Genius of the Garden

The Presidents’ Garden

Charles F. Gillette and Landscape Architecture in Virginia

George C. Longest

From the 1920s through the 1960s, the name Charles F. Gillette was synonymous with the best in landscape design in Virginia as well as the upper South. The peak years of Gillette’s career as a landscape architect coincided with the height of the Country Place era, when wealthy property owners throughout the United States built impressive country residences surrounded by meticulously conceived gardens and dramatic vistas.

Charles Gillette began landscaping private gardens for Virginia’s predominantly Georgian-style suburban estates almost immediately upon establishing his office in Richmond around 1917. His first major project was the Nelson House in Yorktown. In the ensuing years, he would plan the gardens of hundreds of estates including Kenmore, Agecroft Hall, Virginia House, Nordley, Milburne, Redesdale, and Little Yatton.

Country Place landscape design demanded careful attention to detail, concern for proportion and scale, clear spatial organization, and a harmonious relationship between plan and plantings – all elements in which Gillette excelled. His genius lay in his adaption of traditional forms and styles to the requirements of the Virginia climate and countryside. When the Architectural League of New York honored his work in 1938 for its “charm and adherence to the Southern tradition,” Charles Gillette’s reputation as the interpreter of southern gardens had already been firmly established in the Old Dominion.

As the Country Place era came to an end in the wake of the Great Depression and the New Deal’s revision of United States tax laws, Gillette shifted his focus to the greater community, undertaking numerous large-scale educational, corporate, and government projects. From the University of Richmond (the commission that first brought him to the South), the Executive Mansion, and the Ethyl Corporation in Virginia to Davidson College in North Carolina, Holy Trinity Mission Seminary in Maryland, or a public housing project in Asbury Park, New Jersey – Charles Gillette left his distinctive imprint on public as well as private space.

In this engaging study of Charles Gillette and his work, George Longest provides a sympathetic portrait of a complex man who was at once cultured and charming, yet also opinionated and irascible. Longest unravels the process through which Gillette, who always demanded perfection from himself and his associates, established a distinctive regional style and set a tradition of quality and professionalism that became the standard in his field.

GEORGE C. LONGEST earned his doctorate in American literature from the University of Georgia in 1969. The author of Three Virginia Writers; Mary Johnston, Thomas Nelson Page and Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy: A Reference Guide (1978), he is currently associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond.

Tags: ,

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook

Use the links below to connect with the museum on Twitter and Facebook.