I bet you could name five gardens or public spaces off the top of your head right now. My five are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Versailles, Lotusland in Montecito, California, the White House Kitchen Garden, and the HMS Legacy Garden.
Each of my five choices, and no doubt yours as well, are wildly different in size and scale (and the first may actually be more legendary than real), but they all send a unique message to the world. From the “Look at my wealth and opulence!” of Versailles to the “Sit quietly, marvel, and meditate” of Lotusland, the founders used their spaces to elicit feelings and prompt certain behaviors from their visitors. Far from static spaces plunked on random plots of land, gardens serve as symbols that could intimidate (I’m looking at you Louis XIV) or nurture and celebrate a community, as is the goal for HMS’s new Legacy Garden.
Every garden has a sense of history stretching from its founding up through its present patrons. With the ground breaking on the HMS Legacy Garden this Spring, why not hop through space and time to look at the deliberate place and purpose of some famous gardens?
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Ok, I’m cheating a bit with this one, since I already confessed that it is likely more legendary than real. While the rest of the fabled Seven Wonders of the Ancient World survived for centuries and attracted many writers, only a handful of descriptions of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon survive, and those don’t even agree on who built the gardens or why.
Babylon was located on the flood plains of the Euphrates River, just south of modern-day Baghdad in Iraq. While the surrounding territory was flat, the Hanging Gardens were said to stand 75 feet tall and require 8,200 gallons of water each day. Machines were built to pump water up to the top, and the tiered construction allowed the water to drip down to water the lower levels. Constructing such a garden on a flat plane was an engineering marvel and a clear sign that its creator had the resources, ingenuity, and might necessary to overcome natural limitations.
The purpose of a garden reveals other messages that visitors were meant to understand, but there are two different accounts of the origins of the Hanging Gardens, so we can’t be certain of the original intent. One ancient writer claimed that the semi-legendary, semi-divine Queen Semiramis of Assyria (r. 811-806 B.C.E.) built the gardens, while another credits the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562 B.C.E.). According to the latter account, the king built the terraced gardens for his wife, who hailed from a hillier and more verdant region. The garden was a symbol of his love.
To this date, though, no one has found a trace of magnificent ancient gardens where Babylon once stood. There is ample evidence, however, from the reign of Sennacherib (r. 705-681 B.C.E.) in Nineveh (present day Mosul, Iraq), which was nicknamed “Old Babylon,” and which has become archeologists’ favored hypothetical location for the Hanging Gardens. Judging by the above wall relief, the scale of the gardens at Nineveh were surely an awe-inspiring sight.
At the age of nine, Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) was held captive by nobles staging a palace coup. They reportedly broke into his bed chamber in the middle of the night, causing Louis, so the stories go, to never sleep in the dark again. He also never trusted his nobles again, and in 1661, the year Louis threw off the yoke of an overbearing prime minister, he began major expansion of the palace and grounds at Versailles, about 12 miles from Paris. The distance from the nobles, with their mansions in the capital city, private places where they could meet and plot, at first provided Louis a safe haven. By 1682, however, he had expanded Versailles (nearly 2,000 acres today) to become the main residence of the French court and government. Here, Louis could keep a close eye on his nobles.
Louis envisioned his gardens as an oasis of geometrical order and beauty imposed on a land that, in 1661, comprised marshy lowlands and thick forests. Crafting order from nature’s tangle would notify the world that Louis, like God creating the earth from chaos, could bend even nature to his will. To realize his vision, Louis employed whole regiments to dig out the fountains and canals, and he redirected water from the Seine River approximately six miles away to feed them. The physical location did not limit Louis, so much as offer him an opportunity to showcase his mastery over the world.
Louis used his gardens to subdue his nobles and overawe visitors. The many statues and fountains depicted scenes to convey the message that Louis was a god among men and not one to be questioned. The Enceladus Fountain, for example, depicts the mythological giant struggling to dig himself out from the mountain in which Zeus buried him for daring to rebel. Louis’s message was clear: Louis, like Zeus, would severely punish any rebels. Louis also likened himself to Apollo, even playing the role of the Greek god in a ballet in 1654. The Apollo Fountain at Versailles depicts this Greek god surging from the water, driving his chariot to drag the sun into the sky to start the day, just as Louis insisted France’s day began when he arose in the morning.
The palace and gardens of Versailles became an unstoppable showstopper, copied by wannabe-absolute rulers all over Europe, resulting in such standouts as Schloss Shönbrunn in Austria and Peterhof in Russia.
Ganna Walska Lotusland in Montecito, California
At 37-acres, Lotusland is one of the smallest and least well-known of the gardens and parks on my short-list of favorites. I’m guessing that it did not make it onto even your long-list.
Intending to create a Californian retreat for Buddhist Tibetan monks, the Polish opera singer and socialite, Madame Ganna Walska, bought the house and grounds in 1941. The retreat never took off, and Madam Walska instead focused on creating a sanctuary for rare and exquisite plants from around the world; it now houses more than 3,000 species from around the world. To showcase her collection, she fashioned a series of “garden rooms,” each with its own signature style, such as the Blue Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Cactus Garden, or the Fern Garden.
Upon her death, Madam Walska left her house and grounds to the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation so that the public could enjoy her creation. The foundation limits the number of visitors each year, adding to the sense of intimacy fostered by the unique feel of each garden room.
White House Kitchen Garden
In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama broke ground on the White House Kitchen Garden, located on the South Lawn, but food production at the White House has a long history. President John Adams planned the first White House vegetable garden in 1797, and various presidents and first ladies added fruit trees and greenhouses throughout the years.
Because the White House is a symbol of our nation, any changes made to the house and grounds sends a message. When Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden on the White House Lawn during World War II, she was setting a model she encouraged the rest of the nation to follow. Similarly, Michelle Obama established her garden as part of her healthy eating initiative, a message literally carved into a paving stone under the archway entrance: “WHITE HOUSE KITCHEN GARDEN, established in 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama with the hope of growing a healthier nation for our children.” The garden produces much of the food served in the White House to the first family and to visiting dignitaries, and surplus is donated to local nonprofits.
HMS Legacy Garden
I know, I know, this one doesn’t exist yet, so in a way, we come full circle back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Unlike that ancient maybe-garden, however, the HMS Legacy Garden will definitely become a reality, and soon, too. Like the above gardens, the Legacy Garden blends a sense of place with a message to those who spend time in it.
Nestled in the heart of the school, the area behind the connector and between the Lower Elementary II classroom and the Community Kitchen, the HMS Legacy Garden transforms an unused space into a gathering spot for current students and families. It literally bridges classrooms to common spaces, indoors to outside, and it encourages families to spend some time at the school.The space will incorporate a memorial brick patio, screen panels painted by the inaugural HMS class, and benches nearby the Lower Elementary classrooms.
While the Babylonian monarchs and Louis XIV may have wanted to over-awe their visitors, HMS intends to reinforce the community ties that already bind us. The garden will become a space for the children to extend their studies outside, families to gather for playdates, and our community to honor the members who have made the school what it is today. Kari Headington, the HMS Head of School, describes the Legacy Garden as “a place to remember all the people who come through these doors. Visitors can say, ‘I have a brick here; I was part of its history.’” (If you wish to place your own brick in the patio, click here.)