A belvedere “modeled after the music pavilion at Versailles,” according to the Open Days Directory.
We garden tourists knew this would be the most opulent garden on the Open Days Austin tour. A feature in the newspaper that tantalized with lavish photos promised, “[You'll find] enchantment that begs for lyrical descriptions . . .”
The park-like grounds, hidden in plain sight behind a high wall and tall trees, practically in downtown, had never been open to the public before, and no one, least of all me, wanted to miss it. So all of Austin apparently made a beeline for the Harris Boulevard garden, owned by Steve Hicks (former radio-station magnate and current chairman of an investment company) and Donna Stockton-Hicks (owner of a design studio), located in elegant Pemberton Heights. Lemming-like, I joined the throng of cars and people navigating the narrow streets surrounding the object of desire.
I had to park my car about half a mile away. As I hiked back to the Harris Blvd. estate, another home caught my eye : an ivy-swathed castle, complete with gargoyles and crenelated parapets. Now that’s not something you see every day. Keepin’ Austin weird, even in Pemberton Heights.
Could the Harris Blvd. house top this?
Yes, it could. Less gothic and more “Prince Charming,” this Italianate manse and its 4 1/2-acre garden delivered on the wow factor. Extravagant in the way that only years of money-letting allows, the garden is classically romantic. The entry court, pictured above, with its red-brick drive, elegant portico, and bas-relief elephants looks across to a tableau of urns and a wall fountain.
As in the David-Peese garden, fig ivy creeps across the architecture oh so naturally-looking, though this effect must require the indentured servitude of a staff of pruners. Look at how it drapes, like a swagged curtain, on either side of the fountain, carpeting the recessed spaces behind the urns and twining “effortlessly” around the columns.
Near the front of the house, a dozen frogs spout water into a long, narrow pool, adding a whimsical element to the classic design.
No lawnettes here. Flowing from the rear of the house, a sea of grass surrounded by mature trees emphasizes just how large this garden is. In fact, the lawn is only a small part of it.
Another view of the lawn from the terrace
Looping back toward the entry court, you descend a series of terraced patios to the most delightful part of the garden: a curving, stone path bisected by a runnel. Hmm, do I sense a theme on this tour? Remember the runnel in the stairs at the David-Peese garden? This one is even better. The garden’s formality eases here as the path gently curves, bending the runnel along with it. Small boulders in the stream bring it chatteringly to life, as do delicate ferns planted here and there along its length. Small waterfalls mark changes in elevation.
The flowing water and curving path draw you along.
Periodically, a hidden alcove opens along the path, revealing a sculpture by Charles Umlauf. Behind Jesus you can see an expanse of woodland shade garden punctuated with native palmettos and, yes, azaleas. Azaleas do not grow naturally or well in Austin’s dry, alkaline soil, and I’m always surprised to see them used here.
A couple I met on this tour told me they’d spoken to one of three full-time gardeners working on this property. Three. Full-time. Occasionally, he said, they need six gardeners. Probably the azaleas explain at least half of them.
Ah, the money shot. The runnel curves gracefully to the edge of a virtual lake in the rear garden. They call it a koi pond. It’s only a few feet deep but contains 125,000 gallons of water, according to the guide book. On the other side of the “pond,” a white folly rises from the water. The guide book informed me that it was a belvedere. I didn’t know exactly what a belvedere was, so after the tour I looked it up in the dictionary: “A building designed and situated to look out upon a pleasing view.” Uh-huh, that’s what it was, all right.
Eurydice and the serpent? She seems kind of plunked down here compared to the careful placement and elevation of the Umlauf bronzes.
Back at the house, I noticed this intricate gate set in a fig-ivied wall. Gorgeous! It reminds me of garden gates in Charleston or New Orleans.
I’m still amazed to recall the size and classical ambition of this in-town garden. That the house and garden can still be privately owned further astounds me. Think of the taxes! Though I felt a certain detachment from this garden (only because it is so far out of reach), what an enjoyable, wow-inducing stroll it was.
All material © 2006-2008 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.