Editor's note: This is one in a series of articles about Historic Aiken Foundation award winners.
The Thistle Cottage and its gardens were in a significant state of disrepair just a few years ago. However, when Chuck and Jo Anne Leopold acquired the home, they set about restoring the old home to its original glory.
Their efforts taking the dilapidated, overgrown and poorly maintained home and garden have won them much praise. But it was their work on the garden, and their painstaking recreation of the original vision, that saw them gain laurels.
The Claudia Phelps Award is given annually by the Historic Aiken Foundation in recognition of outstanding restoration and for enhancement of a historic garden. The 2012 winners of the award were the Leopolds for their work on the Thistle Cottage Gardens.
The gardens were a substantial job, Jo Anne said, of vines so overgrown that outhouses were near invisible, and a lawn so out-of-shape that its original path is still not utterly certain. The state of the garden was detailed by Chuck in his letter to the foundation.
“One reason for starting so much at once was because the door and walkways had bushes and trees blocking them along with century-old camellia branches blocking the way,” Chuck said, describing the wild nature of the garden before they began. “Wisteria was growing underground from the neighbor's yard and fence; and above ground across the driveway, over our roof, and onto the chimney.”
The idea was to bring the garden back to former glory, not to redesign.
“Our plan from the beginning was to change as little as possible knowing that the house and garden had good bones,” Chuck wrote in a letter to the Historic Aiken Foundation.
“After removing volunteer trees and rebuilding the back steps, we found a partially-buried stone mill wheel. Between the fence and office building, we found the house's original gates, which are now being used to grow vines,” he said.
The substantial mill wheel now sits propped against a large oak; a well-worn tool, its light, rough surface an attractive contrast to the bright, colorful garden around it.
Keeping with the sense of rejuvenation, the Leopolds wanted to improve two large, circular brick mosaics. The grounds beneath the feature had suffered from subsidence. So, the couple had each brick removed, the ground repaired and then each block placed back in its original place.
“It was painstaking work, but I feel it captures the essence of the original garden and how it should look,” Jo Anne said.
From the renewed mosaics to the mill wheel, there flows a lawn curving around the house on one side, and meeting ivy interspersed with flowering plants and mature trees.
The Leopolds are proud of their work, mostly that they have been able to bring back, and enjoy the beauty that was recently hidden within the garden.