Miss Sadie’s Garden

BY Cindy Ramsey

If the ancient Airlie Oak could talk oh the tales it could tell. At approximately 475 years old the old oak’s moss-bearded limbs have stood sentinel over the grounds of what was once a mecca for the rich and is now a precious public treasure.

Storms and time have altered the landscape over the years. But today when visitors stroll the lush gorgeous grounds they are stepping into history. Listen closely and they just might hear echoes of the past — and not just in the breeze moving through the branches of the ancient oak. Every azalea bush and each magnolia blossom can be traced back to the original landscaper.

Long before 67 acres of Bradley Creek property became New Hanover County’s Airlie Gardens it was Miss Sadie’s Gardens.

The land where Airlie Gardens now sits was originally part of a 640-acre land grant from England’s King George II to Jonathan and Solomon Ogden in 1736 and later owned by Joshua Grainger Wright. It was part of several large tracts of land that included a waterfront inn purchased by business partners that included Wilmington native Pembroke Jones and his future bride Sarah “Sadie” Greene daughter of Congressman Col. Wharton Greene.

Records show Sarah would then purchase the 155-acre Seaside Park Hotel property as the sole owner and transform it into a garden estate.

Pembroke and Sadie who married in 1884 were extremely wealthy with homes in Wilmington New York City and Newport Rhode Island. Following their marriage Pembroke renamed Sarah’s property Airlie after his Scottish ancestral home. Pembroke co-founder of the Carolina Rice Mills Company purchased parcels adjacent to Airlie to create his adjoining 2 200-acre hunting preserve Pembroke Park — where Landfall now exists.

When renovations to the rambling house were completed the house’s 39 rooms featured an indoor tennis court a ballroom a library with more than 1 500 books and rare volumes..

E.T.H. Shaffer wrote about the estate in his 1939 book “Carolina Gardens ” calling it a “forest chateau of 38 apartments including a spacious ballroom and a banquet hall where 80 guests have been seated at the table.”

While she enjoyed entertaining — the New York and Newport society set and heads of commerce and industry particularly railroad all came to enjoy relaxation and entertainment in the bucolic setting — the grounds were her first love.

German landscape gardener Rudolph Topel designed the original gardens in the early 1900s but they soon became Miss Sadie’s.

“One day while walking through my beloved woods I noticed a great clump of native pink azalea that down South we call wild honeysuckle ” she was quoted as saying in a paper called “The History of Airlie Gardens” by Cape Fear Museum curator Barbara Rowe. “It was so lovely that I had a servant transplant it to a leafy moist spot near the house.”

Her passion and involvement with the development of the garden continued. Sadie worked with Topel to implement her vision of a colorful romantic oasis using the natural beauty of native plants. Rather than introduce new varieties of plant life she relied on magnolia azalea camellia and wisteria. She added 1 200 pine trees 500 live oaks 5 000 camellias and 250 000 azaleas.

Jane Pope Akers Ridgway Pembroke and Sadie’s granddaughter recalls her grandmother’s love and care for the gardens.

“My youth is filled with such wonderful happy memories spent with her in that enchanted place — for it was enchanted ” she wrote in a 2000 letter to the Airlie Gardens Historical Research Committee. “The beauty and love that my grandmother infused into those acres was catching to all who stayed there. I remember vividly driving with her in her old buckboard and horse named George while she drove him all over Airlie every morning to direct and supervising everything that she was undertaking and keeping up with at the same time. She did this every day — she and I sitting together saying good morning to all of the garden help. She called each one of them by their names. These daily visits made me feel so much a part of her love of beauty and unfailing taste of what was right. Her personal contact and interest in all of the garden personnel was genuine and inspired in them a real desire to please ‘Miss Sadie.'”

Pembroke died following surgery in 1918 and Sadie married longtime family friend Henry Walters in 1922. Sadie Jones Walters completed the gardens in 1933 transforming the land fronting Bradley Creek into a “landscape of glimpses and surprises.”

Miss Sadie’s masterpiece was compared favorably with the famous and beautiful Magnolia Gardens and Middleton Place in Charleston.

