Legacy in the Garden

Mills Lane IV had contemplated several scenarios for the land around Scarbrough House. When the replication of the original courthouse on Wright Square was coolly received, he put several friends to work as “the committee on taste” to help plan an annex primarily for education.


Aerial view of the North Garden addition to Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum.


In a letter to potential architects Mills wrote: “This new building must be subordinate to Scarbrough House and should not present itself as a fake historicist work of architecture. It should be simple but stylish, modern yet with some historical references…. Inspiration for exterior details should be derived from two buildings by Sir John Soane, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the 1814 stable entrance at the Royal Hospital…. We would like to spend no more than $750,000 to $1 million.”

Several architectural firms submitted proposals, but Mills grew tired of the project, possibly exacerbated by declining health, and decided it would cost too much.

After Mills’s death in 2001, a debate ensued about the building directly north of Scarbrough House that had housed a car repair/gas station and the significance of preserving architectural examples from that automotive period of the early 20th century. Three walls and some structural beams were all that remained of the original.

At one point the Savannah College of Art and Design had planned an expanded building for its fashion department there. Fearing the overshadowing of Scarbrough House, the Ships of the Sea Museum fought the height and mass of the proposed building.

The Museum eventually purchased the parcel. Mills’s partner, Gary Arthur, working with architects Dan Snyder and Algar Thagne, created the design that expanded the educational and cultural vision of the museum that Mills had begun. The result was an open air assembly room that complements but doesn’t compete with Scarbrough House.

Under the plan for the new North Garden by landscape designer John McEllen, plantings that would have been available for the Scarbroughs are growing in the largest walled garden in the Historic District. A series of five garden “rooms,” invite visitors to walk through a Trident maple grove inspired by city parks in Paris; under a 100 foot pergola covered by scuppernong, wisteria, and roses; through banana trees and a citrus grove of kumquats, limequats, tangelos, blood oranges; and through a natural garden of Japanese yew, variegated bamboo, tea olives, and needle palms among others that set up a woodland feel, McEllen said.

The fifth room, Sisters’ Garden, pays tribute to the horticultural work of William Scarbrough’s daughters, Julia and Charlotte, and Savannah’s original Trustees Garden established in 1734. Charlotte was an entomologist and artist whose notebooks illustrate insects with native wildflowers. Depending on the season, figs, pomegranates, camellias, dogwoods, rice and cotton are just a few of the plants on view from paths or the belvedere overlooking the garden. Drainage catch basins ensure that water stays on the property and doesn’t run into the streets. “Being at the Ships is a dream,” said McEllen who also chose the plant materials and design of the old Scarbrough garden laid out around the mansion in 1998, after the completion of Mills Lane’s restoration.

The $2 million North Garden opened in 2012 with an assembly room that hosts concerts, lectures and weddings surrounded by the kinds of plants that would have welcomed guests of the early colony.

While Mills didn’t live to see the current expansion of the garden or a contemplated education building, his vision continues to guide the Ships of the Sea.

“The Museum is particularly eager to create vital educational programs for school groups and also adults. Ships of the Sea must be more than an entertainment for tourists. We want to serve the citizens of Savannah by creating a history of the city seen through the river, the shipping and the port and, by so doing, enhance our educational and cultural life and sensibilities.”

From “Long-Term Master Plan, Continued” written by Mills Lane for a Museum newsletter.

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

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