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Full Flower: An Artist’s Historic Brown County Gardens Bloom Again

Decades ago, a dream took root at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site: restore the gardens of the famous painter’s wife, Selma Steele, to their spectacular original condition. The city girl had embraced the couple’s bucolic Brown County homestead as her own creative outlet when they moved there in 1906. A trained artist steeped in Impressionism’s celebration of plein air painting and vivid colors, Selma brought a designer’s sensibility to the landscaping and planting of hillsides and meadows on the property. The result looked organic and even a bit wild—an Indiana answer to Monet’s French gardens (and a subject in some of T.C.’s work).

Selma cultivated the project throughout her lifetime. But six decades after the state took over the property in the ’40s, almost all that remained of her masterpiece were crumbling stone walls, trees (some gnarled from neglect), and perennials like daffodils and irises; a lonely sundial stood in a field where her showcase formal garden once flourished.

“She took her gardening every bit as seriously as Mr. Steele took his painting,” says site manager Andrea deTarnowsky. A significant piece of history was unpreserved. And then last year, two patrons—a husband and wife who’d once taken their first-ever date at the site—donated seed money for a restoration and an endowment for upkeep. Many of the “bones” were covered but largely undisturbed; after being excavated and reset, stone pathways in the formal garden traced the precise outline of the original design. And Selma lent a hand from beyond the grave. “Mrs. Steele was one of those people whom curators and archivists love,” says deTarnowsky. “She wrote everything down and never got rid of anything.” Finding some of the exact cultivars Mrs. Steele used has required international sleuthing.

Arranged to bloom from spring to fall, Selma’s palette included Indiana wildflowers such as aster and gaillardia, and “cottage garden favorites” like peonies and foxgloves. The revival was dedicated this summer and already bursts with flowers and butterflies. According to deTarnowsky, it is now “the preeminent—the only—Impressionist garden in the country.”

 

DOWN IN THE DIRT

Depending on their gardening experience, volunteers are welcome to help with everything from planting to weeding. Several garden areas await donations for full restoration to commence (hint, hint).

 

4220 T.C. Steele Rd., 812-988-2785, indianamuseum.org/t-c-steele-state-historic-site

 

Since first joining Indianapolis Monthly in 2000, West has written about a wide range of subjects including crime, history, arts and entertainment, pop culture, politics, and food. His feature stories have twice been noted in the Best American Sports Writing anthology and have received top honors from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The Collapse,” West’s account of the 2011 Indiana State Fair tragedy, was a 2013 National City and Regional Magazine Awards finalist in the category of Best Reporting. He lives on the near-east side.
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