“There are those who compare Airlie-on-the-Sound with Magnolia and Middleton Gardens of Charleston ” Susan Iden wrote in The State magazine in 1936. “Each has its own distinctive claim to beauty.”

Noted horticulturalist H. Harold Hume cited Airlie as among the Southern gardens making extensive use of azaleas.

“Nowhere else in America or perchance in the world have they been used so lavishly as in the Lower South or with finer results in garden making with the result that these gardens are outstanding in their unusual beauty and some are world famous ” Hume wrote in his 1931 book “Azaleas and Camellias.”

The grounds were non-linear and unpredictable planted to provide contrast and surprises. Sadie added secret gardens with bubbling fountains.

“She designed it so it would always be a little bit of a mystery ” says local historian Susan Taylor Block author of “Airlie: The Garden of Wilmington.” “She wanted it to be something you would never get bored with.”

Towering pines huge live oaks with wandering limbs draped in Spanish moss hundreds of thousands of azaleas thousands of camellia bushes secret gardens a jasmine-covered grande allee and a glistening lake were just part of the magic and allure. Airlie also bustled with wildlife and birds.

Block says the gardens possessed a “Southern subtlety” and the artistic beauty of the design is really no surprise at all considering that Sadie was a Southern lady and was a friend of and later married to Henry Walters for many years. Block describes Walters as “for his generation the most appreciative of artistic beauty of anyone alive.”

The Next Generation

Sadie died in 1943 and five years later her daughter Sadie Jones Pope sold Airlie to Corbett Package Company. Walter and Bertha Corbett restored the mansion that had stood empty for several years.

The family also kept up Miss Sadie’s gardens tending them without changing the character. They generously opened the grounds to the public seasonally.

During the 1990s nature was not kind to Airlie. The gardens were crushed by a series of catastrophic storms including Hurricanes Bertha and Fran which uprooted huge trees and destroyed old-growth shrubs.

“The gardens were truly devastated ” says Christine Leahy a Wilmington resident who has spent thousands of hours researching every historical aspect of the land and its owners as a member of the Airlie Gardens Historical Research Committee. “Albert Corbett said that 1 500 trees larger than 8 inches [trunk size] had come down. The cleanup process was ongoing for several years.”

In late 1998 the Corbett family decided to sell 67 acres of Airlie. The sale was not without controversy. Developers wanted the high-value real estate but bucking the critics the county wisely made the purchase saving the gardens from becoming another high-end housing community.

“The mission of Airlie is pretty simple ” Bruce Williams the director of the arboretum when the county purchased the acreage said in 1999. “It is a garden not a park. We want to restore the historic garden the best we can.”

Williams put out a call for volunteers and the Airlie Gardens Historical Research Committee was created.

“The idea was that since the gardens would take a long time to restore we needed to gather Airlie’s history together especially its pre-Corbett 1948 history so that garden guides could enrich the experience of visitors ” Leahy says. “The problem was that there was no history to put together. The only information we had to guide us was a Xeroxed copy of a chapter from Shaffer’s ‘Carolina Gardens.'”

The committee found other sources like old newspaper clippings. Leahy contacted all four of Topel’s living grandchildren. The history materials and early garden information helped shape the Airlie Gardens Master Plan.

Preservation restoration and repair began in early 1999 but then Hurricane Floyd hit in September. Along with historic flooding Floyd took out 60 main trees that on their way down toppled other trees tore up the ground and broke azaleas camellias and other plants of the understory. One tree hit the Airlie Oak breaking a limb but the oak survived.

Fast-forward 17 years and a visit to Airlie today reveals no signs of the damage. The weather has been kind with no major hurricanes. Staff and hundreds of volunteers have put in countless hours to restore the gardens and create a refuge of beauty and serenity. It is an ongoing project with years of work and growth required.

“Keeping with the spirit of [Sadie’s] vision we continue to add azaleas camellias and magnolias ” says Scott Childs the current parks and gardens supervisor whose duties include planning and overseeing the day-to-day operation of the grounds at Airlie. “We estimate that there are over 25 000 azaleas and several thousand camellias on the property.”

