A Thomas Church Garden in DC

Thomas Church, Washington DC gardens, Garden Conservancy

The Auclair-Jones garden, part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days tour in May this year, was designed by landscape architect Thomas Church.

The DC area Open Days tour on May 22nd is now history. Over 150 visitors stopped in at each of the gardens (some had more visitors).  I spent the day filling in for volunteers, getting change from a bank for all the twenty-dollar bills visitors proffered, and managed to get to all of the gardens myself, at least briefly.

The “lead” garden on the tour (where many visitors stopped first to buy tickets and get directions to the other gardens) was a historical and visual delight. Tucked away in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of the District of Columbia is one of Thomas Church’s rare residential East Coast gardens. Church was an iconic  landscape architect who spent most of his career designing gardens on the West Coast, including parts of the Stanford University campus. For more information about his career and accomplishments, visit The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s database.

Designed by Church in 1972, the garden’s bones remain quintessentially Modernist, and “clever design abounds,” as my Open Days Committee colleague Rebecca Trafton so aptly puts it. There is a mixed herbaceous garden off the living room, designed by Sarah Broley in 1992, but in Rebecca’s words,

“the essence of the garden is its simplicity. It is framed completely by a simple, Modernist fence that meets a tall brick wall. The entire site exists of level terracing. No lawn is incorporated in the design. Church cleverly repeats materials of the plant palette, crepe myrtle here, river birch there and exquisitely maintained Japanese maples, always keeping them visually isolated from one another so the viewer senses but does not see the relationship.  .  . . A swimming pool consumes much of the rear garden, but its orientation and elegant detailing keep it from dominating unreasonably. A powerful rhythm, set up by 11 wisteria, whose foliage and bloom are captured in metal canopy cages, unifies the pool area, rounding the property corner and continuing almost to a lowered garage. Church’s original concept was an aerial hedge of ivy, a strong evergreen element to sustain this part of the garden during the winter months. Although the ivy could not survive this treatment in Washington’s winters, the wisteria, with a simple underplanting of vinca minor, work admirably.”

Thomas Church, residential gardens, wisteria, Garden Conservancy

The repeating wisteria columns around the pool area.

Church once said, “Gardens are for people,” and the owners instinctively understood this; when they bought the house three years ago they renovated portions of it, opening it up to the garden so that dining and entertaining areas are seamlessly connected to the outdoors.

Garden Conservancy, Thomas Church residential gardens

Beyond the lounge chairs, an open-air dining area connects the garden to the house.

In the garden off the living room, the plant palette is more complex. Although the area is partially shady thanks to surrounding houses and mature trees (the river birches repeat from the front area of the garden to the back), there are a number of climbing roses and other sun-lovers that do very well, in addition to more shade-tolerant plants.

Thomas Church residential garden, Garden Conservancy

The mixed-border garden on the side of the house

nectaroscordum siculum

Nectaroscordum siculum in bloom next to a Daphne in the Auclair-Jones garden in May

It’s here, in this part of the garden, that its new owner, Anne-Lise Auclair, has begun to experiment with the help and advice of local designers Jane MacLeish and Barbara Katz. As Rebecca puts it, “the effect of the overall composition is both exciting and calming. For Anne-Lise, ‘it’s a work in process.’ But it sings of completion, while welcoming a new owner’s participation and delight.”

Garden Conservancy, Thomas Church

From any angle, this garden is a gem for owners and visitors alike.

This garden is featured in my book on the Open Days Tours in DC, available from Blurb. com.  See the “My Books” page for a preview or to order a copy.

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2 Comments on “A Thomas Church Garden in DC”

  1. sequoiagardens Says:

    Lovely, Melissa! Church’s gardens, more than any designer I know, look so effortlessly ‘right’. I envy you the opportunity to visit one in the flesh. Jack

    • Melissa Says:

      This garden has grown on me the more I see it. Who wouldn’t love his famous Donnelly garden in California, where the view from the pool with undulating lines includes the mountains that inspired them? But here, there is structure and simplicity, adapted to an East Coast sensibility. I have been fortunate to photograph the garden as well as visit it and learn more about it through the Open Days program.


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