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At Historic Box Knot Garden, a Return to Form

By Deirdre BannonCurrent Staff Writer

At Tudor Place, the early-19th-century Georgetown estate, something old is new again: After nearly 80 years, the home’s well-known box knot garden has been fully restored.

An official dedication will take place May 8 for the geometrically designed garden, which now features new boxwood plants and rosebushes along with an improved drainage system. Meanwhile, a report on findings from a recent archaeological dig at the garden is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

The garden’s formal layout now more closely resembles the way it appeared in 1933. That design, in turn, was modeled after the home’s original garden from the early 1800s, planted by the home’s first owner and Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Martha Custis.

“The restoration of the box knot garden really brings to life one of the very earliest landscape features of the property,” said Leslie Buhler, executive director of Tudor Place.

“The need was clearly there because the knot garden that had been there was failing,” Buhler said. “The garden was suffering from water damage due to poor drainage and changing climatic conditions. This was the first major project to restore a historic feature like this on the property, and that was very exciting.”

The project took place in fall 2011 after months of planning. The drainage system, though replaced about five years prior, wasn’t working as it should have: The ground had become overly saturated and the soil too compact, and as a result the boxwood plants were dying.

Suzanne Bouchard, Tudor Place’s director of gardens and grounds, determined that the only way to save the garden was to completely overhaul it.

“We removed everything,” said Bouchard, who managed the project.

First, the garden was mapped and the plants were tagged. Rosebushes were cut back to between 10 and 15 inches tall for easier removal, and were later replanted in their original locations.

But the existing boxwoods had a different fate.

“Instead of replacing the English boxwood that was there, we changed the variety that we put back in, using Green Beauty boxwood for the exterior border and Justin Brouwers boxwood for the interior border because they’re much hardier and can tolerate the conditions of the knot garden much better,” Bouchard said.

The boxwoods that could be saved were replanted elsewhere on the grounds.

The restoration process also yielded a unique opportunity: Since the garden was bare for the first time in 80 years, an archaeological dig could be conducted on one of the property’s most historic areas.

According to Buhler, archaeologists unearthed a number of artifacts within several 5-foot grids, including porcelain and glass, as well as bricks that might date back to house’s original construction. They also discovered a layer of oyster shells used in the garden’s original pathways as well as in the driveway.

“There’s so much you can’t know until you go into the ground to try to find it, including early buildings that aren’t on any maps,” Buhler said.

Previous digs on other areas of the property found evidence of what might have been a dairy building, along with a substantial 18th-century structure that appears to have burned down.

“It’s fascinating, so you try to piece everything together, and you look at letters, diaries and things like that to see what was on the site and to try to get a picture of everything that was once there,” Buhler said.

The property has an illustrious past. The land, comprising one city block on 31st Street between Q and R streets, was purchased in the early 1800s by Thomas Peter, son of the first mayor of Georgetown, and his wife Martha Custis Peter. They designed the home and gardens with the help of self-taught architect William Thornton, who also designed the first U.S. Capitol building.

For 179 years, the home remained in the Peter family, which often entertained political and cultural leaders. Following the death in 1988 of owner Armistead Peter III, the home opened as a historic site under the stewardship of the Tudor Place Foundation. The property is classified as a national historic landmark.

The recent project isn’t the first time that Tudor Place’s box knot garden has needed restoration. Back in the 1860s, then-owner Britannia Peter Kennon leased the property to tenants for financial reasons, and the garden fell into disrepair. Due to the Civil War, it could not be immediately restored once Kennon returned. For more than 60 years, it was thought that the garden’s pattern was lost forever.

It was Armistead III who found the garden’s original design. A Peter family cousin had made a rendering of it in the early 1800s so she could replicate it at her Virginia estate, Avenel. Armistead spotted the drawing in a book on historic Virginia gardens published in 1926, and used it as inspiration for the 1933 restoration.

The current restoration was the first phase of a plan to restore all of the gardens at Tudor Place.

“It’s rare to have a historic site in the middle of the city that still has enough of its land to be able to explore that history,” said Buhler. She hopes that visitors are “able to come and see how a box knot was done in the early 1800s and imagine what they might be able to do in their own gardens today.”

Admission to Tudor Place starts at $3 for self-guided tours, including an audio guide that can be downloaded to smartphones. Details are available at

This article appears in the May 2 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.