Childs says the wisteria which Sadie felt a Southern garden required proved to be too invasive and is now only used in selected areas.

“We plant new trees yearly with the goal of positively offsetting those lost the year previously ” Childs explains. “It does take several decades for trees to mature so it will take time for our canopy to recover from those storms. When you look at the holes in the canopy you need to look at what immature trees are located there and imagine what the final outcome will be.”

The Gardens Today

Visitors to Airlie today enter a modern Garden Services Center with a lobby display of old photos and information that chronicle the history of Airlie. Then they walk straight into that history. Walking tours meander along original paths that have now been paved to provide access for wheelchairs and strollers.

Volunteers and staff agree that the original mission and focus remain the same today and are being fulfilled. The historical aspects are being respected and restored while making the gardens accessible to the public.

“We definitely want people to experience the history ” says Tara Duckworth director of New Hanover County Parks and Gardens (which includes Airlie).

Historically Airlie was created to be an oasis of peace and tranquility where people could escape the trials and stress of everyday life. It still is.

“You just can’t be in a bad mood here ” says volunteer guide Pat Hammond. “Being in this environment decompresses you and puts you in a state of civility. There is such a historical significance to this property. It is far-reaching.”

Sadie’s insistence on native plants is a strong indication that the environment was also very important in her original garden design. The county took that into consideration when it acquired the property.

“The second part of our mission is to make Airlie Gardens an environmental education center — to make it something special — where people can come and see the right way to do things whether it’s pervious parking lots drainage problems or the right plants to plant to see buffers and how they are done and to have that intermeshed with the historic garden aspects ” Bruce Williams said in 1999. “Airlie Gardens will become the educational ‘crown jewel’ of water-quality education programs in eastern North Carolina.”

Airlie still offers Sadie’s vision of “glimpses and surprises” with small seasonal or species-specific gardens just around a bend: artist Minnie Evans’ sculpture garden the bottle chapel the butterfly house and much more.

The staff and volunteers agree that Airlie is a historic treasure that now belongs to the people of New Hanover County and their greatest hope is that all the people will experience its magical beauty.

Recognizing the Rich History of Airlie Gardens

Airlie Gardens has a storied history that dates back to Pembroke and Sarah Jones and the Gilded Age. Does that qualify it to be named on the National Register of Historic Places? If so what are the benefits and/or drawbacks to such a designation?

These are some of the questions that will be debated when the staff at Airlie begins to research that option this winter. If a decision is made to seek the recognition the process begins with the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office.

The official website for the National Park Service that includes the National Register of Historic Places states criteria used for designation include the property’s age integrity and significance — the latter including important people and landscape history.

Some of the benefits of the listing include national recognition of the historic value of the property and being listed on a searchable database. Grant opportunities could be enhanced as well as tourism. Unless federal money is involved the listing places no restrictions on the property.

Text below provided by Airlie Gardens staff from historic signs on site.

Pembroke Jones 1858-1918

Pembroke Jones was born and raised in Wilmington N.C. Pembroke’s mother passed away when he was three months old and he was raised by his maternal aunt. For part of his childhood he lived in the Platt-Dickenson house still standing in downtown Wilmington today. In 1879 Pembroke along with his business partner Norwood Giles created the Carolina Rice Mills Company a profitable endeavor that would begin the Jones fortune. In 1884 Pembroke married Sarah Greene at Tokay Plantation near Fayetteville N.C. Shortly after their marriage Pembroke renamed Sarah’s waterfront property “Airlie” in honor of his Scottish ancestral home. In 1902 Pembroke began assembling parcels of land adjacent to his bride’s property at Airlie. From this land he developed Pembroke Park a 2 200-acre hunting preserve also complete with an Italianate showplace referred to as the Bungalow and later called the Lodge. Pembroke Park was also home to the Temple of Love designed by Pembroke’s son-in-law John Russell Pope. The Temple still stands in today’s Landfall Community. Pembroke passed away at the age of 61 following a scheduled surgery.

