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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Sunset Terrace: The Bradley Olmsted Garden

SOURCES: Seeking Eden: A Collection of Georgia's Historic Gardens by Staci L. Catron and Mary Ann Eaddy, 2018. The Columbus Museum's Bradley Olmsted Garden Exhibit at the Columbus Botanical Gardens.


In the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, Columbus thrived as a result of its booming textile industry. Wynnton became home to many of the city’s industrialists and other wealthy citizens. Located east of the city center atop Wynn’s Hill, which marks the beginning of the Piedmont plateau, Wynnton in the nineteenth century was the site of large antebellum estates. At the opening of the twentieth century, the city’s prosperity, its expanding streetcar lines, and the rise of the automobile set into motion the subdividing of these estates into planned suburban neighborhoods. The neighborhoods featured a parklike setting with curving streets lined with trees, generous sidewalks, circular medians at street intersections, large lawns with informal plantings of trees and ornamental shrubs, uniform setbacks, and elaborate homes and gardens, often designed by leading architects and landscape architects in Georgia.

The Brick Stonewall Miller Home, c. 1914

The property on Wynnton Road was initially developed by Brick Stonewall Miller and his wife, Mary. In 1912, they bought ten acres from developer Lloyd Bowers, and the next year they built a grand two-story Mediterranean Revival style home designed by Atlanta architect A. Ten Eyck Brown. The Miller's called the home Hill Haven. They soon hired landscape architect William Bell Marquis to design a garden for the property. The design work was challenging, since the house sat atop a steep hillside overlooking a ravine. At the time, the Illinois-born, Harvard-educated Marquis was employed by the landscape design enterprise of the P.J. Berckmans Company in Augusta, Georgia. Marquis completed several plantings but did not exact the full scope of his landscape design. The early plantings included ivy, boxwood, petunias, a rose arbor, Japanese privet, Japanese oleaster, and a pecan grove. The Millers would live in the home from 1912 until 1925.

William C. Bradley acquired the property in 1925 when he swapped his downtown home in the High Uptown neighborhood (15th Street and Third Avenue) for Miller’s Mediterranean Revival house. Brick Miller was W.C. Bradley’s lawyer. Bradley expanded the estate’s boundaries by purchasing some adjacent properties, including a former trolley line and station, bringing the total acreage to thirteen. Bradley was a highly successful businessman, serving as president of the Columbus Bank and Trust Company and as chairman of the board of Coca-Cola, Eagle & Phenix Mills, the W.C. Bradley Company, Columbus Manufacturing Company, the Columbus Iron Works, and the Bradley Realty and Investment Company. Bradley and his wife, Sarah Matilda Hall Bradley, were leading philanthropists, establishing the W.C. and Sarah H. Bradley Foundation in 1943. When the Bradley’s moved to Wynnton, they were in their sixties.

The Olmsted Brothers firm was founded by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who is known as the father of American landscape design and its most significant practitioner. Olmsted died in 1903, yet his design principles still exerted a strong influence on the firm. The Olmsted Brothers firm worked on a myriad of projects, including the design of residential grounds – thousands of them. For private estates, the firm’s work largely incorporated Frederick Law Olmsted’s main design criteria. As explained by landscape historian, Arleyn A. Levee – “The concern was to create tasteful domestic settings, artistically coherent, appropriate in scale and unblemished by extravagant materialistic displays. He sought to enhance natural site features to create a series of separate spaces, giving the home its distinctive character.” Yet, the Olmsted Brothers firm was sometimes asked to include purely decorative and formal elements, such as pools, pergolas, and teahouses.

W.C. Bradley asked William B. Marquis to resume work on the property. Marquis had moved to the Olmsted Brothers firm in 1920, and he brought the plans for the Miller estate with him. Bradley wanted to carry out some of the original plans with additions of consolidating two springs and building a modern swimming pool. Bradley also requested that a permanent superintendent be assigned to the site, and the firm engage Percy Huxley, a gardener from Massachusetts. Huxley resided in a cottage located on the north side of the property. Percy Huxley oversaw the implementation of Marquis and Bradley’s joint vision between 1925 and 1928. He managed a group of workers who helped install and maintain the gardens and grounds. It is most likely that the workers came from the Bottoms, a working-class African American neighborhood adjacent to the property. Marquis and Bradley also created visual barriers between Sunset Terrace and the Bottoms through use of landscaping and fencing. When the gardens were completed in 1928, Huxley left and Azor Grantham, a Columbus resident, served as head gardener for many years.

