Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Cummer Gardens of Jacksonville, Florida

Jacksonville, Florida holds many fond memories for me.  Quite a few relatives lived there when I was a child.  Whether by automobile or different trains, the trip to Jacksonville was an adventure.  Sometimes my father, a chiropractor and naturopath, would include a visit to Dr. Emil Weise, another naturopathic physician and friend.  A highlight of one trip was a visit to Aunt Anne Palmer's garden.  Meandering grassy paths wound among beds of camellias, azaleas and ginger lilies toward her greenhouse where she nurtured her orchids.  I was enchanted.  Uncle Jim, her husband, owned Packard Florida Motors Company on Riverside and Rosselle.

We returned recently to visit the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, just a few blocks from where Uncle Jim's business once stood.  The neighborhood has changed quite a bit since the 1950s and '60s.  Many of the old homes have been replaced, including the tudor-style home of Arthur and Ninah Cummer.  The Cummer Museum now stands on the site.  The garden is as grand and well-loved as before.

Arthur Cummer (1894-1943) was the son of a wealthy lumber magnate from Cadillac, Michigan, who found Jacksonville to be very much to his liking.  The climate and forests of Florida attracted the family.  Arthur was also a partner in the Cook-Cummer Steamship line which transported Cummer Lumber Company products to markets along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard.  Readers interested in stories involving Cummer steamships should find the New York Times accounts of the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901 and of the sinking of the John J. Hill to be stirring.

Strong believers in civic responsibility, Arthur and Ninah Cummer (1875-1958) were actively involved in organizations to benefit the public.  As Board President, Arthur helped enlarge the historic Evergreen Cemetery of Jacksonville.  Ninah, an art collector, passionate gardener and garden club member, created an endowment in 1958 to build an art museum and to preserve her beloved gardens.

Though the appearance of much of Jacksonville's Riverside Avenue has changed, the vista from Cummer Gardens across the St. John's River is very much like the atmosphere I remember from my visit to Aunt Anne's oasis.  The Cummer Gardens, however, are far grander.

The Gardens consist of three:
Upon entering the Gardens from the museum's Uible Loggia, the first thing to capture the eye is an elegant sculpture, Diana of the Hunt, a gift of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington.  (I visited Atalya, Huntington's moorish-style home/studio in South Carolina a few years after her death.  Though near the shore, it struck me as a rather bleak, fortress-like residence.)  According to myth, Diana (aka Artemis) was not as elegant as artists imagine but exquisitely bad-natured.  From the upper terrace, the enticing vista across the English Garden opens toward the beautiful St. John's River.

Moseying to the right, the Tea Garden invites the visitor to sit a moment in one of the historic barrel chairs that originally belonged to Wellington and Ada Cummer, Arthur's parents.  Concrete and mosaic pedestal planters designed by William Mercer add visual impact to the adjacent parterres.

Further along, the Peacock Fountain, also designed by Mercer, adorns the South Wall in a shady nook.  Before the Peacock Fountain, another called Two Children with a Goose fills a pool also designed by Mercer.  The original Two Children with a Goose can be seen in London's Victoria and Albert Museum.  This section is part of the English Garden, designed in 1903 by Ossian Cole Simonds (1855-1931).  Simonds was a founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects.  Cummer's English Garden was redesigned in 1910 by Thomas Meehan and Sons of Philadelphia, PA.  At river's side, a fine wisteria arbor provides a shady retreat refreshed by gentle river breezes.

One can't help but linger at the railing to enjoy the view across the St. John's river.  Mr. Cummer relished an earlier scene from his own putting green between the English and Italian gardens.  The private green, a rare pleasure in those days, was given to him by his wife, Ninah.

The Italian Garden was designed in 1931 by Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950), perhaps the most significant among female American landscape architects.  Ninah Cummer commissioned the work after visiting the Villa Gamberaia near Florence, Italy   It features a gloriette, the archways of which frame a lovely fountain that replicates one Mrs. Cummer purchased in Italy in 1930.  At the end of the river walk, you will find a tile-roofed garden folly which serves no other purpose than to adorn the garden, or perhaps to offer another shady retreat for a tête-a-tête.

The North Wall of the Italian Garden is adorned with another feature designed by William Mercer.  A medallion of flamingos overlooks a lion's head planter with Della Robbia swags.

As one would expect, a pair of reflecting pools mirror all that surrounds them above and below.  The sky, roses, italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens)  and azaleas all shimmer in the water's surface.

Leonine motifs recur throughout the Italian Garden.  The Lion Sculpture is one of the many pieces that the Cummers purchased during their visit to Itay in 1930.  Garden benches repeat the theme.

When the Cummers began to establish their gardens, some plants now so common to the South were not well-known in Florida.  Agapanthus and azalea collections were rare.  The Cummers sought them out.  Both grow luxuriantly in the Cummer Gardens.

Upon returning to the Upper Terrace, one passes beneath the magnificent Cummer Oak.  The canopy of the verdant giant spans over 150 feet.  Aged over 175 years, it is one of the oldest and most revered trees in the city.  To rest beneath its ancient limbs and reflect upon the beauty of the garden is another of the visitor's rewards.

Thanks to the generosity of the Cummers, along with the dedication of museum staff and volunteers, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens presents one of the premier gardens in the United States.  Though comprised of only two acres, it is a historically significant site that you should include in your garden visits.

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