The Gardens of Whitehall

Hydrangeas IVWhitehall is one of the most venerable edifices in Louisville. It is difficult to imagine how the palatial alabaster estate that exists today began as a modest two-story brick house built circa 1855. Over 150 years later, several changes have been made to the interior. In 1992, when Hume Logan, Jr. – the owner of Whitehall at the time – passed away, he bequeathed the home’s furnishings, gardens and the house itself to the Historic Homes Foundation so that the public would always be able to enjoy the place that had meant so much to him, his family and countless others throughout its history. After Bittners led an extensive refurbishing in 1994, Whitehall officially entered the modern era, but as fantastic as the home is, it is Whitehall’s gardens that are its most breathtaking assets.

Merrill Simmons is the executive director of Whitehall and is understandably proud of these gardens: “Whitehall’s gardens offer a meditative respite from a busy world. Visitors frequently express their surprise at discovering the immense variety of gardens available for exploration.”  The woodland fern garden and Victorian stumpery, tucked away in a wooded corner of the estate with its regionally unprecedented collection of fern cultivars, is an official display garden of the national Hardy Fern Foundation.  The more structured formal Florentine garden includes a carefully tended herbaceous border, offering stunning color from early spring through mid-October. And the specimen garden, with its collection of bulbs, perennials, herbaceous plants, evergreens and specimen trees, is also the location for Whitehall’s collection of just over 60 varieties of peonies, featured each year during its annual springtime Peony Festival.  Whitehall’s gardens are free and open to the public from sunup to sundown.

Suttneri102610Michael Hayman is Whitehall’s landscape director, so the estate’s aforementioned beautiful gardens fall under his purview. In the summer of 1987, a downburst destroyed 100 of the city’s mature oaks and maples. In the fall of 1988, Hayman spearheaded a replanting of the Seneca Gardens neighborhood, resulting in more than 1,000 trees on the properties of 300 private homes. When the time came for Whitehall to seek a new volunteer landscape director, this experience cemented the position for Hayman, and in his tenure, he has planted a panoply of various trees and plants, including a rare Sutnerii sycamore. The one prominently displayed in Whitehall is one of the very few in North America.

Peonies+2013+IIAs impressive as all this information is, however, Simmons has also made it a mission of hers that Whitehall give back to the community: “We like to work cooperatively with our neighbors on our common property line landscaping, which can be of benefit to both parties. Our landscape director Michael Hayman enjoys meeting and working with individual neighbors, designing plans and identifying plants and trees that will not only work well in a given space but also create lasting beauty.”

Annie Wendt and Rafe Borders do the day-to-day gardening at Whitehall, and they assist Hayman, when possible, with community outreach. In fact, Annie has some great advice for anyone looking to get their personal garden ready for spring. “If you’re planting bulbs or seeds, you really should have done that in November, but it’s not too late. First, you want to clean up your garden, get rid of that debris from the fall and winter. Next you should fertilize as well as use some preemergent [a product that will kill weed seeding before the plants even spring up].” Annie goes on to say that Whitehall, along with other local nurseries, even sell plants and flowers to place in your garden that should flourish once those first steps are met. Annie personally recommends peonies and irises, both of which can be purchased at Whitehall.

Whitehall truly is one of Louisville’s most beautiful sights, so if you’d like to bring a little bit of that beauty to your own home, listen to the experts. Don’t be afraid to call them to ask for further help and advice either. Trees and flowers are as eternal as the Earth, so if you enlist Whitehall, you can make a sight that will delight generations to come. VT

Photos courtesy of Michael Hayman