THIS COULD READ like an action movie script. A long lost tomb has been accidentally found by an archaeologist (played by a younger Harrison Ford) and a bumbling, ne’er-do-well “expert” (played by Peter Sellers) has been given the task of identifying the long-dead pharaoh. Immediately in over his head, he calls his father, who taught him everything he knows (played by Robert Redford). The doddering father, with plenty of time on his hands, leaves the Happy Hilltop retirement home and together, with luck and work, by following cold leads, and by piecing together findings on dusty internet scrolls, reveals fascinating secrets.
Thane Maynard (Director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens) and his wife Kathleen bought their home in North Avondale, a Cincinnati neighborhood about four years ago. North Avondale is a neighborhood near the zoo known for its functional gaslights. In the mid-1800s it was the place where Cincinnati’s movers and shakers moved beyond the smoke and noise of the city and built their Italian Renaissance, English Medieval, Greek Revival, and Bavarian Chalet homes. Prominent businessmen Barney Kroger, Andrew Erkenbrecher, Samuel Pogue, and Frank Herschede – names familiar to older Cincinnatians – all lived here. Today it remains a fine “gaslight” neighborhood with most of these old gems being lovingly cared for.
As I drove up to the Maynards’ home, which was designed by renowned Cincinnati architect Carl Strauss and which they have upgraded to a LEED Silver status, it stood out because it was none of the above. Their home is a ranch that would be labeled “mid-century modern,” and their nearest neighbors’ homes were also clearly built at the same time. Kathleen later said that their home was, indeed, built in 1954.
The next thing I noticed as I walked to the back of the house was a greenhouse. Not just a greenhouse but a large Victorian greenhouse. Kathleen told me that it came with the house. Shortly after they bought their home, they found a note scratched by a ghostly hand into the moss on a pane of glass that said: “Victorian greenhouse – do not destroy.” While the Maynards did not destroy it, they have not yet found a use for it.
And then I saw the bones of a rock garden. Wow!
I was able to talk to the landscaper (Kyle Horton, Kharma LLC) and got his story firsthand. He has worked for the Maynards for about four years. During that time the hillside and area next to the greenhouse was covered by a scruffy lawn. Several months ago, as he was repairing a few loose stones in the stairs, he discovered that as he cleaned them the wider the stairs became. Continuing to clean them, he came to the rocks that you see on both sides. With his and Kathleen’s curiosity aroused they were compelled to continue!
But how? Kyle (who, in the movie version of this story, would be played by Harrison Ford) thought of his options. Leaf blowers were not powerful enough and scraping and picking with hand tools would be labor intensive and expensive. And then it came to him! He rented a commercial air compressor with 100’ of hose and an air gun and, Voila! a 50-year, six cubic yard (4.6 m3) accumulation of composted leaves, acorns, silt, and lawn was removed by 400 psi compressed air. With one man on the hose and the crew shoveling and hauling, the garden, which measures about 8 feet (2.4 m) from top to bottom by 40 feet (12 m) was exposed in two days. Kyle and Kathleen were giddy with the result and celebrated with a cold beer.
It was clear that this was an old rock garden, carefully constructed from local Ordovician limestone rocks, evidence of the Cincinnati region’s past as a shallow sea. But who was its creator? The Maynards knew that the original owner of the home, Robert Senior, had been a prominent member of the 20th century’s horticultural community. Hoping to learn more, Thane googled his name and got a revealing hit. On the NARGS website, he found Robert Senior mentioned in an article called “The History of Rock Gardening in North America.” From that article:
“Five years before ARGS began (1934), a small group of enthusiastic rock gardeners led by Robert Senior, a Cincinnati businessman, formed the Rock Garden Society of Ohio. The most important requirement for joining was that the applicant’s garden had to be approved of by the members. The society attracted members from all over the United States and Europe. The Alpine Garden Society was started in London later that same year, and The Scottish Rock Garden Club began in 1933.”
Excited by what she and Kyle had discovered, Kathleen invited a group of prominent local gardeners, hoping for insight, ideas, and some history. My son, Scott, who works as a horticulturist at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, was included. Given the article on Robert Senior, Scott was immediately intrigued. Knowing that I had time on my hands and an interest in rock gardens and history, he asked me to get involved. He also suggested that this might be a subject for my next NARGS Quarterly article. Further, and just as important, my garden is built and sited very similarly, and Scott thought I could contribute expertise (and maybe plants) towards the garden’s eventual restoration.
I am good at untangling things such as my wife’s jewelry chains or balls of yarn. And don’t let me start to help you work a jigsaw puzzle because I can’t stop. So, with the garden going to sleep and time on my hands here at Happy Hilltop, I began searching for more information on Robert Senior. One of the gardeners at the gathering had suggested that Scott talk to Grazyna Grauer, a former president of NARGS. Grazyna was able to give us some additional information and suggested that I contact Bobby Ward, Executive Secretary of NARGS. Thanks to Bobby’s coaching I found my way through nearly eighty years of quarterly journals all indexed by plant, subject, and author. (This alone made the effort worthwhile.)
There in the author index under Senior, Robert M. were references to forty-five articles he had published in the Quarterly, on everything, literally, from Acantholimon to Zinnia.
