Paca's Garden Offers Lush Window On Colonial Past

April 26, 1992|By Michael R. Driscoll | Michael R. Driscoll,Staff writer

If, as it has been said, an Englishman's home is his castle, then what is his garden?

Well, judging by the two-acre garden of the William Paca House in Annapolis and the comments of those who care for it, it must be the next best thing to heaven. Or at the very least Paca's garden was, in the words of a contemporary chronicler, "the most elegant in Annapolis."

And it seems the restored garden of today has something of the old magic. "It's a delightful place to be," said Lucy Coggins, who started her career with the garden eight years ago as a volunteer and today serves as its full-time director.

Steven Jahncke, a Georgia-born botanist, horticulturist and the newly appointed garden superintendent said the garden greatly impresses visitors.

"Everybody that comes here seems to be amazed at how well-maintained it is and how muchis in a two-acre area."

As for his own impressions of the garden,he says:

"I find it amazing that I can make a living doing something that I find so rewarding. The longer I'm here, the more I appreciate this garden. In my experience, I usually take a job and then I have to really go in and fix the garden I have to work with. But this garden is very well fixed, and all it needs is to be maintained."

William Paca, who was born in Harford County in 1740, was one of the more prominent citizens of Annapolis in the pre-Revolutionary War era.He was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Paca died on Wye Island in 1799.

Historically, the garden bloomed between 1765 and 1772, an example of the picturesque style popular in England when Paca visited in 1761.

During those times, a well-maintained garden was not only a practical thing to have, but the mark of a gentleman as well, Coggins said.

"Gardens were very important to men of that period," she explained. "We think of them as being something well-off ladies have today, but they were certainly a status symbol for men of the period (who) would take visitors out into the garden and show them around. They would take great pride in having the best vegetables or fruit at the table for their guests."

But by the mid-19th century the garden had disappeared. In 1907, the 200-room Carvel Hotel was built on the former garden site, and a bus station and parking lot were added later.

In 1965, both the Paca House and the Hotel were to be razed and an office building put up in their place. But theHistoric Annapolis Foundation joined forces with the state of Maryland to purchase the area, and begin its rescue.

The garden opened first, and was followed by the house. Today, the fully restored William Paca House and Garden serve as excellent examples of the restorer'sart, as well as a window on the colonial past of Annapolis.

Like the house, the garden is managed by Historic Annapolis Inc. It is maintained by a permanent staff of five gardeners under the direction ofJahncke, plus between 30 and 40 volunteers.

The garden contains more than 250 types of plants. Unfortunately, not many of them can be identified as plants that Paca might have cultivated.

"We have very few documentary pieces of evidence from Paca," Coggins said. "He's somewhat of an enigma for one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, so we use a great deal of information that is available from Annapolis, some just from Maryland and some just from the period."

But all things considered, this style of collection has turned the garden into a living laboratory of the kind of plants that were known to grow in colonial America or that are native to the area today.

Jahncke, formerly with the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., talked about the purpose of the garden, both then and now.

The family raised vegetables in the garden, he said, but "they tried to make the producing part ornamental, like the fruit trees. The growth iscontrolled, and it's also a more efficient use of space."

This makes the garden especially valuable today because "in horticulture, we're always losing older species that are not so disease resistant, sothe garden is a repository of old genetic material," he said.

He also pointed out the purely historical and educational value of the garden, since it shows "how people did things back in the olden days."

"Many of the trees we have native here were used (and) many of the shrubs that are native to the area were used back in those days," said Jahncke. "There are plants brought from the Orient, a long time ago, that went through England then came here."

Coggins explained that the Paca House and Garden have value in other ways as well.

"It's a tremendous tourist attraction. Photographs of it are used to promote the area, and it's the site for some major conferences and receptions for entertaining visitors to Maryland. It's a symbol of the success of the area in preservation, because it shows what really can be done with the history of an area to enhance it economically as wellas culturally."

The William Paca House and Garden, 186 Prince George St., Annapolis, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

Admission to the house and garden is $5 for adults and $3 for children. There will be a special free day between noon and 5 p.m. May 17, featuring local artists and horticultural experts who will talk about plants and offer advice.

For more information, call 263-5553.

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