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A Temple Built on Princely Inspiration

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Prince Charles's garden at his Highgrove estate has won acclaim for its overall sustainability. Jeffrey Stann, a landscape designer in Chevy Chase, finds inspiration in a more specific feature of the green prince's garden.

From the rear balcony of the Colonial-style house of Stann and his wife, Patsy, the eye follows the course of his narrow and twisting landscape, past a bridge, old shade trees and a walled patio to a distant classical temple. Students of Highgrove (I am one, and I was fortunate enough to have visited the garden last year) will see an uncanny echo in Stann's structure. It mimics one of a pair of oaken temples built for the prince in a lush, woody area he calls the Stumpery.

Classical structures, sometimes called follies, have been placed in landscape gardens for centuries, built at great expense not to shelter necessarily but to provide a focal point and speak to its creator's high Greco-Roman ideals.

Stann's version, which has both apparent and hidden utility, is perched over a sloping lawn and framed by shrub borders. "It's a little odd to have a temple in Chevy Chase," Stann said, "but it appealed to me."

Even in winter, the temple offers a pleasant place to sit out of the wind, on a bench built against the structure's rear wall, set far enough forward to allow a hidden storage shed in the rear. Here, Stann keeps his wheelbarrow and other garden equipment.

Classically inspired structures are risky business in suburbia, where they can come off as being too pretentious. Stann's folly, however, is anything but; its no-nonsense fabric of pressure-treated lumber and absence of paint, stain or ornament keep it grounded. Again, we have Prince Charles to thank, because with designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman, the prince broke with tradition and created something in wood rather than the more expected and aloof limestone.

Ironically, Highgrove, in the English Cotswolds, is one of the few modern gardens where you could pull it off in stone, given the estate's history, scale and setting, but the wood -- green oak -- fits the ecologically sensitive mood of his garden. It is an organic material, darkening with age and receding sympathetically into the dappled shade of a woodland fern garden. The pediment is filled with bleached deadwood that looks like animal bones and to my eyes suggests some carved marble relief.

Stann has left his pediment bare. He built the temple himself after working up plans. He sought to figure out the original's dimensions from a photograph.

He was also searching for that classical notion of perfect proportion. "I was trying to get something as close as possible to the golden mean but balancing that with standard timber sizes" to keep costs down, he said. He ended up with a temple that is eight feet wide, 12 feet deep, including its steps, and 10 feet high. It shares with the original a pair of double columns at its entrance; Stann's measure six inches by eight. In addition, the entablature mimics the gaps seen in the Highgrove version and acts as a clerestory, letting in light and air. The building, which stands on 18-inch poured footings at each corner, has a pair of lamps -- one for its occasional occupants and the other for dramatic illumination. The front of the temple has been set at an angle from the house almost 300 feet away, giving it a more interesting view out and a more dramatic perspective from the house.

Stann, 63, built the temple on weekends over three months in the winter of 2006, unaided except when he needed to raise the higher side-timbers. They weighed more than 100 pounds apiece, so he enlisted the help of a neighbor. He estimates the cost of materials today at about $3,000. If you added design and construction costs, the price tag would be about $8,500, he said.

Stann admires Prince Charles's commitment to environmental gardening, but the temple is not an act of homage to the heir to the British throne. He had wanted to build a temple for some time but knew that one of stone was not feasible. "I saw this picture in a book and I thought, 'That's the connection.' Charles had kindly provided the answer."

Perhaps it is the measure of a great garden that it does inspire. In designing the Pigeonnier, a tower with reflecting pool at his monumental garden in Quebec, Frank Cabot looked to the Pin Mill at Bodnant Garden in Wales.

On the Eastern Shore near Easton, Md., Bernard Demczuk has spent the past few years building his version of Claude Monet's Giverny, complete with a full-size replica of Monet's signature turquoise Japanese bridge, here connecting to a small island on the Choptank River. Demczuk, an assistant vice president at George Washington University and a longtime figure in D.C. politics, calls his garden GivernyWest.

"I fell in love with Monet's paintings long ago and then fell in love with his garden," he said via e-mail. "GivernyWest is a tribute to the beauty, soul and genius of Monet and his garden."

Positioned judiciously, a major structure has the capacity to enhance a garden by giving a visual anchor to the space around it. Even a well-crafted garden shed could achieve the objective. Harvey Ladew's topiary garden in Monkton, Md., offers an array of garden follies used to great effect, mostly because they are tweaked in some playful fashion.

"Most people are likely to put up a pergola," Stann said. "That serves the purpose. It would be easier to build and be less expensive" than the Highgrove folly. But not half as much fun.

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