Sarah Greene Jones 1859-1943

Born in Boston Massachusetts Sarah Wharton Greene was raised in Warren and Cumberland Counties near Fayetteville N.C. Sarah’s father Col. Wharton Greene owned large plantations including the 469-acre Tokay where Sarah spent many formative years. Sarah attended The College of Notre Dame of Maryland where she graduated valedictorian. In her twenties Sarah’s family moved to Washington D.C. where Col. Wharton Greene was elected to U.S. Congress. Soon after reaching D.C. Sarah’s mother passed away. Sarah took on the duties of lady of the house for her father playing hostess to numerous high society and political guests. In 1884 along with her future husband Pembroke Jones Sarah and other members of the Seaside Park Improvement Company purchased a parcel of land including a recently built waterfront inn. This parcel would become the core of the Airlie property. Sarah eventually purchased this land as sole owner for $1 250 and transformed it into a garden estate. In 1922 following Pembroke’s death Sarah married Henry Walters. Sarah Jones Walters died at the age of 84 and her daughter Sadie Jones Pope inherited the Airlie property shown at right.

The House at Airlie

Originally the only hotel close to Wrightsville Beach the Airlie House began as an inn “Seaside Park Hotel.” When Sarah Greene (Jones) purchased the Seaside Park property in 1886 the inn had just recently been built. After the purchase Sarah began whimsically transforming the existing waterfront inn into a sprawling 39-room mansion to prepare the home for numerous visitors and entertainment. She expanded her Airlie home at will often telegraphing or phoning her orders from New York or Newport to talented craftsmen in the area. When complete the three-story mansion featured 39 rooms an indoor tennis court/ballroom a library filled with over 1 500 books and rare volumes separate staff quarters over the kitchen and a telephone room where the first private residential telephone in New Hanover County was installed. During the Jones/Walters era the rambling mansion was filled with heirloom artifacts sculptures mahogany furniture paintings and assorted artwork from around the world. One of the staircases was an English Oak staircase from the home of Sir Walter Raleigh in England. When the Corbett Package Company purchased the property in 1948 the house had been unoccupied for several years. The late Walter A. Corbett and his wife Bertha restored and decorated the mansion. In the late ’50s it was decided that the condition of the house would require too much renovation in order to remain suitable for contemporary living. When the eldest Corbett son Waddell found his family outgrowing their current residence in town they decided to relocate to the Airlie property. It was then that the family decided to dismantle the original home and build a more modern and livable house on the property.

The Corbett Family

In 1948 Walter Albert and Bertha Barefoot Corbett of Corbett Package Company purchased 155 acres of the Airlie Estate for $150 000 from Sadie Jones Pope daughter of Pembroke and Sarah Jones. Walter A. Corbett a renowned planter and industrialist first opened Airlie to the public on March 6 1948 and the Corbetts continued to open Airlie seasonally throughout their ownership. By 1951 5 000 new azaleas camellias and rare evergreens had been added. During the early years of the Azalea Festival the Corbetts invited celebrities and guests to an Airlie Sunday luncheon in their home. Later the Corbetts hosted the Azalea Festival Spring barbeque known today as the Garden Party/Queen’s Luncheon until 1999. Airlie became a central place for the large extended Corbett family of six children their spouses and 24 grandchildren to gather together. Weekends were filled with cousins enjoying the special property. Following Walter’s death in 1952 Airlie ownership passed to the three Corbett sons. Bertha remained in the 39-room house until it was dismantled in the late 1950s. The eldest son Waddell and his wife Bitsy Corbett obtained the seven acres of the Airlie home site where they built a more modern and livable home on the original footprint and raised their five children. Waddell undertook the enormous responsibility of overseeing the maintenance and beautification of the gardens. After Waddell’s passing in 1993 Bitsy remained in the home for a number of years. In 1999 67 acres of the Airlie tract were sold to New Hanover County. The remaining grounds of the private residence were retained by the Waddell A. Corbett family where the children continue to reside in separate homes along Bradley Creek.