St. Francisville — The gardens at Afton Villa are all that remain of one of the grandest homes in the Felicianas. They serve as a living tribute to the old home and two great Louisiana families — the Barrows, who built Afton Villa and established the gardens, and the Trimbles, who brought the gardens back to life after a devastating fire destroyed the home.
Those attending the 26th annual Southern Garden Symposium and Workshops on Oct. 10-11 can tour the gardens and see the nearly half-century of restoration and preservation that followed the tragic fire.
The story of the home and gardens dates back 175 years, when David Barrow purchased the Afton Villa property from his father in 1839 and moved there with his young wife, Sallie. After giving birth to several children, most of whom died at a young age, Sallie Barrow died in childbirth in 1846.
According to family stories, David Barrow, then 40, was sitting in the lobby of the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans when he noticed the beautiful widow Susan Woolfolk from Kentucky. Determined to marry her, Barrow and his son, Batt, traveled there and brought her back as his second wife.
The very stylish Susan Barrow was not impressed with her husband’s modest two-story residence, so David Barrow, said to be the richest man in West Feliciana, told her to build any home she wanted.
She spent years creating her 40-room, 15-bedroom Gothic revival home, one of the largest and most unusual plantation homes in Louisiana, and the gardens that extended over 25 acres.
“Susan didn’t believe in a natural landscape. She saw geometry as one of the key elements of a garden,” said Neil Odenwald, LSU professor emeritus of landscape architecture and master of proceedings for the symposium. Odenwald has worked with the restoration of the Afton Villa Gardens since 1972.
“She brought a landscape designer from France. He laid all this out with seven terraces that started at the house,” Odenwald said. “The seventh terrace was down in the woods, where Susan had a greenhouse where she grew pineapples.” The garden also contained a maze.
The Barrows lived at Afton through the Civil War, but after David Barrow’s death in 1874, Susan Barrow returned to Kentucky. In 1915, Dr. Robert E. Lewis, of Illinois, bought the plantation and, with his wife, restored the old gardens. Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Percy bought the home in 1945 and did another restoration.
In 1963, Afton Villa burned to the ground from a kitchen fire.
“The kitchens were almost always separate, but this kitchen was in the house,” Odenwald said.
Genevieve and Morrell Trimble, of New Orleans, saw the burned and devastated ruins and decided to buy 250 acres to prevent real estate developers from selling it off.
The Trimbles dedicated more than 20 years to restoring the gardens, and, even after Morrell Trimble’s death, his wife continues to restore and maintains them.
“By about 1975, the house had completely caved in,” Odenwald said.
On a trip to England, Genevieve Trimble toured Sissinghurst, which had a famous garden built on the ruins of a great manor house.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a ruins garden at Afton Villa,” Genevieve Trimble asked Odenwald.
Together they worked to build a garden over the ruins of the home.
“We left as many of the fragments of the old house,” Odenwald said. “We were very religious about preserving all those remains.”
Every year, Trimble plants 6,000 tulips and more than 5,000 daffodils in the garden, which is open to the public from March 1 to June 30 and from Oct. 1 to Dec. 1.
Susan Barrow’s original garden is maintained in pristine condition.
“We have been very careful to observe the integrity of the gardens,” Odenwald said. “We have done ‘in-kind’ preservation. When we have to replace plants, we use only plants that would have been here in the early days.”
Odenwald is grateful to Genevieve Trimble for saving such an important part of Louisiana history. “I can’t say enough about that woman,” he said. “The Trimbles could have invested pots of money in other things, but her heart was always here. My heart goes out to people who preserve a place for everyone to enjoy.”