Discovering Sarah P. Duke Gardens
I wonder how you score a Duke University dorm room overlooking the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. This is the view the lucky students who reside in those rooms see below their windows — and what we saw up-close on a recent visit. Sarah P. Duke Gardens consists of 55 acres of landscaped and wooded areas at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, linked by five miles of allées, walks, and pathways meandering throughout.
After wandering through several distinct gardens, past cascading streams and ponds, across various types of bridge, we came to the extraordinary historic Terrace Gardens. This magnificent Italianate garden marks the first stage of Sarah P. Duke Gardens. It features a fish pool, rock garden, rose, azalea and camellia displays, a butterfly garden and more. The terraced beds are filled with bulbs, annuals, perennials, ornamental grasses and container plantings, and the steps lead up to a wisteria-covered pergola. The highlight feature is the Roney fountain, which was donated to Duke University in 1897. It was restored and moved from East Campus to this perfect spot in 2011.
It’s hard to imagine, but this glorious landscape was wrested from a debris-filled ravine. The idea of a public garden arose in the early 1930s, due to the vision and enthusiasm of Dr. Frederic M. Hanes, an early member of the original faculty of Duke Medical School. Dr. Hanes had a passion for gardening and was determined to convert the ravine, which he walked past every day, into a garden of his favorite flower, the iris. In the previous decade, the land had been under consideration for creation of a lake, but funds were short and that project had been abandoned. So the idea for a garden took root.
Dr. Hanes persuaded his friend Sarah P. Duke, widow of one of the university’s founders, to give $20,000 to finance a garden that would bear her name. Unfortunately the wrong spot was selected for the initial garden. In 1935, in the area that is now the South Lawn, more than 100 flower beds bloomed with 40,000 irises, 25,000 daffodils, 10,000 small bulbs, and assorted annuals — but heavy summer rains and the flooding stream caused washouts and disease, including iris rot. By the time Sarah P. Duke died in 1936, the original gardens were in decline.
Dr. Hanes stepped up again, convincing Sarah’s daughter, Mary Duke Biddle, to construct a new garden on higher ground as a fitting memorial to her mother. Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869–1950), a pioneer in American landscape design, was selected to design the plans for both the construction and the plantings — and the glorious Terrace Gardens became a reality, dedicated in April 1939.
Beautiful gardens, definitely worth a visit!
Hmmm … maybe it’s time to plan a little trip …
Sarah P. Duke Gardens
420 Anderson St.
Durham, NC 919–684–3698
This article was originally published in Art Things Considered, Aug. 25, 2022.
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