Million dollar makeover 

Grant to give mansion grounds the P. Allen Smith touch.


By this time in 2007, plantsman P. Allen Smith hopes, the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion grounds will be a showcase—in its infancy—of heritage roses, native trees and parterres enclosed by living walls of green, punctuated by fountains and other graceful architectural notes. No longer will the back lawn be a sloping, but carefully tended, weed lot, nor will the vegetable garden look, in Smith’s own words, like a “pet cemetery.”

The state Natural and Cultural Resources Council, after meeting with first lady Janet Huckabee, Smith and Arkansas Building Authority head Anita Murrell, recently granted $1.2 million to the ABA for the mansion landscaping.

Smith, whose company, Hortus, is based in Little Rock and who appears regularly on national television, said in a letter to the first lady that was included in the grant application that he hoped to “reach substantial completion by year end and have the garden ‘open’ for Spring 2007,” in time for the International Master Gardeners Conference to be held here in May of next year.

Smith was hired by the non-profit Mansion Association last year to produce plans for the eight-acre site, and the ABA will take bids on the work, which will include $215,000 for irrigation and turf, $275,000 for pavilion construction, $195,000 for hardscape construction and $165,000 for plants. The remainder of the grant will pay for tree removal and site clean-up, drainage, soil and fertilizer, leasing of earth-moving equipment, lighting, furnishings and a water feature.

In an interview with the Times, Smith talked about his vision for the grounds, which includes an educational component for children. He also wants to encourage prison trusties on detail at the mansion to “take ownership” of the gardens, both to assure they’ll be well maintained and to give them a skill useful in the free world. Already, Smith said, “the guys have gotten excited about it.” He drew inspiration, he said, from Rosewood, the Greek Revival home of Gov. William Fulton that once stood on the site.

Old varieties of roses—which are hardy and disease resistant—will be planted along the west side of the Mansion against a scalloped hedge of yaupon holly. Smith grows some of the varieties, including a pale pink Noisette, in his own garden at 18th and Gaines Street.

The public garden, according to Smith’s design, will be entered from the southern end of the Grand Hall. It will be rectangular parterre, with four open pavilions and rose-covered pergolas on its west and east sides. A diamond-shaped walking path, a reference to the design of the state flag, will surround a fountain. Hedged rectangular spaces on either side of the public garden will be large enough for 40-by-60-foot tents.

The vegetable garden, now a small plot surrounded by a wood fence, will be moved from its too-shady location in the back yard to raised beds in the southeast corner of the Mansion grounds. Master Gardeners will continue to be in charge of the vegetable garden, which will be surrounded by a picket fence of the same design of Rosewood’s scalloped picket fence and crabapple trees. The garden will provide food for the mansion and food for thought, as an educational destination for third- and fourth-graders. Smith said he wants the garden to provide the kind of awe he experienced as a child visiting the Museum of Natural History in MacArthur Park, whose mummy was a favorite attraction.

An area extending from the east side of the Grand Hall to the security guard quarters will be turned into a private garden for the first family, defined by paths, a wall of evergreen trees on the east and holly hedges south and west and featuring “focal elements”— garden sculpture of some sort — at its northeast and southeast corners.

Smith, who grew up in Little Rock and returned here after study in England to start his own garden business, said he hopes the grounds will give people ideas of how their own properties could look. “I believe Arkansas is one of the best places to garden … but you can’t tell it walking around,” he said. He plans to use native plants—he gave as examples sweet bay, Virginia sweetspire, bay magnolia and fringe tree—as well as what he calls “workhorse” greenery that can be counted on to thrive. Defined evergreen borders and “pockets of color” will best suit the Mansion’s federal style, he said.

The entrance to the Mansion will be the showiest, with camellias, azaleas and seasonal bedding flowers embracing the circular drive. Boxwoods will be planted in a geometrical design around the central fountain.

The original grant application was for $1,310,000, but was reduced at the request of the council. Sally Stevens, the director of the Governor’s Mansion Association, could not provide the amount paid Smith for the designs; it’s been rumored to be as high as $500,000.

Bids on the work will not likely be taken until after July 1, after the Building Authority has reviewed Smith’s design documents and the first installment of the NCRC grant has been deposited.


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