In the early 1900s, the Duke Mansion in Myers Park was the place to go on a Sunday afternoon.
Hydroelectric power pioneer Buck Duke, who bought the house in 1919 and expanded it to 32,000 square feet, built the grand fountain in front of the mansion on Hermitage Road and opened it to the public.
Duke wanted to put the power of water on display for all to see. According to stories, the “Wonder Fountain” shot water 150 feet in the air, said Patricia Higgins Martin, development director for The Duke Mansion.
A street in Dilworth is named Fountain View because the fountain could be seen from there.
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“The thing in Charlotte was to come and walk around his grounds,” Martin said. “People would ride the streetcar here and look around.”
Almost 100 years later, the mechanics of the Wonder Fountain are in the basement of a house on Ardsley Road and the fountain’s base is no more. Its legacy, however, is inspiring a $1.6 million renovation to the house and gardens that will make Duke Mansion more accessible to the public.
Laurie Durden, owner of Laurie Durden Garden Design, has been charged with making over the gardens. She’s planned for 17 mini-gardens on the 4.5-acre property, and about one third have been completed.
The design calls for a walking loop around the property with accesses from the sidewalks on Ardsley and Hermitage roads.
“If you’re walking in the neighborhood, we want you to be able to walk in to (the grounds) and keep going,” she said.
In the late 1990s, a nonprofit organization was established to protect the mansion. Rick and Dee Ray, founders of Raycom Sports who owned the house at the time, sold it to the new agency.
The mansion became an inn and meeting place, and some of it, including the grounds, was opened to the public. But thick trees and shrubs have made the mansion seem hidden, and the grounds have been rarely used.
“There are openings (to the sidewalks), but it doesn’t say, ‘Welcome, come in,’ ” Durden said. “There was no place to really be outside, no focal point.”
Durden grew up in Charlotte, and she spent 10 years working as a landscape architect in New York before starting her own firm there. She moved back to Charlotte in 2002.
Martin said Durden understands the “Southern aesthetic” that the nonprofit wants to preserve.
“She knows how Charlotte looks and feels,” Martin said. “We want (the gardens) to look like they belong with the house.”
Durden said she drew inspiration from the house itself, a 20th-century, Colonial revival mansion. She’s also drawn in more modern garden aesthetics, such as today’s popular outdoor living spaces.
The first phase of renovations have opened up the back yard of the Duke Mansion, adding a decomposed granite walking path, a pavilion, landscaped gardens and a graded back yard. Martin said visitors now are drawn to the back yard.
Durden is working with Providence Landscape Group to bring in native plants such as crape myrtles, camellias and hydrangeas. They also have removed many invasive plant species from the grounds.
The renovations are funded through a $6.5 million campaign that pays for the garden and house improvements as well as an endowment that will fund the upkeep.
“The garden has to be beautiful forever,” Martin said.
Many of the 17 gardens are named after the families who donated money. Each garden is separate and unique, ranging from a hedged “Secret Garden” to a potager, a vegetable and herb cutting garden near the house’s kitchen.
Work slowed in the summer during wedding season and hot weather, and another phase of garden renovations will begin this fall, Durden said. Future work includes renovating the Duke Mansion’s front yard and continuing to plant the remaining smaller gardens.
Martin said many people have asked if the mansion’s hedged drive will remain. It will.
Duke Mansion board members and staff hope the renovations will add the to the mansion’s growing popularity as a site for parties and community gatherings. The mansion opened for weddings – it allows 25 a year – three years ago, and it usually books up for the year by early spring.
The house has hosted educational events, and in the early days a good event would draw 20 people; one time, no one showed up, Martin said. Now, the events are by registration only and can attract several hundred people.
Most of the work should be done by the mansion’s 100th birthday in 2015.
“We’ve barely begun (on the renovations),” Martin said. “Over time, people will have great opportunities to enjoy all of it.”