Just uphill from the busy traffic circle at Hillsborough Street and Pullen Road in Raleigh, there’s an urban oasis.
To be clear, it’s not as if the city vanishes once you’re through the gates of Russ Stephenson’s Oberlin Road property. There are apartment buildings visible through the trees, and the sounds of the city – traffic, sirens, people – can get pretty loud. Yet on Stephenson’s acre-and-a-half there are ancient trees, eccentrically designed outbuildings and park-like mixed-perennial beds. The house dates to the 19th century, but it was his great-aunt Isabelle Bowen Henderson who gave the property its distinctive character when she moved here in 1937.
“I didn’t ever grow up in Raleigh. My mother married an army guy,” says Stephenson. “We came here to visit, and Isabelle was always this mysterious, larger-than-life person.”
Henderson lived from 1899 until 1969, and was a noted architect, artist and gardener in her day. She painted glowing, cherubic children’s portraits, and the distinguished peers she corresponded with included New Yorker writer Lewis Mumford and Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Indeed, there’s a tradition of public life in Stephenson’s family: A.F. Bowen, his great-grandfather and Henderson’s father, was treasurer at North Carolina State College (now N.C. State University), while today Stephenson is on Raleigh’s city council.
Yet he remains in awe of Henderson, whose garden he has been tending and making his own since inheriting this house from his grandmother – Henderson’s sister – in 1991. Sunday, March 19, there is a public tour, with all proceeds benefiting the Raleigh Garden Club. As Stephenson looks over photos of the place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, though, he sees the blooms he remembers from his childhood. These are the ones he wishes he could present during the tour.
“This is the ultimate goal if we had unlimited resources,” Stephenson says.
In planning her plantings and in hybridizing irises and daylilies, Henderson applied a practicing artist’s understanding of color, form and shape. Aesthetically, she combined her Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts education, which focused on straightforward arts and crafts at that time, with an adoration for the clean lines and directness of Colonial Williamsburg design.
“She was very much into simplicity and honesty,” Stephenson explains.
In the house itself, Henderson’s creative spirit remains in several children’s portraits on display in her studio and a striking mural of a Colonial-era map of the Carolinas, which takes up an entire wall in another room. Outside and bordering the brick patio, the herb house sports a broad-shouldered brick chimney, which was Henderson’s interpretation of a Colonial summer kitchen. Several buildings have been refurbished, while others have even been rescued from destruction. Hurricane Fran knocked over a massive white oak in 1996. The trunk and branches fell on the house, while the upended roots knocked the guest house off its foundations. Both buildings were repaired.
Yet Stephenson has made the place his own, too. The Reconstruction-era house has grown organically, with some modern additions to fit the needs of the Stephenson family. And in the back, walled off from neighboring businesses and university-oriented rentals by carefully controlled bamboo, are several rectangular beds.
“This is where Isabelle did all of her hybridizing,” Stephenson explains as he walks between them, rattling off the names of growing things, descendants of the 527 daylily and 600 iris varieties Henderson maintained. Today, Stephenson is methodically identifying the color and timing of their blooms. Once they’re sorted and identified, they’re transplanted to the front garden’s mixed-perennial beds, joining the Spanish hyacinths, tulips and Siberian irises already growing by its brick path.
Stephenson, it seems, is right at home among a wide variety of perennials. And even if many of these plants were hybrids of his great aunt’s creation, he has spent years carefully identifying and placing them. Still, even as he prepares for a tour timed around many of these flowers’ blooms, he has an ideal vision of these gardens in mind.
“What you see here is nothing compared to what Isabelle would do,” Stephenson says.