Keith G. Robinson’s Mercedes crunches up the driveway to his home in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, an antebellum estate called Hutcheson-Redwine Plantation. Robinson emerges from his car and takes a deep breath of the moist, pine-sweet air. He looks around, first to the open pavilion he built under the roof of a former tractor shed. There, behind a comfy sitting area, bunches of shallots from his garden hang to cure, put-ups of fig jam and peach preserves crowd shelves, and a twenty-four-foot table sports a single runner so long it could be used by a Cirque du Soleil aerialist. He looks to the acre-plus vegetable garden just beyond. And then his eyes alight on the back door, where a creature has apparently upended his garbage bin and scattered its contents everywhere. “Ah, the joys of country life,” he says, laughing.
Before dealing with the mess, Robinson heads into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee. That room, like the rest of the house, brims with beautiful objects, furnishings, and curios — from faience saucers stacked on the walls to a tapering wrought iron display stand sporting colored glasses as bright as Christmas ornaments. Every item comes with a story, even the range’s hood cover, hand built from the wood of a grand old cedar felled and milled on the estate. None of it registers as clutter so much as the expansive abundance of a historic home reclaiming its truer, better self.
Built around 1841 by James Hutcheson, a Scotch-Irish immigrant, Hutcheson-Redwine once served as the main house for a 10,000-acre cotton and cattle plantation that extended over five counties. At its height, the property included a double cotton gin, a foundry, a grist mill, and a general store. But when Robinson, an event designer and caterer, moved in five years ago, it was to a gently sagging old farmhouse and a 35-acre plot of rolling land, its once-tended gardens lost to decades of inattention. The owner, Frank Redwine, didn’t want to sell his family estate, so the two men agreed to a lifelong lease whereby Robinson would be the property’s steward. The house needed restoration, and the land begged for the touch of a gardener who could respect its history while finding creative inspiration in its wild charms.
Robinson relished the challenge. After living in Atlanta for twenty-five years, he was eager to return to the country. The first major problems were structural. “I was ripping the cabinets off the kitchen wall, and the wall came with,” Robinson says with a laugh. But there were finds everywhere. Window cornices in the barn, signed and dated by the artist. An antique sorghum syrup kettle in the yard. The shopkeeper’s chair from the general store.
While digging through the garden, Robinson found a military belt buckle dating to the time the Union Army used the house as an encampment. “The story is that Sherman didn’t burn this house because Mr. Hutcheson, like him, was a Freemason.” This theory was borne out by a Maltese cross (a Masonic symbol) he later discovered in the garden’s boxwood design.
What the yard lacked was color. Other than a few great crape myrtles, there were no blooming plants, shrubs, or flowers. Robinson planted flower beds next to the house, taking “things one would see in a Southern garden and marrying them to things one would see in an English cottage garden.” During his first spring on the property, a scattering of bulbs came up as volunteers throughout the yard, from daffodils to a variety of Naked Ladies (belladonna lilies) in shades ranging from coral red to deep red to pink.
The site of a razed greenhouse beside his house provided a starting point from which Robinson organically built outward. “I just started creating all of these pathways and outdoor spaces, ultimately ending with a series of ‘garden rooms’ around the house,” he says. In deference to a Redwine ancestor who was a renowned rose gardener, he introduced many Southern heirloom rosebushes. The vegetable garden supplies his kitchen and his catering business year-round. “I grow everything but corn,” he says.
Back in the house, Robinson points out a framed photo of a stout black woman in a long gown. “That’s Miss Ezra, who ran the kitchen.” He pauses for a moment, then answers the tacit question. “These people did own slaves, and I have the bill of sale for all of them. Yet they’ve decided a person of color would be the steward of their family’s legacy.”
The photo, like many of the priceless objects throughout the house, is a gift from the Redwine family. As for the house itself and the gardens that he has transformed? Robinson would like to see the family entrust them to the State of Georgia as a living museum, but that’s a long way off. “I plan to be here for the rest of my life,” he says. “I feel like I have found my dream.”