Perennial Beauty

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Artist Peggy Chun asked Philpotts McGrath to take a small Bali house off her hands, which she did. it is now tucked into a corner of her back garden on an elevated lawn enclosed by an old retaining wall. The Bali House creates an exotic illusion in the contained space, a place for afternoon tea or a quiet talk

Mary Philpotts McGrath’s rendition of the English garden is perfectly suited for Hawai‘i.

As Honolulu grows, the size of its gardens seems to shrink. House lots are smaller and condominium towers are better suited to young professionals, part-time residents and older couples wanting to downsize. No one seems to have the time or finances to support the upkeep of an English garden reinterpreted in tropical terms. This being true, a visit to interior designer Mary Philpotts McGrath’s Nu‘uanu home is always special—a nostalgic reminder of an earlier, perhaps more gracious time.

“A garden influences your whole psyche. It nourishes you and the reflection of all the color, light and sound leaves you feeling healthy and at peace,” says McGrath, as she sits at a handcrafted dining table (one of two in the house) looking out at the soaring monkeypod, puakenikeni and eucalyptus trees in her back garden. Below is the sound of rushing water from Nu‘uanu Stream. It’s a house filled with birds, dogs and the constant visits of family and friends.

The garden has the maturity of an old public garden such as Foster Botanical Garden or the Lyon Arboretum. The old trees are laden with tree ferns and orchids, making the house surprisingly quiet in the middle of a populated neighborhood.

“Nu‘uanu has always had a heavy influence on those who came here. The cooler climate is why the ali‘i were drawn to the area,” she says, reminding us that Queen Emma and Kamehameha III liked to spend time in Nu‘uanu. There is an abrupt weather change, she points out, right below the Summer Palace where light drizzle turns abruptly to sunny and dry.

Mary and her late husband, John McGrath, purchased the house in the early 1990s. At that time the large front lawn was dominant, as were the shade trees. But the density of tropical growth did not exist. John, newly retired, found he loved gardening. He set about adding to it his passion for different varieties of colored ti plants and begonias. An auwai, once used by Hawaiians of old to irrigate crops, ran through the front yard. It added a primary feature of the classic English garden—a large lawn sloping to a water feature.

Mary envisioned the density of an- other garden she loved on Old Pali Road where she spent much of her childhood. A close friend lived at the old Marks estate nearby and in those places she learned a reverence for plants and the value of gardens—even if they’re only viewed from out a window.

Classical gardens often have a touch of fantasy. Mary and John added a pavilion which was used as a garage, but regularly turned into a set for annual Halloween extravaganzas she staged to which the entire neighborhood was invited. For years, it was also the scene of weddings and parties. The pavilion, an open structure with a Hawaiian “hip roof,” also sheltered garden workshops during the holidays.

The storage room above is filled with the ephemera Mary uses when decorating and entertaining.

Years after moving to the home, their neighbor, the late artist Peggy Chun, became ill. Chun had in a whimsical moment purchased a small Bali house. But now, consumed by her health problems, was at a loss as to what to do with it. She asked Mary to take it off her hands, which she did. It is now tucked into a corner of her back garden on an elevated lawn enclosed by an old retaining wall. The Bali House creates an exotic illusion in the contained space, a place for afternoon tea or a quiet talk. From there a garden path zigzags down a slope into the stream.

Essential for a garden like this are the weathered antique urns, Chinese pots, garden stools and outdoor furniture Mary has either inherited from her parents or the house’s former owners. Sundials and bird baths are nestled into corners and mossy fountains gurgle. A large private garden such as this re- quires enormous upkeep from both the owner and hired gardeners.

But Mary loves the density for the privacy it provides and the reduced light intrusion from the street. She points out the colors of the garden come not from flowers, but from the varied foliage choices such as rare ti plants, different varieties of bromeliads, bougainvillea, ferns and other colored vegetation. She uses this vegetation in arrangements throughout the house so that even though you are inside, the garden enters the home.

She marvels at the observation talent of the home’s architect, the legendary Hart Wood. “He must have spent a lot of time on this property before he designed it,” she says, pointing to a wall where most would have placed a window. But instead the architect knew where the pali breezes would hit the house. Windows are lower than most, recognizing that most people inside are seated. He allows them to view the garden from that position.

Mary can’t help but wonder what will become of the garden when she no longer lives there. It’s already documented in the Smithsonian Institution’s archives of tropical gardens in Washington D. C. She’d loved to see it cared for and enjoyed by others. In the meantime, the designer is spending more time on her art and printmaking. True to form, she’s using the plant material from the garden to influence what she creates.

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