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