a tea room, lodging house, and 1,000-seat amphitheater were created by Hetty Jane Dunaway, an actress on the Chautauqua circuit in the 1920s. When her husband, booking agent Wayne P. Sewell, decided they should move from Atlanta to his family farm, the story goes, he appeased his unenthusiastic wife by telling her she could do whatever she wanted with the property.

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(Right) Since finding camellia sinensis growing on the property, the Bighams' son Josh has been working on producing plants with the goal of producing organic tea to sell.

So Hetty Jane hired landscapers, stonemasons, and gardeners, and created the gardens not just for their beauty, but also as a backdrop to a theatrical training center. The center opened in 1934; it trained performers, producers, and directors, and staged productions. At one time, Sarah Ophelia Colley -- a.k.a. Minnie Pearl -- was head instructor at the drama school, and Roy and Walt Disney and Tallulah Bankhead were frequent visitors.

But after Hetty Jane's death in 1961, the garden was left to the mercies of time and kudzu. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, and was owned by a group that called itself a restoration group, says Bigham, though no restoration occurred. From time to time someone would purchase the property, but then decide it was too much and ownership would revert to the group.

After that first visit, Bigham couldn’t get that garden off her mind: "I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it."

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(Left) The Amphitheater stage is where weddings, fashion shows, dinners, musical productions, and many other events take place. (Right) The Bighams' son Ethan and daughter-in-law Erica at the Great Pool.

So in June 2000, she and her husband bought the garden and another surrounding 135 acres as a buffer zone. They planned to build a little house on the property, get some four-wheelers, and keep it as a family getaway for themselves and their three boys. Bigham hired a crew, put on boots, jeans, long sleeves, and bug spray, and started clearing the property "to see what we had there."

They started with the amphitheater, the tiers of which they could still make out, then moved on to the sunken garden.

"Then we just kept proceeding through the gardens," says Bigham. "We walked around with poles of rebar, and if we pushed into the ivy and hit rock, we had a pretty good idea that it might be a rock wall."

By September, the Bighams realized the gardens were more than they imagined. And though a major restoration hadn't been their plan, they decided to invest what would turn out to be most of their life savings and bring the garden back.

As word spread, people started sending them memorabilia, including a brochure that became a sort of blueprint for the restoration. Bigham hoped she might find botanists and arborists willing to donate expertise, but when that didn’t happen, she took on the job.

"I've always been interested in plants," she says. "I thought I knew a lot, but I really didn't. At night, I'd prop up in bed with books and teach myself."

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(Left) Ivy-covered rock walls of the Upper Amphitheater. (Right) One of the original stone staircases, this one is just beyond the Twin Pools.

Recreating the original gardens wasn't possible, since 50 years of abandonment had transformed Heddy Jane's sun gardens into deep-shade gardens. But working around the rock-wall bones, Bigham replaced kudzu, wisteria, and other invasive plants with shade-loving plants and shrubs, and also restored the twelve collection pools.

"We hired a hydrologist," Bigham says. "We had totally uncovered the great pool and done a lot of repair work. When the water came cascading down, it was the most magical and stunning thing I had seen. It just came to life."

The Bighams planned all along to share the gardens with the public. In 2003, shortly after obtaining a business license, they took a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on a tour. A few days later, on Father's Day, an article and color photos ran on the front page of the newspaper's lifestyles section. When Bigham arrived at the garden that day, people were lined up to see it.

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The view from the Wetlands Overlook, home to a variety of water fowl.

"We didn't have a public restroom or anything," Bigham says, but they opened the gates anyway.

Today the gardens are in full swing, welcoming visitors and hosting events, including weddings, with Bigham's son Josh handling operations. And since finding camellia sinensis shrubs (from which tea is made) growing on the property, Josh has been working on developing an organic tea line, and another income stream to maintain the property.

Bigham's favorite time in the gardens is the end of the day, when the gates are closed, and she and her husband can have a glass of wine on a slab of granite they call "Little Stone Mountain."

"When the place is totally yours," she says, "it feels really special."

And by the way, they did fence it off. No more trespassing.

Sophia Dembling is the author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go."

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.

@sophiadembling

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