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Anne Spencer garden featured by the Cultural Landscape Foundation in preservation effort

Anne Spencer garden featured by the Cultural Landscape Foundation in preservation effort

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The garden at the Anne Spencer Garden House & Museum in Lynchburg has been deemed endangered because of lack of funding and public awareness, according to a historical landscape education and activism group.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation — a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to education and advocacy “connecting people to places” by making at-risk landscape heritage more visible — featured Spencer’s garden among 12 landscapes across the nation designed by women in its new online exhibition, “Landslide 2020: Women Take the Lead.”

The exhibition coincides with the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote and highlights landscapes deemed “endangered” by threats such as lack of funding, lack of maintenance and volunteerism, lack of recognition or demolition.

This is the first time a Lynchburg location has been featured in TCLF’s annual Landslide report and exhibition, according to Nord Wennerstrom, the organization’s director of communications.

Anne Spencer, a Harlem Renaissance poet, was an avid gardener. She also was a civil rights activist, teacher, librarian at the formerly all-Black Dunbar High School and co-founder of the Lynchburg NAACP branch. Her 45-by-125-foot garden named “Edankraal” — a combination of the first names of Anne and her husband, Edward, plus the Afrikaans word “kraal,” meaning “enclosure” — includes a single writing room where Spencer penned some of her work among her flowers and plants. Over the decades since its establishment in the early 1900s, this garden hosted other Harlem Renaissance writers, community members, students and family.

“What we really wanted to do was raise the visibility of the garden, because we felt that the garden, like the other design landscapes, had a great influence. The influence was an inspiration for her writings; it was a gathering place for Harlem Renaissance artists; and it was also a place where the community, historically, was welcomed, and the community is welcomed today,” Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation said.

In 1983, the Hillside Garden Club — part of the Garden Club of Virginia — began volunteering to rehabilitate the then-overgrown garden. The project was spearheaded by landscape designer Jane White and was the first major project undertaken for restoring the garden of an African American by the Garden Club of Virginia. Birnbaum said Spencer’s garden restoration was the first garden of an African American known to be officially restored in the entire United States, a significant distinction.

White, who specialized in historic landscape restoration before retirement, said she could not get her mind off Spencer’s garden after visiting it for the first time during the 1980s, when it was overgrown.

“I remember just thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. I’ve got to do something about this place. It speaks to me,’” White said. “You could tell it had been loved by someone, this woman who I didn’t know. She clearly had a real sense of garden design, and I was so impressed by that.”

After taking other Hillside Garden Club members to visit the site, White got the group on board with an official restoration project. Vegetables, flowers and other plants were grown in the four-room garden space, with some original plants found poking through the overgrowth and brush, White said. Former fish ponds, one of which is restored today, also were part of the garden space.

The Hillside Garden Club continues volunteerism to this day, but Shaun Spencer-Hester, Anne Spencer’s granddaughter and current curator and volunteer director of the house and gardens, said more volunteers always are needed, especially as the current group ages.

Spencer-Hester said the garden is not “endangered” because of overgrowth or lack of maintenance. Rather, it has an uncertain future.

“When we’re thinking about endangered, we’re thinking about the future,” she said. “We’re thinking about future stewards of the garden. We’re also thinking about funding, present and future, for this garden, and how to sustain the project which has been put in place.”

The Anne Spencer Garden House & Museum’s primary sources of revenue come from grants and donations, Spencer-Hester said.

Student tours keep programming busy, but student participants are charged just one dollar for admittance in order to keep the experience and education accessible to everyone. More donors are needed to bring in funding for the numerous, ongoing maintenance and projects on site to keep everything in repair. Greater financial support, Spencer-Hester said, would be the best way to meet needs and secure the site for future generations.

Projects the Anne Spencer Garden House & Museum hopes to accomplish in the near future include renewed focus on outdoor programming, adding public restrooms, and installing outdoor lighting for evening events and general safety after dark. The Hillside Garden Club also wants to re-lay the greenstone terrace in front of the cottage to help protect against water damage.

Spence-Hester said there needs to be a paid executive director and a full-time maintenance worker. The house and gardens are currently entirely volunteer run. Greater financial support could help fund these two full-time positions, she explained.

Spencer-Hester recalled running through the flowers that grew as tall as she was in her grandmother’s garden as a child. She also said students came to work and talk with her grandmother in the garden, and she remembered family gatherings that took place among the plants.

Birnbaum said Anne Spencer’s garden is unique because it represents all four types of landscapes classified by the Cultural Landscape Foundation: historic design landscapes, vernacular landscapes, ethnographic landscapes and historic sites.

Anne Spencer’s garden is unique compared to every other site in the “Landslide 2020” exhibit and other exhibits from TCLF, Birnbaum said, because it represents all four of those landscape types at once.

“We’re excited that, for so many people that may know Anne Spencer’s poetry, they’re now also going to know that there is an incredible house and garden associated with her legacy that they can visit,” he said.

Although there are some unknowns about the future of the garden and house, Spencer-Hester does not feel like all hope is lost.

“It warms my heart to see young people in the garden, when I go there and they’re sitting there in the rocking chair at Edankraal, or they have a blanket on the grass with a picnic basket,” she said. “I hope that those will be the people who may be the new stewards.”

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