Long before he was one of the South’s great garden designers, and before he made his name creating imaginative rooftop terraces for city-dwelling celebrities, Jon Carloftis was just a Kentucky boy gazing out his parents’ car window as they drove through the elms and oaks of Lexington’s Richmond Road. The majestic 1920s homes along the east side of the city were mesmerizing. He had two favorites, one of which was a three-story redbrick house with white columns at the doorway. Carloftis’s mother always teased her son that he’d like an outhouse if it had columns.
Decades later, around 2010, he received a call from Alicia and D. B. Kazee. The couple had purchased the big brick home of Carloftis’s childhood dreams a few years before, and were finally ready to renovate, inside and out. Their interior designer, Matthew Carter, recommended Carloftis for the garden.
photo: Caroline Allison
On distinguished, if busy, streets like Richmond Road, where a grassy median separates the traffic and sunlight flickers through hundred-year-old trees, it’s easy to assume backyards match the fronts. That wasn’t so here. Carloftis walked behind the home and found an overgrown backyard where Alicia had wrapped orange construction fencing around her vegetable garden to keep animals out. Strangely, there were only two small windows on the first floor of the back side of the house—or maybe that wasn’t so strange, given what little there was to see back there.
Over the next two years, Carloftis called on a lifetime of knowledge to transform the Kazees’ backyard into an elegant Kentucky escape. At the center of it, on an elevated platform and surrounded by tuteurs where cherry tomatoes grow, stands a conservatory with a chandelier inside. A pathway lined with boxwood hedges connects the conservatory platform to the home, adding to the powerful effect: If you walk in a line from Richmond Road to the front door, then straight into the house, the sparkling conservatory pulls your eyes back outside again. “Put anything on a pedestal,” Carloftis says, “and it’s instantly more important.”
Around that pedestal, the garden satisfies Alicia Kazee’s craving for symmetry. Each side of the walkway mirrors the other. Thigh-high boxwood delineates square edges. What was once a tangle of weeds and vegetables is now a diverse display, neatly arranged. Something’s always blooming or ripening—tulips and daffodils in the spring, hydrangeas as summer settles in, giant sunflowers toward the end of summer, pears in the fall. On a winter night, with a dusting of snow around it, the brightest bloom is the conservatory, where Alicia stores tropical plants in the winter.
Carloftis strives to make his gardens extensions of the house. On the Richmond Road project, he worked closely with Carter, who guided the renovation of the interior. The architect, Tim Winters, fashioned windows in the kitchen so the Kazees can see their flowers while making dinner. Winters also created a covered porch, where on summer nights the family sits and listens to the water in the koi pond, sunk five feet deep so herons can’t snatch the fish.
Now Alicia grows her own vegetables and flowers, with guidance from Carloftis, and trims the bushes herself. She grew up in a one-story ranch a few blocks away in Lexington and considers herself pretty low-key. During the home renovation—the house still had antiquated knob-and-tube wiring in 2010—all she asked of Carter was to preserve the 1920s feel, but to make sure each room was comfortable. As Carloftis puts it, “there’s no Louis XIV room.”
That same ease is apparent in the garden, where Alicia clears her mind through work. It’s where she taught her two daughters, who are seventeen and fifteen, to be happy with dirty hands, too. Some of her favorite pictures show them standing next to the sunflowers. “It’s my secret little place,” she says. “I can always get my dig-in-the-dirt fix.”
Along one side of the house, Carloftis moved the driveway to open up space, and Winters designed a covered walkway to the four-car garage. Once an eyesore, the area in front of the garage now hosts the Kazees’ dinner parties. Among their regular guests is Carloftis, whom they now consider a good friend, and who just happens to be a celebrated garden designer who was once the boy daydreaming about their home on Richmond Road.
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