In 1936, title to a tract of land known now as Washington Oaks Gardens, a Florida State Park, was received by Louise Powis Clark (1887-1965), a widow with three children. It was to become a winter home for her and her third husband, Owen D. Young (1874-1962), also recently widowed. Both were from New York. Louise owned a lingerie company in the Philippines. Owen had been a lawyer, diplomat, and chairman of the boards of General Electric Company and RCA. But there's very little about Washington Oaks that immediately suggests the owners' wealth.
The area had been home to diverse residents, from aboriginal people to Spanish and English Colonists. In 1818, Jose Mariano Hernandez acquired the tract as an addition to his plantation, Mala Compra (Bad Purchase), to the south. Since it overlooked the Matanzas River, he called it Bella Vista (Beautiful View).
Eventually it passed to heirs, one being George L. Washington. Members of the family lived on “The Washington Place” occasionally from the 1870s to 1890s. The Washington lodge no longer exists.
In 1923, the property was sold to developers to be subdivided into residential lots known as Hernandez Estates. But the financial crash of the ‘20s and the Depression of the ‘30s put an end to that dream.
Louise and Owen discovered the property along old highway A1A in 1935 while visiting her mother in St. Augustine, FL. The developers had failed to pay taxes on some parcels, land values were way down, and the romantic couple from up North had money to spend. Louise acquired title in 1936. She and Owen were married the following year.
Rather than rename the place, they called it “Washington Oaks.” Perhaps they liked the sound of it, or named it so because George L. slept there.
Being a designer with interests in weaving and pottery, Louise went to work designing the house and gardens with an artistic eye. Their home was modest, and took full advantage of the view of the river. She combined native and exotic plants in the garden, and included oriental motifs.
Owen Young was a businessman who took an interest in horticulture, so he planted a citrus grove. Naturally, he set up a fruit stand beside old A1A where he occasionally tended and sold citrus to passersby.
My parents often took us boys to Florida in those days, sometimes traveling that scenic highway. I like to imagine we passed the old man hawking oranges by the road, not realizing he was the co-founder of RCA, NBC, and a consultant to presidents.
The Youngs eventually purchased land across the road, allowing them beach access. Owen built an office on that side so he’d have a quiet place to do business and study. He built a nice home there for the caretaker, too.
Traffic increased, and road noise began to disturb the Young’s idyll, so they prevailed to have A1A relocated closer to the beach. A quiet, scenic portion of the old road still exists, reminding visitors of those days long gone.
Follow me to see what grows beyond the garden wall by clicking on the links below.
Travelers might have barely noticed Washington Oaks simple coquina gates. Coquina stone is sedimentary rock consisting of coquina shells and sand. It was often used as a building material.
The driveway at Washington Oaks opens to a fine view of the comfortable house and the Matanzas River beyond.
Much of the Young’s home looks as it did in the 1950s and '60s. A vintage television displays recorded episodes of old shows.
The front door of a home on the river always faces the river. Remember that.
A cistern at the site of the old Washington lodge.
Visitors can rest on the garden bench beside the pond.
Bromeliads form a ground cover among palms.
Curcuma provides pops of color in the tropical garden.
A Bird-Of-Paradise (Strelitzia reginae) flower hides among the foliage.
In The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton observed “the Carp is the Queen of Rivers: a stately, a good, and a very subtil fish”. Koi are glorified carp. For bait, Walton instructed, “Take the flesh of a Rabbet or Cat cut small, and Bean-flowre;…and then mix these together, and put to them either Sugar, or Honey, …beat together in a Mortar, …and then make it into a ball, or two, or three…” Since I had none of those things, nor a fishing license, I simply watched them laze about.
A bridge not too far with Clerodendrum speciosum beside.
Ponderosa lemons (Citrus limon) in the citrus grove.
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made.” (Genesis 3)
Owen Young’s office now houses the gift shop at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, FL.
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