The garden framing the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah, Georgia was designed by Savannah landscape architect Clermont Lee. The Birthplace is an antebellum mansion, built in 1821, and later was the site of Low’s birth and early childhood. Low was the founder of the Girl Scouts of America. The Girl Scout organization bought the house from the Gordon family in 1955, and hired Clermont Lee to create a garden appropriate for an 1860s town garden. Clermont, the first registered female landscape architect in Georgia, designed a small, patterned garden, with oyster shell pathways, outlined in clay tiles. This was a recreated garden, since there was no documented evidence of any such elaborate space existing before that time. The garden remained basically as created for over fifty years, maintained and supervised by Lee for decades.
In the fall of 2015, the Girl Scouts USA, now a corporate entity, sent out a letter asking for monetary gifts to redesign the garden area at the Birthplace. The corporate ideal was to remove the parterred garden, place bluestone pavers in the space, and line it with tropical plantings. This formula was preferred because they felt the space was not practical for disabled girls, was not practical for Girl Scout bridging ceremonies, and was no longer financially practical to maintain. To the GSUSA’s surprise, a loud push back was triggered, protesting the destruction of the garden.
A petition was set up asking the GSUSA to reconsider this demolition, pointing to this accomplishment by an early female landscape architect as an inspiration to the Girl Scouts themselves. The Southern Garden History Society responded with an offer to provide both financial and design assistance with a program to restructure the garden in a way that answered the Girl Scout needs. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) put the landscape on their Landslide program in 2016. The Georgia Trust put the Lee landscape on their Places in Peril listing for 2019. The GSUSA first answered by forming an advisory board to work on these issues, meeting only twice, essentially saying they were convinced that Lee herself would approve of demolition by pointing to her maintenance concerns. In 2018, another, later board was formed with concerned Gordon family members, Savannah College of Art and Design faculty, and new corporate GSUSA staff. Seeing a chance for new eyes to consider alternative designs, concerned family and landscape professionals purchased three designs from Tunnell & Tunnell, a landscape firm from Atlanta. Tunnell’s well thought out designs were never considered, as another landscape firm had already been hired by GSUSA. The final design was essentially the original one planned years ago: mostly pavement with trees in planters.
In March of 2020, a meeting of the Savannah Historic District Board of Review was held to consider approval of fencing changes at the garden. The SHDBR made it clear the fencing was all that was to be considered. However, a last-ditch effort was attempted by those opposed to the wholesale destruction of Lee’s design. It truly was too late as the landscape was already demolished. The garden had been destroyed by the GSUSA, citing personal ownership.
The next issue of the SGHS Magnolia will have a small article regarding this final meeting.