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William Paca House & Garden

William Paca House & Garden
Annapolis, Maryland

Navigating the narrow streets of historic Annapolis, it was hard to believe that any sort of sizeable garden could be found here. William Paca House gives little indication of what may lay behind its rigid red-bricked walls and from the street it comes across as even a bit institutional. The grounds within these walls have a seriousness in their pristine hedges and orderly, stepped terraces, yet there are also moments of amusement and naturalistic beauty

Visiting the residence of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence gave me momentary flashbacks to grade school field trips, but the self-guided garden tour option was the perfect way to forego the dim interiors, and focus on my true interest: the gardens. From the back patio of the mansion the grand sweeping vista of the terraced gardens was immediately striking. From there, a wide stepped pathway leads down to the focal centerpiece, the white-domed Summer House, which perches on a hill above a small pond packed with white water lilies. As I walked down, I felt like each level of the garden got more interesting, and the whole thing seemed much larger than I thought possible from the outside.

There is a supreme efficiency in the way the space is divided into multiple separate sections while still maintaining a cohesive ornamental excellence throughout. A single row of tall, shaped hedges borders four themed garden rooms: The Rose, Flower, Boxwood, and Holly Parterres. Aside from some fragrant pink heirloom roses and some other colorful frivolities, the first two rooms were charming, but left me eagerly peering down into the next level, where the real action seemed to be.

En route, I passed through a very modern-seeming kitchen garden where rows of raised containers overflowed with leafy edibles, and I continued down a stairway lined with quirky espaliered fruit trees. The Holly Parterre had an Alice in Wonderland feel, with its giant conical holly tree rising high above the tall hedges that bordered the room. Across the central pathway lies what is just about my favorite thing in a formal garden, a Boxwood Parterre. This one was exceptional, with low clipped hedges of deep green forming rectangular islands some of which had half-spheres that seemed to float out of the center. I found this to be the most engaging level of the property, where both garden rooms created unique environments that at times invited exploration and at times demanded a moment of contemplation.

While the mansion itself has remained largely unchanged since it was built in the late 1700s, the property around it has gone through many dramatic changes that saw the formal gardens come and go. One of the subsequent owners of the home converted it into a luxury hotel, bulldozing over a majority of the gardens. The state eventually got hold of the property in the 1960s and there was a painstaking restoration of Paca’s original garden design. The restored version is based on views found in old paintings and uncovered through extensive archaeological work.

Final Review: Apart from all of the history of the place, this garden offers endless perfectly-framed views of both the picturesque Summer House set just-so across the Chippendale-style bridge, the dome of the Naval Academy Chapel above the trees, and the mansion itself, rising dramatically out of a hedge row. The way that the formal terraces give way to the tree-filled Wilderness Garden shows the thought that went into the design. I also appreciated how they used the natural underground spring and runoff water to create a pond and a narrow brick canal. My overall impression of this historically-restored, walled garden is one of surprise: Paca packs a lot of punch into a modest-sized property. I was delighted at this garden oasis, hidden behind tall brick walls. FOUR BLOOM RATING

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