A Gothic Tale: A piece of grand garden history lives on at this lakeside castle

The shore of American Lake just south of Tacoma is an unexpected place to find a castle surrounded by a garden so impressive it's earned designation as one of the Smithsonian Institution's historic gardens. Thornewood Castle, built in 1909 by Chester Thorne, has more than 50 rooms, whose mullioned windows overlook one of the oldest walled gardens in the Northwest. The mansion is 27,000 square feet of authentic Tudor Gothic, a surprise in the Northwest setting of big Douglas firs and a smooth little lake.

Most of the gardens preserved as part of the Smithsonian's garden archives are long gone, existing today only on glass slides. The only traces of these grand gardens created in the first decades of the 20th century are the photographic images traveling around the country as part of the Smithsonian's American Garden Legacy Tour. Thornewood was among the gardens photographed as part of The Garden Club of America's efforts to document the finest gardens of the 1920s and '30s, and preserve them on hand-colored glass slides. Many of the gardens fell into disrepair during the Depression or later, when the costs of upkeep became prohibitive. The garden at Thornewood is unusual because of its West Coast location (most of these famous gardens are in the East), and because it has been lovingly restored, at least in part. Of the castle's original grounds 4 1/2 acres remain, and these are used today for the Thornewood Bed and Breakfast, as well as for weddings, high tea and garden tours.

Thorne, a New York financial tycoon, moved to Tacoma in 1890 to become a founder of the Port of Tacoma and later president of the Bank of Tacoma. In what must have been a quest to create a grand country seat, he imported materials from a demolished 15th-century English palace and had them fitted together with oak pegs. The central staircase, front door and all the paneling in the castle are solid oak, constructed with nary a nail. The castle has 22 bathrooms, 11 chimneys and a roof of red tile. The brick used in the house and throughout the garden is more than 500 years old, shipped to Tacoma from Wales. It took three ships to carry all the building materials across the ocean.

To continue the grand theme, Thorne hired the Olmsted Brothers, the most famous landscaping firm in the country, to create the gardens around his newly built castle, and went so far as to have tons of rich riverbed soil hauled in by horse-drawn wagons from the distant Nisqually River delta. He ordered this black gold to be spread 18 inches deep over the naturally rocky terrain around American Lake before building and planting his gardens.

The Olmsted plan for the grounds of Thornewood carefully manipulated views of Mount Rainier. The large, rectangular walled garden was designed on axis with the view, and the peak was framed with two brick garden houses and a balustrade. Thirty of the original 100 acres were planted in formal gardens, and at its height, 28 gardeners were employed to care for it. By the mid-1920s, Thornewood Castle's formal gardens consisted of sweeping lawns; a sunken garden planted in mixed flower borders and evergreens from around the world; a heated water garden with iris, papyrus and lotus; wall fountains; and garden houses. Hundreds of different perennials and annuals lent so much color to the garden that one Garden Club lady said, "Not since I visited Mrs. Gertrude Jekyll in her Surrey garden have I seen such brilliant, such glowing combinations of color." A "color gardener" was employed just for the sunken garden, his task to orchestrate changing color schemes from year to year.

In 1926, House Beautiful magazine named Thornewood one of the five most beautiful formal gardens in America, and many of the details known today of that earlier garden have been gleaned from the magazine piece. Huge stands of rhododendron and kalmia served as backdrop for masses of larkspur, hollyhocks, delphinium, lilies, stock, snapdragons, peonies, campanulas, daylilies and iris. These are the formal flower gardens Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft must have walked through when they visited Thornewood (if their visit is fact, rather than another Thornewood legend).

In 1929, the Garden Club of America held its national convention at Thornewood, and this is when many of the still existing glass slides were taken.

Thornewood stayed in the Thorne family until 1959, and much of the grounds was divided into home sites during the '60s. When the remaining acreage and house went up for sale in 1992, it was priced at $4.5 million, and bids came in from around the globe.

Years of decline followed, but today a fair number of the cedars and firs integral to the Olmsted plan still remain. These huge evergreens ring the walled garden, the remaining denizens of the old estate. Their majestic trunks and limbs used to be reflected in the water garden pool just outside the walls of the sunken garden. This area, called "The Secret Garden," itself is half an acre, and was built especially for Chester's wife Anna. It was the first part of the garden that Richard and Debbie Mirau brought back to life after they bought Thornewood in 1995. Now old-fashioned perennials like larkspur and delphinium bloom again in the garden, along with many roses. The old brick walls are covered with the tracery of ivy, clematis and climbing hydrangeas, and the timeworn wooden gates creak when they open, setting a perfect mood for the looming, Gothic-style castle.

Inside the sunken garden is a central lawn, pond and fountain encircled with brick and stone paths on two levels. Thick, exuberant perennial borders, rose gardens and classic statuary evoke an earlier era. The profusion and diversity of planting remain true to the style of the original garden, with hosta, hollyhocks, artemisia, wallflowers, phlox and poppies crowded into the borders. A shadier end of the garden is planted with hydrangeas. Most of the original statuary was sold off years ago (much of which is on view at Lakewold Gardens on Gravelly Lake north of Tacoma). But the fountain in the walled garden has been brought back to life, and statuary in the original style added.

A year and a half ago, Thornewood was sold again. The new owners, Deanna and Wayne Robinson, plan to restore the reflecting pool and fountain. They hope to re-create the grotto and water garden that were so famous early in the last century. ABC Disney undertook a further restoration of the castle and entry court so they could be used for filming the TV miniseries of Stephen King's "Rose Red" (to be shown on ABC early in 2002). The Gothic Tudor style of the castle, its remaining grounds and site on the lake are an ideal setting for the spooky atmosphere evoked by King's work. The blood-red roses in the walled garden may yet have their finest hour.

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To learn about garden tours, high tea or lodging, you can reach Thornewood Castle Bed and Breakfast at 253-584-4393. For information on the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens and the glass-slide collection, contact the Horticulture Services Division of the Smithsonian, Arts & Industries Building, Room 2282, Washington, D.C. 20560-0420, 202-633-7376.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" (Sasquatch Books). Her e-mail address is vjeaston@aol.com.