The History of Morningside
Compiled by: Lucien and Cassandra Williams, 2006-2012
Written by: Anne Merry Bell, 2012
Morningside, an Augusta, Georgia garden estate with rich heritage and soil, is undergoing a renaissance to recapture its former glory. Located high above the Savannah River in the Sand Hills area, this magnificent estate once encompassed thirty acres. Its beauty has been documented, published, and admired by generations of guests throughout her years.
The history of Morningside begins in 1906 when Mary Speer Denny purchased six acres of mostly untilled farm land on which to construct a winter haven. A prominent socialite from Pittsburgh, PA, Mrs. Denny and her husband, Francis Herron Denny, had made Augusta a seasonal retreat as did many affluent Northerners in the early 1900’s. Their majestic Dutch Colonial style stucco home named “Morningside Lodge,” designed by famed architect Harry Ten Eych Wendell was completed in 1909. Property photographs as early as 1909 reveal few trees and shrubbery. Subsequently a main garden and a sunken garden were laid out behind the home. Plant materials were purchased from Fruitland Nurseries which included a variety of azaleas and camellia japonica species, English boxwood, and various cedars. Little is known about the exact layout of the gardens, but from the plant selection it is assumed that the modest formal garden and walkways were lined with boxwood.
Colorful azaleas particularly well-suited to Augusta’s climate became inspirational to future Morningside owners.
In 1920 the estate was on the verge of vast changes as the six acre tract became the property of Alfred Severin Bourne (1883-1956) of New York. Within the decade he purchased the surrounding land to amass thirty acres. With high expectations for this expanse, Mr. Bourne retained one of the world’s most acclaimed and accomplished landscape architects of the twentieth century. Rose Standish Nichols (1872-1960) introduced dramatic and bold concepts to the sweeping grounds.
According to Mrs. William G. Bush, Mrs. Bourne’s passion for Kurume azalea (hybrid dwarf azalea) and Formosa azalea (azalea indica) led to the installation of an onsite greenhouse. Under Miss Nichols’ supervision over 12,000 plants were propagated and incorporated throughout the landscape. During Morningside’s heyday multitudes of guests were equally charmed by Lady Banksiae Rose upon the arbors, camellia japonica, camellia sasanqua, several arborvitae and holly varieties, Italian Cypress, Grandaflora Magnolia and a generous number of bulb varieties to include daffodil and tulip. Blue slate walkways and granite steps through the gardens were highlighted by statues, Victorian iron gates, pierced brick walls, and fountains. Everywhere the eye was greeted with beauty and elegance. Notoriety came as Morningside was featured in publications, Garden History of Georgia, 1933, and Country Life, August 1933, August 1937. Throughout the Bourne’s tenure, the estate was carefully maintained and utilized for entertainment and pleasure. Mrs. Bourne, a devoted member of Sand Hills Garden Club, serving as President from 1940-1942 opened her gardens for yearly tours.
However, times were changing all over the world, and even Morningside was not to be spared. As real estate development became more appealing in the Sand Hills area of Augusta, Mr. Bourne sold almost half of his property. After years of being a sprawling estate with multiple garden venues surrounded by woodlands, Morningside was now reduced to sixteen acres. Most of Miss Nichols formal gardens, the greenhouse, the sunken garden, and outlying walkways remained, but the vast woodlands were soon to be filled with neighboring homes.
When Henry Burt Garrett (1881-1962) purchased the home in1952, some repairs and improvements were necessary. A major focal point, the arched wooden pergola had decayed. Mrs. Isaetta (nee Phinizy) Garrett chose vintage gas lamp posts formerly located on downtown Broad Street to use as columns for a more modest trellis. Echoing the theme, additional electrified lamp posts outlined the curve of the driveway highlighting the beautiful cedars and bordering boxwood hedges. The back gardens and fountains continued to be maintained as they offered luxury and comfort. The land, however, grew in value and became a most cherished gift to the next generation. Mr. Garrett deeded twelve acres among his three sons for homes of their own. From this division most of Rose Standish Nichols’ landscape designs have vanished.
Her original layout outside the home’s back entrance became dutifully cared for and appreciated when Lucien Williams, Sr. (1916-1971) and his wife Frances Nisbet Grammer (1928-2008) acquired the four acre estate in 1966. Frances displayed a great interest in the gardens of Morningside and helped to preserve their elegance. As an avid community leader and devoted Sand Hills Garden Club (President 1971-73) member for 49 years, she delighted in entertaining guests from all over the world. Morningside continued to be noteworthy and again was featured in publications including The Italian Garden Transplanted, 1988 and in the Journal of Garden History by J. Dixon Hunt, 1990. However weather and age began to take their toll on several garden areas and structures. To usher in a more modern era, the Williams donated the archaic greenhouse to a grateful orchid gardener and revised the landscape into a recreation area and installed a pool house and pool surrounded by a beautiful lawn and landscaping. This area is located below the formal and sunken gardens thus preserving the integrity of the original Nichols’ design. The upper gardens required a lot of maintenance which was more difficult as time passed. Although there was general care, pruning and manicuring no longer occurred. Natural growth began to take root. Frances moved from Morningside in 2004, and the estate was vacant for two years.
