Even as a 13-year-old, Ron Kotcho had an eye for design. Walking to school in Squirrel Hill, he admired a house that looked a little like a French cottage but grander.
Nearly 40 years later, he returned to the same house to design an appropriate garden for its current owner. His design was recently selected for inclusion in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Gardens in Washington, D.C., a collection of more than 7,000 plots and 70,000 images documenting a variety of public and private gardens.
Each year, more are added. In addition to this garden, called "Le Petite Maison," two others are included this year: Hartwood Acres in Hampton and Indiana Township and a Pittsburgh garden identified only as "Reverie." Many already on the list are in the Sewickley Valley, including Newington, a private garden on a little more than 10 acres that dates back to the early 1800s.
The Squirrel Hill project began in 1999 when Mr. Kotcho, 59, met with the owner, who prefers to remain anonymous. It took nearly six months of collaboration to make both owner and designer happy, but it took him only a few more weeks to complete the plans.
The most important thing for Mr. Kotcho is to pair the home with the garden.
"The relationship between the architecture and the garden, to me that's one of the most important things. The garden has to complement the architecture."
Noted Pittsburgh architect Brandon Smith built the house in the late 1940s in the style of a small cottage on the property of a larger chateau or castle.
"The house is designed on a very long axis. It's like looking down a gallery in an art museum. I wanted that to be repeated out here," he said, standing in the garden.
Each room in the home is mirrored in the garden. As visitors walk inside, they see through the windows a garden with a very French flavor. Mr. Kotcho calls the design semi-formal.
"It's not totally symmetrical, but it is very balanced."
'Nikko Blue' hydrangea line the edges of the beds, the blue mopheads perfectly complementing the pure white conical flowers of 'Tardiva' hydrangea. At the far end of the garden, a round mirror seemingly doubles the size of the garden; it's covered with sweet autumn clematis, whose tiny white blooms have recently faded. Under the mirror is a beautiful blue Lutyens bench flanked by planters filled with boxwood and sweet potato vine. It offers a spectacular look back at the garden.
Each outdoor room is carefully thought out, and although it's just 10 years old, the garden seems much more mature. Thick deep green arborvitae reach over 20 feet and act as the bones of the garden, looming over white phlox filled with fat bumblebees buzzing from flower to flower. Other ornamental trees and perennials, sculptures, planters and a fountain all serve their purposes beautifully.
When Sally Foster of O'Hara first saw the garden two years ago, she fell in love. She is co-chair of the Garden Club of Allegheny County's Garden history and design committee and was the person responsible for nominating the garden for the Smithsonian's archives.
"I was blown away by not only the beauty of it, but the care, the flowers and the color scheme. It spoke to me," she said.
She has helped several other Pittsburgh area gardens find their way into the archives and for a good reason. "Gardens are ephemeral. They come and they go. A garden that's important enough to get into the archives will be interesting to scholars down the road."
It took her two years to complete the paperwork and navigate the system to have this garden approved. The Archives of American Gardens began with a donation of glass lantern slides from the Garden Club of America in 1997. Since then, the club has continued to scout out and nominate gardens its members discover. Some are chronicled simply with an historic photo Others are recognized, like Le Petite Maison, with a plan, documentation and photos.
Mrs. Foster said she and her committee are always looking for gardens that might be deserving of a place in the archives. Discovering them is like finding Easter eggs as a child, she said.
"You get to see the most interesting, fabulous gardens, but they don't have to be estates. They don't have to be this big. It's the spirit of the artist who creates that's so interesting to find."
Mr. Kotcho had never heard of the archives before his work was nominated. He's thrilled to see his work alongside places like Mount Vernon and Monticello.
"It was quite an honor to be selected," he said, smiling. "Gardening is a long process. It's a growing art form."
