By Marilyn J. Lee
Garden Club of Greater Lansing
LANSING, MI -- It was over twenty years ago when my daughter lived and worked in Lansing when I came upon a beautiful little walled public garden, known as the Scott Sunken Garden, close to Downtown Lansing. The garden can be approached from the South end of Capitol Avenue, and is located at the corner of Washington and Main Street. It is a small garden much appreciated today by visitors to the Women's Hall of Fame, walkers and Lansing workers in the area who enjoy a few moments of beauty and solitude. Reduced in grandeur from what it was originally, the Italian style sunken garden remains a visually beautiful reminder of Lansing's history. It was created by the prominent Lansing businessman and philanthropist, Richard H. Scott, as a showplace for beautiful plants. It was restored in the early 80's by the Garden Club of Greater Lansing, until 1984 known as the Lansing Branch, Woman's National Farm and Garden Association (WNFG) with help from the City of Lansing. Since its restoration the Sunken Garden has been maintained, i.e. planted, watered, mowed, by the Garden Club.
In 1898 Richard Scott came to Lansing at the age of 29 to work at the Olds gasoline engine works plant. He was a skilled engineer and organizer who worked with R. E. Olds. He helped organize the Reo Motor Car Company as well as several other companies. When R. E. Olds retired in 1923, Mr. Scott became the president of the company. In 1907 Mr. Scott purchased a 17 room Georgian Colonial home with huge front columns on West Main Street from James R. Elliot, who had built the house two years earlier. Mr. Scott also bought up adjacent property including the former home of Judge Edward Cahill to the east of his lot. The Cahill house was razed. On its foundation Mr. Scott built a two-tiered, walled sunken garden.
Part of the garden could be viewed from the terrace of his home. Mr. Scott had a great love for birds and flowers and was a knowledgeable horticulturist. He was assisted in the development of his gardens by Nick Kriek, a Lansing landscape contractor. The estate itself was maintained by several gardeners employed by Mr. Scott.
It is not a large garden, the outside measures approximately 51 feet by 79 feet, with a center lawn area 28 feet by 45 feet. The lawn is surrounded by a two foot limestone wall and raised flower beds. There is an entrance with limestone steps on the west side. On the south side there is a sloping entrance and on the east side a still water pond at the base of a grotto. The garden which was begun in the early 1930's became a showcase for all types of bulbs, annuals, perennials and shrubs. The record of plants included hundreds of types of sedums, some planted in specially created crevices in the outer walls of the garden.
Mr. Scott was also deeply concerned with civic improvement and beautification of the City. In 1929 he donated some of his adjoining property to Lansing for use as a park and playground. He deeded other property to the City as well. On March 14, 1944, Richard Scott died at the age of 75 leaving a legacy of philanthropy and a beautiful sunken garden.
Some years following Mr. Scott's death, Mrs. Gertrude Scott moved out of her home. She continued to have the gardens maintained. Over the years she had seen other once beautiful homes fall into disrepair or used for other purposes, and she did not want the same thing to happen to her home. For this reason, in 1965, she chose to have the house razed. Mrs. Scott lived with her sister and later her son, Maurice, until her death in 1969. After that the grounds and the Sunken Garden deteriorated from neglect. The City of Lansing had acquired the property and the Sunken Garden was part of the City of Lansing Parks Department.
The garden club that restored the Sunken Garden, i.e., members of the Lansing Branch, WNFG, also were concerned with civic improvement. They were familiar with the Scott family and gardens. In the summer of 1931 members toured three Lansing gardens including that of Mrs. Richard Scott. In July 1932 Mr. Scott conducted the tour of his garden and discussed in detail his plants and gardens which were considered among the loveliest and most spacious in the vicinity. There were subsequent visits to the gardens.
Meetings of the garden club were largely in the member's home until 1952 when the home of the late Orien A. Jenison on Townsend Street became available to them and other clubs. A Lansing newspaper article at that time reported that the house “…is the gathering place for art, garden and camera clubs whose purposes are cultural in nature.” On June 14, 1952 the Lansing Park Board changed the name of the property at 915 Townsend Street to “Scott Park Center” and the name of the building on the property to “Scott Park Art and Garden Center.” Twenty-seven years later in 1979 through an exchange by the City of Lansing and Oldsmobile, the house was moved by Oldsmobile from its location on Townsend Street to the site on Main Street where the Scott home once stood. Garden club members continued to meet in the house, named Scott Park Art and Garden Center, now adjacent to the Sunken Garden.
By 1979 the Sunken Garden and the surrounding gardens were in serious decline. The area had changed much from the time that Mr. Scott developed the gardens due to the expansion of Oldsmobile and to the construction of I-496. Garden Club members expressed concern at a meeting with the Lansing Park and Recreation representatives in June 1980. In November 1980 the Club accepted the recommendation of their Civic Improvement Committee to join with the City of Lansing to plan for the restoration of Scott Sunken Garden. Pictures of the original garden were available and from them plans were drawn to restore the gardens as near as possible to the original design.
In January 1981, the City of Lansing started the restoration by clearing the vegetation that had overgrown the Sunken Garden. The next step was to rebuild the vandalized limestone walls, including completely replacing the lower wall which had disappeared. In return for providing labor and mortar, the City asked the Garden Club to purchase the stone needed. The Garden Club approved the proposal; however, the City did not have the labor force they had planned to use for repairing the walls. The Garden Club therefore paid a masonry company to repair the walls, grotto and steps and construction began May, 1982.
Unfortunately, the lower wall had to be redone in September due to faulty work. The City of Lansing extended water pipes from the Scott Park Art and Garden Center to the garden. When it came time for landscaping the City once again indicated that funds were not available, and once again the Garden Club approved funding for the project. A skilled landscape architect volunteered his services. Evergreens were installed and tulips planted in the Fall. The Club assumed responsibility for watering. In 1983 Club members worked extensively in the garden adding more plants. In the Spring of 1984 the first plantings looked good and the Club set up workshops to maintain, water and make replacements of plantings as needed in the garden.
The funds for the restoration were raised from profits realized through the Club's several annual Greens Markets and donations.
In May 1985, the Garden Club of Greater Lansing was awarded the Michigan Award of Merit by the Federated Garden Clubs of Michigan, Inc. for Historic Preservation of a garden of importance to the heritage of Lansing. On the West wall of the Garden next to the steps going down into the garden is a bronze plaque the reads:
SCOTT SUNKEN GARDEN
A gift of restoration to the City
THE GARDEN CLUB OF
Ever since its restoration, caring members of the Garden Club of Greater Lansing have continued to maintain Scott Sunken Garden.
This article was originally printed in the September 26, 2010 - October9, 2010 edition.