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What is Airlie Gardens?

Ben Steelman

A 67-acre county park, located at 300 Airlie Road, Wilmington [Map this], Airlie gained nationwide fame for its spectacular plantings, which at one time included more than 600,000 azalea bushes and more than 5,000 camellias.

The original tract was deeded by King George II to brothers Jonathan and Solomon Ogden; parcels were later sold to prominent Wilmington families, including Zebulon Latimer and Judge Joshua Wright (for whom Wrightsville Beach was named).

The most famous couple to own the property, however, were J. Pembroke Jones, an extremely wealthy rice trader, and wife Sarah (Sadie) Jones, who bought a 150-acre tract in 1886. They renamed their estate “Airlie,” after the ancestral Scottish home of Jones’ family, took over the old Sea Side Park Hotel on the property and turned it into a 133-room mansion that Sadie used as her “cottage.”

The Joneses often entertained New York friends on their beach property which, at its height, included an 18-hole golf course (where guests often played at night, by torchlight) and an adjoining 1,300-acre hunting preserve. In its heyday, Airlie had a staff of some 50 servants.

(Some sources claim that Pembroke and Sadie Jones inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” credited to cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand, who used it as the title of a newspaper comic strip he launched in 1913. Others however, cite New York socialites George Frederic and Lucretia Jones — the parents of novelist Edith Wharton — as the more likely inspiration.)

Airlie was the domain of Sadie Jones. (Pembroke Jones preferred to spend time with his gentleman friends over at his adjoining Pembroke Park estate, located where the Landfall subdivision now stands.) She began developing the gardens in 1901, adding the lakes and ponds in 1902. P.J. Berckmans of Augusta, Ga., a noted horticulturalist from Augusta, Ga., began planting azalea and camellia varieties, many of which survive today.

After Pembroke Jones died in 1919, Sadie Jones soon married family friend Henry Walters, the Baltimore railroad magnate who merged the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad into the Atlantic Coast Line. At this point, her gardening began in earnest. She hired Rudolf Topel, a German horticulturalist who had once been a gardener to the Kaiser, and laid out even more elaborate beds, incorporating the magnolias and native azaleas that already grew there naturally. Topel and his crew added 1,700 more trees and 5,000 additional flowers. Sadie frequently joined the work, happily getting her hands dirty in the process.

From 1930 onward, Sadie Jones Walters began opening her gardens periodically to the public. After she died in 1943, the Airlie property passed to the Corbett family in 1948. Bertha and Waddell Corbett operated the gardens as a private tourist attraction for many years.

In 1999, in cooperation with the N.C. Coastal Land Trust, New Hanover County acquired Airlie from the Corbetts at a cost of $10.5 million.

Attractions include the gigantic Airlie Oak, estimated to be more than 460 years old, the pergoia fountain and plantings arranged to bloom year-round. Although only a fraction of the Jones’ 155-acre property, the gardens remain impressive with more than 100,000 azaleas estimated to grow on the grounds.

One of the most remarkable characters associated with Airlie Gardens was Minnie Evans (1892-1987), a visionary, self-taught African-American artist who served as Airlie’s gatekeeper for the Corbett family from 1948 to 1974. Many of Evans’ distinctive, semi-abstract drawings and paintings were done as she sat in the Airlie gatehouse. Today her legacy is honored at Airlie by the Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden, with tribute works by area artists. Among these is the Bottle House, a remarkable construction by artist Virginia Wright-Frierson, containing more than 2,800 colored glass bottles donated by area residents.

Also on the Airlie property is Lebanon Chapel, built in 1835 by Dr. Thomas Henry Wright for the use of families in the region. It is the oldest surviving house of worship in New Hanover County. Deeded by the Wright family to St. James Parish, Lebanon Chapel is now tended by St. James Episcopal Church of Wilmington, which conducts regular services there during the summer, Advent, Eastertide and Thanksgiving. A small cemetery adjoins the chapel. Lebanon Chapel is not regularly open to the open, but tour groups are occasionally allowed to visit, and St. James leases the property for weddings and special services.

Airlie has been visited by Azalea Queens during almost every N.C. Azalea Festival since the first queen, Jacqueline White, toured the gardens with her court in 1948. The gardens have been used as a location in a number of feature films, including “28 Days” with Sandra Bullock and “Black Knight” with Martin Lawrence, and they also appeared in the TV series “Dawson’s Creek.”

Regular season hours at Airlie are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., seven days a week. During spring bloom season (April 3-May 17), the gardens stay open till 7 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Winter hours (Jan. 2-March 19) are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children aged 6-12. Children younger than 6 are admitted free.

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