This versatile garden pavilion rises to every occasion for an Ashland couple.
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Fred and Jack Douglas have used their garden folly as a sitting room, a bar for outdoor pizza parties and a bridal dressing room.
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Landscape designer Fred Douglas in her garden.
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When a landscape designer says “I do” to a landscape architect, one can expect great things from their garden. Margaret “Fred” and Jack Douglas had grand plans when they moved into their 1938 Georgian home in Ashland in 2005—and a giant design conundrum: The sprawling, 100-foot oak tree dominating their backyard begged for vertical elements to balance the space. Naturally, their thoughts turned toward architecture.
Sipping fresh lemonade on a pink and chartreuse striped silk settee in their living room, the Douglases recall their approach to the design challenge. “In order to bring the scale of that somewhat intimate space down from the majestic height of the tree, you need something to mitigate the scale,” explains Fred, the landscape designer of the pair. “And then the Georgian architecture of the house demanded that we use some form of geometry in the garden,” adds Jack, the landscape architect.
The two collaborate on landscape design projects when the opportunity arises; in fact, a mutual love of garden design is what brought the couple together. Fred, a career IT professional for the U.S. Navy, was Jack’s student in the landscape design program at George Washington University in 2002. When Fred learned that Jack needed transportation to his cancer treatments, she offered to help. Their relationship blossomed during those long drives. They married in 2004, and Jack has remained cancer-free since.
When they purchased their home, which is located on an idyllic street next to Randolph-Macon College, the yard needed attention. They designed a low, brick wall in a graceful arc to invite guests up the wide walkway to the front door. The front lawn and surrounding flower beds echo this arc-tangent shape, which is a central theme throughout their garden.
As they turned to the backyard, Fred sketched at least a dozen designs before hitting upon a brilliant idea—a cross axis with a central fountain linking the tree to the house on one axis and two vertical architectural elements at each end of the other axes. She also incorporated the arc-tangent shape into the lawn and patio design.
Once they decided to add a structure to balance the difference in scale between the oak tree and the ground, a trip to Monticello settled the design for Fred. With its Palladian symmetry, Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden pavilion had just the look she wanted.
The Douglases called upon Peter Wagner, a colleague and Charlottesville architectural designer, to build upon their ideas and interpret Jefferson’s garden pavilion in a way that would complement the architecture of their home and suit the proportions of the backyard. A student of Jeffersonian architecture, Wagner designed a 10-foot square brick structure with a railing similar to those adorning the Douglases’ home. In place of Jefferson’s floor-to-ceiling arched windows, the final design accented two windows and a door with brick arches.
Brick masons, carpenters and other artisans crafted the garden building during the summer of 2007. The Douglases originally intended for it to be a garden shed, but they couldn’t bring themselves to fill it with the muddy accoutrements of gardening. “There was just no way we could put our mowers and equipment in this building,” says Jack, laughing at their predicament. “And in that sense, it’s a total folly because it really is a building that is more about aesthetics than it is about function,” explains Fred.
Essentially architectural eye candy, a folly is a purely decorative structure without a useful purpose. With origins in ancient Greece and Rome, follies became popular with European nobility during and after the Renaissance as architectural adornments for sprawling landscapes. “It was very clear that we were ambivalent about its function,” says Fred. “We couldn’t settle on it being any one thing.” To complete the backyard design, they added another vertical architectural element—an arc of columns opposite the folly. The effect is that of a classical ruin. Made of hollow-cast stone, the columns fit over concrete footers and posts carefully engineered so they could not be toppled.
The new design made its debut in April 2008 during the Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week tour. Inspired by Jefferson’s love of his pavilion as a place to read and contemplate his gardens, Fred decorated the folly as a garden sitting room, complete with a table and chairs fit for an intimate dinner for two.
But the folly would not remain a sitting room for long. The Douglases love entertaining as much as they love designing gardens, so they added yet another structure in 2009—a wood-fired, brick pizza oven. Decked with tables, glasses and a beer chest, the folly was transformed into a bar for the first of many pizza parties. An antique marble sink from Caravati’s Architectural Salvage in Richmond invited guests to help themselves to drinks.
The following summer, their daughter, Lucy, planned to be married in the Douglases’ backyard. Fred outfitted the folly to serve a new purpose as a bridal dressing room with a folding full-length mirror, dressing table and chairs. The bride and her six bridesmaids sipped champagne inside, peeking out of the windows as guests gathered for the ceremony. “When the wedding started, everyone was surprised when the door opened and they walked out,” says Jack.
The bridal party processed across the yard, around the fountain and to the arc of columns on the other side. As a special touch, the Douglases added custom cut Pennsylvania flagstones for the minister, bride and groom to stand on during the ceremony. When the newlyweds visit, Jack says, “They walk out to those stones that are still there and stand there for a silent moment together, remembering when they took their vows in the backyard.”
This summer, the folly has taken on a new life as a potting shed—albeit a clean, pretty one. Fred can’t quite bring herself to make it a fully practical potting shed with the dirt that function entails, but the marble sink makes the space well suited for flower arranging. Soon enough, however, the folly will become a place for someone else to play. Lucy and her husband, Ray, are expecting a baby this fall, and Fred is already scheming ideas for a playhouse for their grandchild. The folly does indeed have a purpose for every season. •