The landscape design for the William C. Bradley residence was, according to landscape architect and Olmsted scholar Lucy Lawliss, “the most significant residential design installation the Olmsted firm completed in the state.” It was also the firm’s largest commission in Georgia. The Olmsted Brothers firm produced plans for four residential properties in Columbus in addition to W.C. Bradley’s home. These included designs for Claude Scarbrough, Edward W. Swift, and D. Abbott Turner. Above: Left - Edward W. Swift House (1710 Buena Vista Road), c.1848 Right - Scarbrough – Garrett House (1327 Wynnton Road), c. 1926 Below: D. A. Turner House (2112 Wynnton Road), c. 1925

The house sat on a narrow flat plain at the crest of a steep hillside. The Bradleys changed the name of the property to Sunset Terrace because of its expansive views of Columbus and the Alabama hills in the distance. A preliminary design by Marquis showed a rose and cut-flower garden on the east side of the house adjacent to a back drive, a formal expansive lawn north of the house, and a formal square garden surrounded by a balustrade with a small central ornamental pool west of the house. The proposal also showed pathways winding through the hillside and a spring covered by an arbor. Other planned features included a pergola, a rose arbor, a swimming pool, and even limestone finials for the entry gateposts. Lucy Lawliss hypothesizes that the construction of the preliminary design was likely never accomplished; however, it is plausible that the Millers developed the formal square garden and a terrace filled with roses, according to Garden History of Georgia. The square garden appears as an existing element on a 1925 plan showing the proposed arrangement for a swimming pool and a new rose garden.

Marquis’ landscape plan took advantage of the site’s topography by locating the formal gardens on the level area around the house and peppering the hillside with naturalistic landscape features, including a ravine garden containing waterfalls, winding paths, big rocks, and rock stairs, all of which terminated in a large fishpond. The P.J. Berckmans Company in Augusta supplied the majority of the plant material. More formal plantings were made near the house, and native trees and shrubs were put along the hillside. Marquis left the original automobile circulation plan intact: the main entrance off Wynnton Road was marked by two large brick columns topped with limestone finials, and the drive stopped at a garage at the east end of the property. Where the drive forked into a broad turnaround south of the residence, the center oval was planted with ornamental shrubs. Foundation plantings of ornamental trees and shrubs, including clipped boxwood and red cedars, hugged the perimeter of the house. The house also featured many outdoor spaces from which to enjoy the distant views: a loggia to the north, a front porch to the south, and on the west, a narrow patio with a double staircase leading down to a square formal garden. This garden was composed of a lawn with a small ornamental pool and fountain at the center, surrounded by a balustrade; it was dotted with clipped hedges at its corners.

On the rest of the hillside, Marquis created a naturalistic landscape, filling the space with winding dirt pathways, large rocks, rustic rock staircases, a stone grotto with a granite fountain, and a plethora of trees, shrubs, and bulbs. A central feature of this area was the ravine garden, in which water was a key element. One of the natural springs on the property fed into a fountain set in a stone grotto near the top of the hill. From the grotto, the water wound its way down the ravine, creating a sequence of ten cascades. A series of rock steps and dirt pathways snaked through the ravine to a stream that was overhung by water oaks, sweet gum, sycamore, and dogwood trees, and in their shade grew camellias, euonymous, ligustrum, nandina, abelia and gallberry. The waterfalls terminated in a sizeable fishpond, which was crossed by a rustic wooden bridge. The pond was made of gunite – a concrete and sand mixture – sprayed over a rebar framework. This was the first gunite pool in Georgia.

Above: The fishpond and bridge from Garden History of Georgia Below: The original pool house and site of the pool, which had been replaced with a boxwood parterre.

Following the death of W.C. Bradley in 1947, his daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law, D.A. Turner, donated the estate to the city of Columbus to be used as a center for culture and education. The city subdivided the estate’s thirteen acres and converted the 1912 Mediterranean Revival home into the Columbus Museum of Arts and Crafts (now The Columbus Museum), which opened to the public in 1953. As a result of these changes, some aspects of the historic garden were lost, while others endure, although in an altered context. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Bradley Memorial Library and the Muscogee County School District administrative building were constructed on the land below the swimming pool.

As a part of a significant Columbus Museum expansion in the late 1980s, Atlanta landscape architect Julia Orme Martin designed and executive extensive updates to the garden. The space became known as the Bradley Olmsted Garden to honor both the property owner and design firm that were instrumental in the space’s creation. In 2013, a new terrace provided better access to the Garden’s meadow. The next major renovation will be unveiled to the public in 2024, as a part of the “Reimagining The Columbus Museum” campaign. A new overlook patio will provide better views of the Garen from the Museum itself. Other renovations will improve accessibility and restore several original Olmsted design features, such as a hidden grotto. These renovations will enable the Garden to better serve our community as a space for rest and recreation. You can also stop by the Columbus Botanical Garden to see the Bradley Olmsted Garden Exhibit while all the work at The Columbus Museum is happening! NEXT WEEK: We will not have a History Spotlight on Thursday, April 27th, but I hope you will join us in May to celebrate Preservation Month!

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