In 2006 her son Lucien Williams, Jr. and his wife Cassandra (Minter) purchased the overgrown property. Assessing the needs of the estate, they sold 1.5 acres. Now a comfortable city estate of 2.5 acres Morningside has the opportunity to regain some of its former elegance on a more concentrated scale. After clearing the property of unsalvageable plants, damaged trees, massive undergrowth, and jungles of overgrown Carolina cherry, Nandina, and ivy, the new owners found hearty plants worth saving. Some of the surviving camellias namely two Hermes, two Professor Sargent, two Purple Dawn, and two Sport were successfully transplanted on the land’s east boundary. Also hidden from the light of day were numerous azaleas which were relocated and are flourishing in the new garden development. The clearing of the old and tangled growth gave way to sunlight for areas of green space where Emerald Zoysia sod thrives. Among the spectacular specimens discovered in the formal garden area were a Cephalotaxus (Japanese Plum Yew) which has been estimated to be over a hundred years old and an Osmanthus fragrans aurantiacus (Orange Tea Olive) which has reached at least ninety years of age. A Japanese Magnolia (Magnolia liliiflora) along the front driveway is estimated to be about eighty five to ninety years old. Several centurial cedars (Cedrus deodaras) healthily stretch skyward showcasing their splendid boughs. However strong these aged trees, not all could bear weather’s brutality. In 2012 a feature Deodara in the front arboretum and three other majestic cedars in the back garden were uprooted by devastating winds. Fortunately their exquisite lumber has been milled for use inside the home.
The Williams have made significant progress since 2006 aspiring to redevelop the garden rooms. Always mindful of the estate’s magnificent legacy, they are determined to restore and preserve Morningside. Their foremost objective has been to reestablish the original Rose Standish Nichols’ garden design, using less maintenance oriented plants and materials. The revitalization of the sunken garden shows ingenuity in blending the old with the new concepts. Formerly this area boasted a formal rectangular design with a central fountain. Long blue slate walkways rigidly outlined the space. The terrain allowed a lovely transformation to a circular shape echoing the roundness of the center fountain. The slate borders the fountain, and the interior ring spreads into an attractive lawn.
Honoring Mrs. Bourne’s passion, the Williams have planted the outer ring in Formosa azalea. Miss Nichols would have approved of the symmetrical design as four blue slate entrances mark each quadrant. A wrought iron trellis planted with Rose-Pink Camellia (Camellia heimalis ‘Kanjiro’) opens into the east and west entrances. Seating is provided by granite benches made from dilapidated steps found on the grounds.
Further upgrades and plans are always in motion. For efficient maintenance a sprinkler system has been installed, and underground electrical wiring has been laid for future lighting and equipment. The pool house had decayed and had to be demolished. Plans for another structure are in the future. In the meantime an attractive brick wall has been erected on the north property line. Clearing and new planting around the property are constant.
Besides the sunken garden development, some of the garden areas that are being focused on are the formal garden, the English garden, the green spaces outlined with planted beds, and other intimate spaces. Plantings that have been made since 2006 have included Japanese Yew, Green Giant arborvitae, two varieties of Arizona cypress (Carolina Sapphire and Blue Ice), Italian cypress, Sky Pencil holly, loquat, Indian Hawthorn (Eleanor Tabor and Majestic Beauty), American Beautyberry, tea olive, crepe myrtle (Tonto), white and pink dogwood, Japanese maple, cleyera, several hydrangea and camellia sasanqua varieties, loropetalum, dwarf gardenia, Knockout rose, dianthus, society garlic, lantana, abelia, viburnum snowball bush, creeping fig, Star jasmine and bignonia (Tangerine Beauty). Liriope muscari, first introduced to Morningside in the 1960’s from gardens in Ansley Park, Atlanta, had propagated profusely. It has been divided and creates stunning borders along many planted beds. Well over 300 new azaleas of several varieties have been established. Some of the most successful examples are G.G. Gerbing, Red Ruffle, Pride of Mobile, George Tabor, Encore, and Formosa. The Williams’ overall mission is well underway incorporating the designs and concepts of the past while recapturing a maintainable garden estate for an enduring Morningside.