An Antebellum Parterre in Savannah

Symmetry and surprise blossom side by side in this Georgia garden

Photo: James R. Lockhart

The walled garden’s cutwork parterre. The owner, Connie Hartridge, has preserved the space and the exterior of the house for future generations through an easement with the Historic Savannah Foundation.

You’ll pardon the tourists who park themselves on the stoop of the handsome Barbados-style home on Savannah’s Lafayette Square, mistaking it for a museum. The brick house and its pleasure garden emit an air of importance—the striking formality of the home and the high walls that have protected the garden from hurricanes and prying eyes for more than 165 years contrast with a gorgeous tangle of climbing vines that have broken free from the space, sneaking up a magnificent magnolia.

Cornelia “Connie” Hartridge’s son was not so forgiving; when Thomas was five, he posted handwritten signs on the front door declaring, “This is not a museum; this is Tom’s house!” Hartridge and her husband, the late Walter C. Hartridge II, purchased the circa-1852 home, then known as the Battersby house, in 1978 and raised their family there, making them pioneers in a movement to repopulate historic Savannah—parts of which were crime ridden at the time—following a mass exodus to the suburbs. Friends called them crazy, but the Hartridges recognized a gem when they saw it.

Photo: James R. Lockhart

The Battersby-Hartridge House, as seen from Lafayette Square.

“This is one of Savannah’s last remaining antebellum parterre gardens,” says preservationist Mary Ann Eaddy, who with coauthor and garden scholar Staci L. Catron included the Battersby-Hartridge garden in the book Seeking Eden: A Collection of Georgia’s Historic Gardens, released this April by the University of Georgia Press. “Over the years, various owners have made their personal changes, but its basic form and geometric layout remain intact.” A stunning achievement, considering the majority of Savannah’s historic gardens have given way to lawns, swimming pools, or parking lots.

Hartridge, an interior designer by trade, embraced the
garden as an extension of the house. She flung open shutters to eastern breezes carrying the ambient perfumes of blooming roses, tea olives, wisterias, and orange trees. The wide veranda served as an outdoor room for breakfast or evening drinks looking down over the ornate hip-high boxwood labyrinth where the children played hide-and-seek. She made alterations along the way, including the addition of more boxwoods to lessen the need for time-consuming and expensive annual plantings such as the thousands of pansies, violets, and snowdrops taken on by previous owners.

Photo: James R. Lockhart

The piazza overlooks the parterre design.

Sometimes the couple spied neighborhood boys climbing the garden walls to pilfer fruit from loquat trees, but unlike other historic “peeping gardens,” whose wrought-iron gates invite passersby to peek in, the high walls mean the garden keeps its secrets. When viewed from the second-story piazza, the parterre design appears symmetrical and orderly. Yet from the ground, the garden shifts and surprises, a space to be experienced as much as admired. Three distinct garden “rooms” transition with dramatic effect, from the formality of the boxwood maze to a secluded shade garden spanning the rear wall, where a legion of ferns segue to an open brick patio edged with moss and anchored by a massive American plane tree original to the garden. 

Photo: James R. Lockhart

Hartridge arranged the boxwood plantings in a “hugs-and-kisses” pattern of x’s and o's.

“Most Southerners are exquisitely tied to space, and we were really blessed,” Hartridge says. “I’ve spent forty years here. The garden has become almost architectural, some of the vines are so big.” In “happy accidents,” climbing roses have piggybacked on walls and the magnolia and American hollies to create a three-story verdant oasis, making the garden as vertical as it is grounded.

“It’s been a joy and work,” Hartridge reflects, “but most things in life that are worthwhile take work. It’s my memento mori”—an object symbolizing mortality and transience. “Things are either growing or they’re dying, quite like life. Fortunately I’m still growing.”