Charles Stick: The Path Less Taken
“Charles was an outstanding student of history and loved the Italian Renaissance,” recalls UVA landscape architecture professor emeritus Reuben Rainey. A quarter century later, Stick is still in Charlottesville. After spending six years working for an aristocratic Belgian named François Goffinet, a man with international connections but little formal training, Stick opened his own small firm, employing a pair of landscape architects. He hung his shingle (literally) on the wall of a cramped but charming book-filled two-hundred-year-old brick cottage a mere three miles from Jefferson’s Monticello. Virginia, with its agrarian roots, genteel pace, and reverence for Palladian architecture, suits him just fine. “What seems harmonious to me in terms of my life is right here,” he says. “To this day, when I walk into the Lawn, I find it has an almost sacred quality.”
Pausing beside his black 1997 Audi station wagon on a circular auto court he designed, Stick removes tobacco from a tin and carefully tamps the earthy clump into the bowl of a wooden pipe. Puffing away, nattily dressed in a tan blazer, a bow tie, and dark gabardine pants, he cuts a striking figure. With wavy hair swept back and cut Dutch Boy square above the shoulders and a thick but impeccably trimmed beard, he looks equal parts literature professor, English aristocrat, and Wild West gambler. Behind him looms an early nineteenth-century brick farmhouse. Pea gravel crunches underfoot as we stroll to the top of a stone staircase and peer out over a vast maze of ten-foot-tall boxwoods, grown from sprigs plucked nearly a century ago from a neighboring home, James Madison’s Montpelier.
We’ve come to Waverley Farm, nestled in the Blue Ridge foothills north of Charlottesville, to see Stick’s decade-long labor of love. Here he has put into place his core aesthetic principles, the most important being what the nineteenth-century landscape designer and artist Charles Platt, a major influence on Stick, called the “comprehensive whole”—a unity between house and garden. Before Stick got his hands on it, the garden was adrift, separated from the house by a slope and a gulf of fescue. Installing a stone patio and steps, he linked the boxwood maze to the house with a path lined by newly planted boxwoods, evenly spaced to create a cadence that beckons a visitor to enter.
Crossing the leafy threshold, we encounter a series of outdoor rooms, each with a surprise: a burbling fountain flanked by a row of Elizabethan-style hand-carved and gilded “beasties” on poles; a bronze statue of Mercury, anchored to the earth but reaching to the heavens; a single Yoshino cherry tree, whose pink blossoms fade to white each spring. “The idea was to give someone moving through the landscape a sense of discovery,” Stick explains, “to create layers of unfolding experience.”
Nowhere is that concept of movement and discovery more fully realized than in the extraordinary garden Stick has designed over the past fifteen years for Fred Landman, of Greenwich, Connecticut. Beyond the formal fringe of Landman’s 1930s Georgian Revival house, with its boxwood parterre shaped in an impossibly intricate paisley pattern, Stick introduced a “golden path” (named for a similar feature created by the landscape architect Russell Page for the PepsiCo Sculpture Gardens in Purchase, New York), which meanders through nine acres of garden vignettes, including a hidden petanque court and a Chinese pavilion on a floating island. Along the path, two horizontal dogwood trees frame a hidden grotto built into a cliff, where azaleas, sweet woodruff, toad lilies, silver bells, witch hazel, and narcissus spring from the loamy woodland. Farther on, a Spanish cedar walkway spans a small wetland planted with 15,000 irises. For two weeks each spring, the meadow blooms in shades of blue, with a thin line of white flowers and a smattering of red. Landman calls it painting with flowers. In all, he and Stick have planted more than 400,000 bulbs. “I’ve had people get lost here and come back with their jaw hanging down,” Landman tells me. “Not physically lost but emotionally lost. Step around every corner, and you’re in this whole other world. It’s magical.”
Back at Waverley Farm, Stick and I continue our ramble, past rose arbors and beneath hornbeam arches, eventually entering a vast kitchen garden. Except for a few rows of greens, it lies dormant until the next growing season. Even this, the most practical section of Stick’s garden, is laid out with meticulous precision. Neatly trimmed boxwood parterres studded with topiary works in progress—Stick’s own experimentation—frame the vegetable beds. “Can you have a practical garden for sustenance and make it beautiful?” Stick muses. “Jefferson said yes.”
The gesture traces back to Stick’s tomato vines and hockey sticks, his need to order the landscape. Who knows where that urge will take him next?
“I actually think we’re all divine beings,” he says. “I’m not well versed enough to know what that means in terms of a Judeo-Christian
concept, but I know in my own soul my life is very, very special. That is part of why I feel obligated to make something more beautiful.”