In 1969 Robert Senior was given the ARGS Award of Merit which reads:
ROBERT M. SENIOR Mr. Senior is one of the world’s foremost authorities on campanulas. His horticultural interests and energies have centered around them and the other genera included in the Campanulaceae which includes Adenophora and Symphyandra among others. He has grown (in some cases, developed) an estimated 100 species and varieties. His infectious enthusiasm for these plants has led many others to follow him in intelligent search for and research of different and unusual varieties. For this reason, he has been a leader in horticultural circles for more than half a century. In 1916, having built a fine house on Rose Hill Lane, Cincinnati, Mr. Senior, satisfying a natural love of plants, set out to surround this house with a fine garden. He shortly completed what was possibly the first rock garden in southwestern Ohio. His interest in alpines aroused, Mr. Senior pursued it with verve. Often on his way to or from his office, he would stop at the Lloyd Library, one of the largest privately endowed Botanical libraries in the United States. It is here that a large number of Mr. Senior’s articles have been filed. His habit of stopping at the library for an hour of botanical study persists fifty years later.
In the summer of 1929, Mr. Senior invited about eight or nine ardent gardeners to meet him at lunch. Here those present decided to form the Rock Garden Society of Ohio—the first English speaking society of its kind, and possibly the first Rock Garden Society in the world. He was elected its first President. After the American Rock Garden Society was formed in 1934, the Ohio organization no longer attempted to recruit new members, and many of the Ohio Society joined our American Society. Incidentally, when the ARGS was formed, Mr. Senior became a charter member and for many years was a Regional Director. Mr. Senior was also President of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History for twelve years. Mr. Senior is a graduate of Harvard from which University he received his Master’s Degree. He has contributed prodigiously to botanical literature. He recalls with great merriment the detective work involved in helping Mr. H. Clifford Crook straighten out the nomenclature of the campanula family in preparation for the publication of Mr. Crook’s book, Campanula. His own writings include many concerned with the Campanulaceae and accounts of botanizing in many parts of the West. His articles were published in various horticultural and botanical periodicals, British and American, and were often beautifully illustrated by the author’s masterful photography. In quest of campanulas, Mr. and Mrs. Senior enjoyed exploring vacations, often abroad, but primarily in the Rockies where they took many pack trips.
In his 87th year, Mr. Senior has adjusted his pursuit of gardening to fit a quieter pace. His rock garden is most compact. The X-raying of seed to explore possible chromosome changes is his newest interest. Enthusiasm is the first quality that strikes one on meeting Mr. Senior. Fortunately for all of us he has had the strength and determination to pursue his interests with intelligence and pass on his knowledge with kindness and good humor. That Mr. Senior has been chosen to receive the Award of Merit is an honor he well deserves and one which the American Rock Garden Society is happy to bestow.
What else can I say? I can add that in addition to his service to the rock garden society and the Natural History Museum he was also a member of the Cincinnati Wildflower Society and served on the boards of several philanthropies.
Several statements in the award piqued my curiosity. Where was his home of 1916? Was this his original rock garden? Checking Ancestory.com at our local library, I found that in 1920 Robert, his wife and three children and three live-in servants (obviously botany was not his “day job”) lived at 4201 Rose Hill Avenue which is next door to the Maynards but today that house is a contemporary of the Maynards. Kathleen was able to give me the answer. In 1954, Robert and Fanny, like many 75-year-old couples, decided to down-size and built the Maynards’ home as their own and the others for their children and for sale. Their original home, we assume was razed. I do believe that this was his original garden however and its proximity to the greenhouse is a clue.
I noticed two articles in particular “The Alpine House” (Volume 5.100) and “My Alpine House” (Volume 13.112). Of course, an alpine house; that makes perfect sense. The latter article included pictures that show the interior of Maynard’s greenhouse, and it looks just like that today (minus plants, of course). Knowing that Volume 5 dates back to 1947 and that Robert writes that they have had the greenhouse for many years allows us to assume that the greenhouse and garden, which “go together” predated the present home by many years. And, from experience, I can say that Robert would be unwilling to start a new garden at 73. Incidentally, the greenhouse, while not destroyed, has suffered from years of neglect. Most of the glass is intact, and the wooden parts (cypress) are rot-free but the glazing is in bad shape, and most metal parts are very rusty. Still, after reading “My Alpine House” one can picture Robert and Fanny fussing over their miniature wintertime rock garden. The award states that the garden was made smaller. If so, I would hate to think of the original.
Robert was passionate about all things campanula and became an authority on the genus. In Volume 8.59, he discusses hybrid campanulas and mentions one that he developed and named ‘Fanny Senior’. When my son and I visited the Lloyd Library there for sale in the gift shop were framed reproductions of pen and ink drawings of campanulas made by Robert.
Mr. Senior died in 1973 at 92, and his home and garden passed to his son, Edward, who, unfortunately, spent half the year in France. Leaves fell, and year by year by year the garden was buried like a latter day Pompeii.
So now Kathleen Maynard, the heir to this garden, greenhouse, and its rich and fascinating history, is left wondering what to do with it. While she loves and respects this legacy, how does a busy, 21st century woman, whose main gardening interest is native plants, balance time, money, passion, and legacy? How does this get passed on? Well, isn’t this the next chapter?
In the meantime, maybe this is a reminder to keep gardening history alive—to respect it, protect it, fund it when we can, and, most of all, to leave breadcrumbs for future generations regarding our efforts. Write down the story of your garden. Describe the plants and why they matter. Take pictures and print them and leave these records in a closet or in the attic to be discovered by new owners over and over again. The more people know about, understand, and respect the legacy of those who have made the world more beautiful before us, who have carried horticulture forward, the more likely their work will carry on. By the way, does anyone know where Kathleen can find a campanula named ‘Fanny Senior’?