Garden Variety

A Sprawling Public Garden

Restoring a 1920s Houston garden back to its original splendor

Wynn Myers

The Clio garden, planted by a Texas philanthropist in 1929, surrounds a marble statue of Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology.

The cultural landscape historian and professor emerita Suzanne Turner’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana, firm, Suzanne Turner Associates, strives to recover not only the elements of historic gardens but also their meanings. “I’m interested in what these landscapes tell us about life during the period,” Turner says.

One of her trickiest projects was the restoration of the landscape at the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens in Houston. The Houston Museum of Fine Arts owns and operates the house museum, once the residence of the philanthropist Ima Hogg. But it had left the upkeep of the gardens to the River Oaks Garden Club, and decades of their good intentions got in the way. “As chairmen came on board who had not worked with Hogg or known her personally,” Turner says, “details of the garden became lost as tastes in plantings changed.”

Hogg planned the gardens in the 1920s to reflect the Beaux-Arts-influenced grandeur typical of the era. Yet she also brought many of her own ideas that countered the formalism with a respect for the old-growth tree canopy and local flora.

Using everything from aerial photography to an extensive archival review of Hogg’s receipts, Turner was able to bring back the plantings that Hogg favored in the 1920s and 1930s, such as old varieties of iris. “This helps us tell the bigger story,” she says, “about how this garden interfaced with Ima Hogg’s life and how she shared it with the public.”