For more information on the Smithsonian's Archive of American Gardens, go to www.gardens.si.edu/collections-research/archives-american-gardens.html
Here's more information about the Archive of American Gardens.This year is the Archives 25th anniversary year of our founding which started with the original donation of glass lantern slides in 1987 from the Garden Club of America. The documentation submitted to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens serves an important educational purpose by providing inspiration to landscape designers and gardeners, historic information for landscape preservation efforts, and content to writers of garden and landscape history. There are over 7,000 gardens documented in the AAG. 30,000 images of the almost 80,000 images included in this collection are available online in the Smithsonian’s online catalog, SIRIS, www.siris.si.edu.
The following is the selection criteria for identifying gardens selected to be documented for the Archives of American Gardens:
1. The site must be a garden or a designed space.
A garden is defined as an area of plants that are cultivated. All types of gardens may be
considered for representation in this collection.
2. The site must have the following requirements:
Outstanding and/or unique characteristics.
An amenable owner who will accommodate return visits from a photographer and sign the appropriate release granting permission to photograph the garden and allow the documentation to be made available by the AAG for research use.
3. The garden should not have its history documented in another repository such as an archives, library, or museum.
Do not consider for admission any public parks, monuments, memorials, etc. that maintain their own archives or have extensive documentation in other repositories. AAG seeks to provide researchers with unique information about sites that have not been documented elsewhere or that are in danger of disappearing. Please consult your GH&D Representative if you have any question as to the suitability of a particular site for documentation.
About the Archives of American Gardens:
THE ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN GARDENS (AAG) WAS ESTABLISHED TO PROVIDE SCHOLARS, RESEARCHERS, AND INTERESTED PERSONS WITH VISUAL DOCUMENTATION OF CULTURAL, HISTORIC, AND VERNACULAR GARDENS. Its primary mission, in conjunction with the Garden Club of America’s Garden History and Design Committee, is to collect unique, high quality images and documentation relating to a wide variety of cultivated gardens throughout the United States that are not documented elsewhere. In this way, AAG strives to preserve and highlight a meaningful compendium of significant aspects of gardening in the United States for the benefit of researchers and the public today and in the future.
Statement on why we document gardens:
Every moment a garden exists it is subject to the forces of change, loss, and, in some cases, destruction. A familiar and beloved garden today may become a distant memory in just a matter of a few years (or, in the case of a natural disaster, a few hours). Even the most meticulously maintained garden evolves over time to the point where it deviates from its earlier incarnation. Unless gardens are photographed and their origins and life span documented, the thought, creativity, care and labor that goes into them may be lost forever.
Gardens seldom follow a regimented design formula; they echo and highlight the region, culture, history and personal tastes that influence them. Despite their uniqueness, gardens are such a subtle and natural part of our surroundings they are often taken for granted and may not be “noticed” until they are in danger of disappearing or are gone completely. Documenting a garden helps to address the importance of recognizing its particular significance. It may take years for this recognition to occur, but when it does, it is crucial to have images to study in order to understand and appreciate the thought process and work involved in the garden’s creation. Indeed, the most frequently used portion of the Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens are the glass lantern slides that were created in the 1920s and 1930s. Only the foresight of the Garden Club of America to photograph what were then ‘contemporary gardens’ saved these gardens from total oblivion.
More about the AAG and our partnership with the Garden Club of America:
The Archives works in coordination with Garden Club of America field volunteers across the country to document both historic and contemporary gardens. Garden Club of America volunteers document, on average, approximately 50 gardens a year.
Please note that garden documentation placed in the Archives of American Gardens does not place any special recognition or protection of these gardens. The range of garden designs in the collection help to chart how garden tastes, trends, resources and uses have evolved over time.
Here are some resources to give you more context:
Archives of American Gardens: http://www.gardens.si.edu/collections-research/archives-american-gardens.html
Garden Club of America Collection: http://www.gardens.si.edu/collections-research/aag-garden-club-collection.html
Smithsonian Gardens FAQ Sheet on the SI New Desk: http://newsdesk.si.edu/factsheets/smithsonian-gardens