In celebration of Cheekwood’s 60th anniversary as a public institution, we’re highlighting one of our 12 distinct gardens each month to showcase our wide variety of garden offerings. With 55 acres of rolling hills and 12 intricate, unique gardens, there’s something for everyone to experience and love at Cheekwood.
In the winter of 1968, the Howe Garden was the first modern garden to be developed at Cheekwood, decades after the original landscape was installed on the estate. With the introduction of the Howe Garden, the scope of Cheekwood was expanded and enriched, most notably with the addition of a native wildflower collection. The installation of quality horticultural display as such marked yet another milestone in Cheekwood’s history- initiating Huldah Cheek and Walter Sharp’s mandate of developing a world-class botanical garden.
In the early 1900s, Cora and her husband, Harry Howe, moved from New England to Nashville and purchased an eight-acre parcel of land in East Nashville, selected for its century-old oak trees and rich, rock-free soil. In 1922, Mrs. Howe began planting the garden that she would eventually name “Wildings”, growing many native wildflowers, ferns, azaleas, and dogwoods. Cora officially opened her garden to the public in 1929, coincidentally, the same year ground broke for the Cheekwood estate. It is considered by many to be the first public garden in Nashville, entertaining thousands of visitors each spring when the wildflowers were most abundant.
Mr. Harry Howe passed away in 1966 and, sadly, Mrs. Howe followed just one year later. The estate was willed to Mr. Howe’s secretary, Rena Sullivan, and Cora’s nurse/companion, Ethel Wright. The two women were unable to afford the yearly maintenance necessary for the estate’s upkeep and the property was eventually sold. Members of The Garden Club of Nashville, of which Mrs. Howe was a founding member and long-time treasurer, approached Cheekwood as a potential new home for the Howe Garden. With a tremendous amount of fundraising and negotiation, a plan was enacted to devote a portion of the Cheekwood estate to be a living tribute to Cora Howe, showcasing her love of wildflowers and garden visitors.
Over a three-week period in December of 1968 that included some extremely frigid, snowy weather and late nights, the relocation of the Howe Garden took place. Charles Ellis of Ellis Tree Care, Elvin Cantrell, Cora’s head gardener for many years, and close friend, Mrs. Graham, directed a team to move plants, soil, a stone wall, several garden ornaments, and even the tool shed from East Nashville to Cheekwood.
The thatched roof did not make the trip to Cheekwood in 1968 and was replaced with a shingle roof. For the renovation that occurred in 2012, Cheekwood had only two options for the specialized and ancient craft of roof-thatching in the United States. Scotsman Colin McGhee of McGhee & Co., based in Virginia, was contracted. Using the traditional reed, McGhee constructed the tidy and water-tight, steep-pitched roof at a 45-degree angle. The overall process took about 3 weeks to complete. Colin McGhee’s beautiful, signature thatched roof is a favorite topic among Cheekwood guests and staff alike.
Today the original spirit, told though the Mrs. Howe’s beloved garden remains; its cherished story much enhanced. With its position as the first garden installation at Cheekwood, the Howe Garden now has a rich historical significance. The year 2011 marked an important fundraising effort by the Garden Club of Nashville, the largest in Cheekwood’s history at the time, which allowed for a comprehensive renovation designed by Page / Duke Architects in 2012. Fifteen new trees including redbud, black tupelo, sourwood, and four different species of magnolia were added to the already abundant collection of native species. Oakleaf hydrangeas, native azaleas and winterberry shrubs now provide a soft foundation and a strong example of Southern flora. Reimagining the garden’s role as a destination and gathering space with distinct focal points resulted in the multidimensional story that guests experience today.
In the spring of 2019, the Garden Club of Nashville hosted a special 50th anniversary celebration of the Howe Garden, offering tours and family activities for visitors, and serving Mrs. Howe’s signature snack, lemonade and gingersnaps.