A Dozen Things to Know about the Gardens at Bayou Bend

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I am now a proud docent at Bayou Bend,* class of 2020. Almost all of our docent education centers on the house and its collection of American decorative arts. But recently I presented a paper on the history of the gardens at Bayou Bend. As a result of compulsive over-researching, as usual, I discovered a bazillion details about this verdant gem nestled in the heart of River Oaks. (Here’s a view of the house from the Diana Fountain.)

It would be easy to believe that Ima Hogg, Bayou Bend’s builder and benefactor – she gave her home and 14 acres of gardens to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 1966 – simply hired a landscape architect to draw up a plan, had the gardens planted and that was that. In fact, Miss Ima (as she was known) spent years on the gardens, which involved several false starts and do-overs … just like every other Houston gardener.

She consulted a variety of local and national designers and landscape architects in the early years, but had many ideas of her own as well. It took about 13 years to get the gardens the way she wanted them, and they were finally unveiled to the world in 1939. Two more gardens – the Butterfly Garden (1942) and the Carla Garden (1971) – were added later.

Here are 12 things that I found wonderful and inspiring.

  1. Ima Hogg and her brothers Will and Mike Hogg paid $61,000 for the 14 acres of River Oaks land on which Bayou Bend is located. The house style, which she dubbed Latin Colonial, was designed by architect John Staub. Construction on the home and garden began in 1926.
  1. Bayou Bend’s gardens are an eclectic version of an antebellum Southern garden. Like many Southern plantations, the two sides of the house look entirely different from one another. There is the land side (seen in the approach from Lazy Lane) and the water side (seen as one crosses the bridge over Buffalo Bayou into the gardens).
  1. Miss Ima wanted the name for her home to suggest quiet, contentment and country. At first it was called Bayou Banks, but her brother Will said he thought it sounded too muddy and malarial. Within a couple years it evolved to Bayou Bend.
  1. In 1926, as the home was under construction, Will Hogg purchased a large number of pink flagstone sidewalk pavers from downtown Houston. The shopkeepers and business owners were removing and discarding the stones, replacing them with modern cement. These stones were repurposed in the terraces around Bayou Bend (the east terrace, looking north, is shown below) and gave it an instant aura of history.

  1. Extensive lists of plants in Miss Ima’s own hand are preserved in composition notebooks (see below) in the Bayou Bend archives. She ordered her plants and seeds from nurseries and plant breeders throughout the country, including Teas Nursery here in Houston and E.A. McIlhenny – yes, of Tabasco fame – who had a nursery at Jungle Gardens on Avery Island, Louisiana. Her earliest idea was for a cutting garden with plants grown from seed, including pansies, hyacinths and tulips in the spring, followed by violets, larkspur, verbena, delphinium, phlox, candy tuft, stock, ageratum, baby’s breath and white lilies in the summer.

  1. The graceful grass steps descending toward the Diana fountain were added during the summer of 1937 and were inspired by Virginia gardens in the Tidewater region with terraced grass slopes.

  1. The Diana statue (1938), as well as the statues of Clio (1939) and Euterpe (1939), were all made at the Antonio Frilli Studio in Florence of white Cararra marble. (Diana is shown crated, below, as she arrived at Bayou Bend.)

8. When Miss Ima decided to give her home and its contents to the MFAH, part of the agreement with her River Oaks neighbors was that the Lazy Lane entrance would be used only during the springtime Azalea Trail. The neighbors did not want the added traffic in their neighborhood. Consequently, land was acquired across the bayou off of Memorial Drive, a parking lot was added and the wooden suspension bridge was built.

  1. In effort to keep the gardens as authentic to Miss Ima’s vision as possible, plants are not only carefully cared for, but cuttings are taken for propagation. The object is not to replace plants with modern varieties, but to maintain the historically correct plant selections, design and garden ornaments. Even the cast iron furniture is historic. It was salvaged in New Orleans by Miss Ima and John Staub and made by Hinderer Iron Works, a company that produced much of New Orleans’ iconic cast iron work. It was in business from the Civil War until 1920.
  1. Houston landscape designers Pat Fleming and Albert Sheppard were hired to execute many of Miss Ima ideas in the late 1930s. The team’s challenge included Miss Ima’s wish for lighting the Diana fountain and surrounding gardens. Today it’s not a big deal, but in the 1930s underwater lights were an eccentric idea. The team worked for a month on this, as well as designing the fountain’s jets to work in formal unison and fall in the water on the other side without great splashing.
  1. The Carla Garden was created after 1961’s Hurricane Carla brought tornadoes that opened up a patch of woods to the northeast of the house. Rather than replant, the area was paved and benches added. Azaleas, brick edging and trimmed boxwoods tie it together and link it visually with the other gardens. (Shown below is the Carla Garden as it looks today … and the devastation wrought by the hurricane in 1961.)

  1. After the MFAH accepted Miss Ima’s house and collection, the fate of the gardens remained less defined. No endowment or organization had been developed to manage the gardens. In the early 1960s a group of women from the River Oaks Garden Club (Mrs. Dixon Cain, Mrs. Ray Dudley, Mrs. Hal Houseman and Mrs. J. Griffith Lawhon) approached Miss Ima to ask if the garden club could supervise the maintenance of the gardens. They had been doing it informally for quite a while, helping Miss Ima get ready for the spring Azalea Trail. Miss Ima accepted their offer. An endowment for the gardens was established in 1967 under the direction of Mrs. Borden Tennant and today is valued at around $10 million. One more note: Since 2001, Bayou Bend Gardens have been maintained organically. Bayou Bend is believed to be the largest public garden in the country that is exclusively organic. (The Clio Garden is shown below.)

*If you’d like to book a tour of Bayou Bend, here are the details.