Welcome to Airlie Gardens! We are excited to share our garden with you. Last year we saw over 120,000 visitors at Airlie. Our goal is to showcase the natural beauty of the garden with our residents and visitors while sharing the history and ensuring the preservation of the area. Each year we welcome 4,000+ students to the garden to share our connection to the environment, protecting it for future generations. We hope you will join us for one of our signature events held throughout the year or just for a relaxing stroll around the garden. –Tara Duckworth, Executive Director
Airlie Gardens is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization who’s mission is: To ensure and help preserve Airlie Gardens as an outstanding, historic public garden with cultural and environmental programs developed to serve New Hanover County residents and other visitors.
History of Airlie
1735– February 20th, King George II of England grants 640 acres of land to Jonathon Ogden, a local leatherworker, and his brother Solomon Ogden, a carpenter. Portions of this tract are included in what is today called Airlie.
1800 – Joshua Grainger Wright purchases 320 acres of the Ogden grant on Bradley Creek for 110 pounds. His wife, Susan Bradley Wright, names the property Mount Lebanon because of the abundance of cedar trees in the area.
1835 – Dr. Thomas Henry Wright, a physician, bank president, railroad director, merchant, and Episcopal minister, builds Mount Lebanon Chapel, which currently still stands within Airlie. According to Dr. Thomas Henry Wright’s wishes, Mount Lebanon Chapel and its accompanying six-and-one-half-acre tract of land is deeded to St. James Church in Wilmington.
1884 – Along with other members of the Seaside Park Improvement Company, Sarah Green and Pembroke Jones purchase a parcel of land and a waterfront Inn on the old Wright estate that will become the core of the Airlie property. Two years later Sarah Jones purchases Seaside Park for herself for $1,250. Her now husband, Pembroke Jones, names this property Airlie in honor of his ancestral home in Scotland.
1895 – Pembroke and Sarah Jones move to Airlie as their principal residence. The converting the Inn into a 39 room mansion. Sarah Jones continues to enlarge and embellish the house at Airlie in preparation for high class visitors, this expansion included servants’ quarters, carriage and cart houses, and stables.
1901 – 1902 – Sarah Jones begins transforming Airlie into a garden estate by creating lakes and tree-lined paths. The design of the gardens develops in a naturally curving and mysterious style that appears effortless, yet its maintenance depends on scores of full-time workers. Renowned horticulturist P. J. Berckmans of Augusta, Ga., brings camellias and azaleas to Airlie.
1904 – Sarah Jones adds a classical pergola constructed of coquina as a focal point of Airlie’s lakeside.
1906 – Sarah Jones hires German landscape gardener Rudolph Topel to develop and maintain Airlie’s plantings. According to oral tradition, Mrs. Jones hired Topel away from the German Kaiser. He would remain at Airlie for 31 years until his death in 1937.
1918 – Pembroke Jones dies at age 61 after surgery.
1920 – The present Airlie gate is installed on the Wrightsville Turnpike (now Airlie Road).
1922 – Sarah Jones marries longtime friend Henry Walters.
1931– Sarah promotes Airlie’s first garden tour which brings in 2500 plus people from 32 states. The gardens opened from 8am-6pm on April 24th & 25th for a public luncheon and garden tour, guests were charged 50 cents for admission. Admission proceeds are donated to subsidize building funds for the building of St. Andrews on-the-Sound Episcopal Church, currently located at the corner of Airlie Road & Oleander Drive.
1943 – Sarah Jones Walters dies at 84 in New York City.
1948 – January, the Corbett Package Company purchases Airlie for $150,000 from Sadie Jones Pope, daughter of Sarah & Pembroke Jones.
1948 – The first annual Azalea Festival begins on April 9 with a downtown flower show sponsored by several area garden clubs. During the festival Queen Jacqueline White and her entourage pay a visit to Airlie, a “royal tradition” that continues today now known as the “Queens Luncheon” garden party.
1954 – Hurricane Hazel floods underlying areas of Airlie. James “Jim” Ferger serves as a consultant at Airlie following the hurricane developing a slightly formal area known as the “Spring Garden”. He will work as a consultant for the gardens until 1980.
1958 – The original house at Airlie is dismantled. Mr. and Mrs. Waddell Corbett replace it with a more contemporary style home in 1960.
1963 – The original wooden bridges over Airlie’s lakes are burned by vandals and are replaced with earthen causeways.
1970 – James Ferger, Airlie grounds consultant, develops area called “Four Seasons” or “Waddell Walk” which is now known to Airlie as the “Bridal Walk”.
1986 – Mount Lebanon Chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
1996 – Hurricanes Bertha and Fran cause extensive damage the garden.
1999 – New Hanover County purchases 67 acres for a public garden, Airlie Gardens. A portion of the money comes from a County Tidal Creeks Grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund; a regular program of environmental education is instituted for schools and the public. The Airlie Gardens’ Foundation was established as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization who’s mission is: To ensure and help preserve Airlie Gardens as an outstanding, historic public garden with cultural and environmental programs developed to serve New Hanover County residents and other visitors.
1998 – First Airlie Oyster Roast is held. This tradition continues to this day with the event held at Airlie Gardens on the Oak Lawn.
2004 – The Bottle Chapel, the centerpiece of the Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden, is designed by Virginia Wright-Frierson, with other sculptural contributions from Karen Crouch, Dumay Gorham, Brooks Koff, and Hiroshi Sueyoshi. With contributions from local school children and volunteers.
2005– First Enchanted Airlie, a holiday light exhibit opens.
2010– Airlie’s 2,700-square foot native butterfly house opens.
Airlie Gardens provides the region with a historic public garden that the residents and visitors of New Hanover County can be proud of. Programs for educational and cultural enrichment, successful events, beautiful plantings and strong economic growth are all hallmarks of saving this great treasure.
For anyone who knows American folk art, Airlie Gardens means something more; it was the inspiration for the vibrant, colorful, and intricate paintings of Minnie Evans.
Evans came to Wilmington with her mother in 1893, when she was a year old. Her mother remarried a man who was employed by Pembroke Jones, a wealthy industrialist, and by the age of 17 Minnie found work as a domestic in the Jones household. Jones’ wife, Sarah Green Jones, was the one who established Airlie Gardens. From 1948 to 1974 Minnie was the gatekeeper at Airlie, collecting admissions and selling her artwork. She painted her delicate and fantastical scenes as a result of a divine vision when in a dream god told she must paint or die. Her art works depict angel and ornately adorned figures but the art work clearly evokes the lushness and greenery of the garden setting that she saw every day. She once said, God has some 600 shades of green, and He dressed the world with them. To her the natural surroundings were a divine revelation, as one can readily see in her painting displayed in the Fenimore Art Museum collection dedicated to Minnie and or at special showings at the Cameron Museum of Art in Wilmington.
Minnie sold her artwork at Airlie, and had her first exhibitions there, spreading her paintings on the lawn at the gates entrance offering many for only fifty cents or a dollar. She died in 1987, but her work is so connected with the site that local artists created a memorial sculpture garden within Airlie in her honor. Bottle Chapel, sculptures and its garden were constructed in 2004 and has become a central feature to the gardens, popular with many visitors.