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Originally published July 31, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified July 31, 2011 at 9:01 PM

Lit Life

'Lakewold' book opens door to a magnificent garden

A visit to Lakewold, a Pierce County estate that now serves as a public garden. It's the subject of "Lakewold: A Magnificent Northwest Garden," edited by Ronald Fields and recently published by University of Washington Press.

Seattle Times book editor

If you go

Lakewold

Lakewold is located at 12317 Gravelly Lake Drive in Lakewood, Pierce County. Summer hours (April 1- Sept. 30) are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults; $5 for seniors, students and active military. Children under 12 free. For more information go to www.lakewoldgardens.org, or call 253-584-4106.
quotes I cannot wait to buy - perhaps even this evening. I regard Lakewold Gardens as one of... Read more

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I love a good book, but I love a good garden even better. So after taking a look at the recently published "Lakewold: A Magnificent Northwest Garden," edited by Ronald Fields (University of Washington Press, $50), I decided to drive south to Pierce County to see the real thing.

A friend and I arrived on a clear summer day. Despite a high-traffic road nearby, once we entered the Lakewold parking lot we experienced a magnificent hush. It was as if Eulalie Wagner, the passionate gardener who donated Lakewold to the public, had decreed: No noise allowed.

Lakewold has its roots in old money — as old as it gets in the Northwest.

Eulalie Merrill Wagner was part of the Merrill family, whose name adorns buildings around Seattle, including Merrill Hall, the flagship building of the University of Washington's horticultural program. Her sister was Virginia Bloedel, who with husband Prentice Bloedel created Bainbridge Island's Bloedel Reserve (Seattle arts patron Virginia Wright is the Bloedels' daughter).

"While the term 'aristocrat' is inapplicable to Americans, she [Eulalie] was brought up in much the same way as a titled European," writes Steve Lorton, a former bureau chief of Sunset Magazine, in "Lakewold."

Eulalie married Corydon Wagner II, son of a Tacoma doctor who was personal physician to several founders of the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company, formed by a group of Minnesota businessmen.

In 1898 this group purchased 80,000 acres of virgin Pacific Northwest woods from the Northern Pacific Railroad — in his 1982 book about the company, "The Mill on the Boot," Tacoma historian Murray Morgan wrote of this "true forest": "There was some hemlock and a scattering of cedar, but the basic tree was Douglas fir. The forest was dense, many of the trees immense — 150 feet or more in height ... " These trees fell in service to the fortunes of the St. Paul group, who moved west to Tacoma. Eulalie Wagner's husband eventually became a vice president of the company.

In 1938, the Wagners bought Lakewold (a Middle English term for protected wooded glen) from an uncle. It was already lovely: With the help of famed garden designer Thomas Church (who also helped design the Bloedel Reserve gardens), Eulalie Wagner turned the grounds into a garden for the ages.

The two created intricately patterned knot gardens, perennial beds, an alpine garden and shade gardens on the slope down to Gravelly Pond. Church even created a garden under a "wolf tree," a multibranched Douglas fir so named because it's a "lone wolf," unsuitable for cutting. The Wagners re-covered the house so it would match the garden: from wood to a brick of pale pink, the color of one of their favorite rhododendrons.

Eulalie Wagner presided over it all: She "learned the flora, fauna and geography of the Pacific Northwest. She understood it all as a vast collection of natural splendors and as an enormous treasure trove of resources that held developmental potential for her entrepreneurial family," writes Lorton.

In the late 1950s, after a period of disagreement over the future of the company among its officers/owners, St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber was sold to St. Regis Paper. In 1979, Eulalie's husband died.

Eulalie Wagner decided she wanted Lakewold to endure after her death. She donated the estate to The Friends of Lakewold in 1987. It opened to the public in 1989, but she lived there until she died in 1991. Vickie Haushild, one of the garden's first docents and a contributor to "Lakewold," remembers her "walking around with the public tours, the first year and a half it was open. The home was beautiful, but the garden was her passion. She always talked to the visitors. She was always interested. "

The gardens of Lakewold are beautiful, but the trees are transcendent. The book "Champion Trees of Washington State" lists 10 Lakewold trees, including Japanese maple (two varieties), dawn redwood, Pandora cherry, holly (two varieties), Persian ironwood and Portugal laurel. You can stand underneath one of these monuments to longevity, look up in the canopy and feel the kind of serenity that only a lot of time or a lot of money (or both) can buy.

The day I visited I had an eerie feeling. My friend and I, not natural tour-takers, were strolling the sweep of grass behind the house, admiring the trees. I have never had a paranormal experience, but I had the most persistent feeling of being watched.

And then I thought: Maybe it's Eulalie Wagner, telling me to get off the lawn.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com.

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