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Duke mansion opens its new, sprawling gardens to the public

A view of The Duke Mansion garden. Thanks to an ambitious expansion project, the grounds are undergoing a renaissance of their own.
A view of The Duke Mansion garden. Thanks to an ambitious expansion project, the grounds are undergoing a renaissance of their own. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

To mark its 100th anniversary, the Duke Mansion is ready to put out a welcome mat outdoors.

Tucked on some of Charlotte’s most prestigious and pricey real estate, the stately Duke Mansion is enjoying a renaissance as a community resource – home of the Lee Institute for Leadership, corporate gathering space, plush wedding venue and even as a romantic bed-and-breakfast retreat.

But known as a garden? At best, until recently the 4.5-acre property had what was considered a rather neglected yard. Only paying or private guests had access to the well-hidden property.

Thanks to an ambitious expansion project, the grounds are undergoing a renaissance of their own.

Moreover, with a master landscape design now in place, the mansion’s gardens have been groomed for enjoyment by the public for the first time in the history of the house.

Built in 1915 in the new, swank Myers Park neighborhood by industrialist Zeb Taylor, the mansion was bought in 1919 by tobacco magnate James B. “Buck” Duke, who tripled the Colonial Revival house in size to 32,000 square feet. Duke used the house as his North Carolina base to launch Duke University, the company now known as Duke Energy, and the ground-breaking Duke Endowment.

After Duke’s death in 1925, the property was bought by C.C. Coddington, owner of a Buick dealership and WBT radio, followed in succession by textile giants Martin L. Cannon and Henry Lineberger. By 1976 the mansion, in a state of decline, was left to the Duke Endowment. Plans by the Junior League to open a small meeting center found little traction, as did an idea to carve up the house into condominiums.

Dee and Rick Ray of Raycom Sports bought and refurbished the house for several years, but in 1996 they sold it to a nonprofit foundation whose aim was to preserve the estate and create a leadership institute. Named in memory of Duke Energy chairman William S. Lee, the institute received a gift of $4.5 million from Duke Energy in 2000 to insure its long-term success.

Grounds long ignored

Today listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Duke Mansion is an inn and meeting venue that can host events for up to 300 guests.

Curiously, except for some handsome mature trees, boxwoods and four fountains installed by Buck Duke, the grounds surrounding the house seem never to have been a particular focus of its various owners. Only two of the fountains remain. One corner of the lot was piled with beer cans and other household refuse. There was no cohesion and nothing to connect the house to the yard or one part of the yard to another.

As Cyndee Patterson, president of the Mansion and Lee Institute, and her board began anticipating their 100th anniversary, an idea struck them as pure gold: Develop the garden as an extension of the property’s entertainment space and enhance the distinctive house, with its huge windows, by bringing the outdoors indoors.

An additional dividend: They could create a welcoming spot not just for their Myers Park neighbors, but for people from throughout the community, tying in urban green spaces nearby – the county-maintained Edgehill Park and the privately maintained “Squirrel Park” between Hermitage and Providence Roads.

The Duke Mansion board set a goal of $5 million to build up its endowment and cover capital improvements to the garden. According to Development Director Pat Martin, the campaign is “going great.”

Children’s play garden

Meanwhile, Patterson and her volunteer leadership hired landscape designer Laurie Durden to guide the process. Providence Landscape Group donated some of` the actual installation work in a trade partnership with the Mansion. Now, two years later, the initial phase is complete.

The back patio was enlarged and outlined by beds of white flowers to complement the stark white exterior of the house itself, and in contrast to the large expanse of grass beyond it.

A network of garden “rooms” connected by paths now lie on three sides of the house, overlooked by the sleeping porches of several guest rooms. One donor family established a prayer garden in honor of their grandchildren; another created a kitchen garden from which the in-house chef harvests herbs and other produce. Eventually, a cutting garden will supply many of the flowers used in the house.

There’s a children’s play garden with whimsical statuary and a rose garden where a swimming pool was previously installed. The former waste dump is now a woodland walk anchored by a huge magnolia tree.

“We’ve built spaces with as much structure as possible,” says Durden, “and have staggered the bloom time so there’s color and texture going on year-round.” Her selections were weighed heavily toward plants that would have been popular when the mansion was built – irises, peonies, camellias, hydrangeas, crape myrtle trees. “We wanted it to maintain the feel of an old Southern home,” she explains.

One favorite spot is bound to be the sunny, colorful “Welcome Garden.” It will probably be the first area encountered by many casual visitors. It lies just beyond a gate on the back side of the fenced property on Ardsley Road near Hermitage. If the gate is open, visitors should feel welcome to enter.

“We’re thrilled to be able to share that with people who’d like to come and get a feel of the place,” said Patterson. “It’s a perfect garden for strolling.”

If you’re going

The garden of the Duke Mansion, 400 Hermitage Road, is open to the public during daylight hours when the mansion is not rented for a private function. Weekends are often booked. However, if the gate on Ardsley Road near the intersection of Hermitage is open, please feel free to enter.

Parking may be available in the mansion’s front lot, from which the garden is accessible on the side. Admission is free. Garden tours of various levels of interest are planned for the future. Call the front desk, 704-714-4000, to check availability.

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