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.
Airlie Gardens, the pride of Wilmington, N.C., is a destination spot for garden lovers throughout the world.
The property known as Airlie was part of the 640 acre land grant from King George II to the Ogden brothers in 1736. By the 1790’s, the land had been transferred to Joshua Grainger Wright who held much of the original acreage. First developed as a garden by Mrs. Sarah Jones, wife of Mr. Pembroke Jones (a Wright relative) and later owned by the Corbett family, Airlie’s landscape has been an important local landmark for over a century. Sarah and Pembroke Jones were wealthy industrialists noted for their lavish entertaining and the genesis of the popular saying, keeping up with the Joneses. The Corbett family purchased the property in 1946. They were local business owners with strong ties to the community. The property was kept as a garden close to the way it had been developed originally. The Corbett’s would open it to the public several seasons throughout the year, the spring in particular, for the azaleas. It became a tradition, or as some would say, a pilgrimage, by the local community to visit the garden to view the 75,000 blooming azaleas in full glory.
The Gardens were devastated by recent hurricanes, ongoing vandalism, and decline so in 1998, the Corbett family was approached with an idea to develop the site into a subdivision with 47 single-family homes. The New Hanover County Commissioners decided to acquire the property in an effort to preserve the site for future generations. Working with a local land trust and the Corbett family, the County purchased Airlie in November of 1998.
Airlie Gardens proves the region with a historic public garden that the residents and visitors of New Hanover County can be proud of. New 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.