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Behind the Scenes

Plymouth Antiquarian Society celebrates restored garden

Plymouth Antiquarian Society cofounder Rose Briggs is flanked by her mother, Helen (right), and another member.

The Plymouth Antiquarian Society/File circa 1920s

Plymouth Antiquarian Society cofounder Rose Briggs is flanked by her mother, Helen (right), and another member.

The Plymouth Antiquarian Society will celebrate the restored garden at its 1809 Hedge House, a large, Federal period property on the Plymouth waterfront whose preservation was the original reason for the society’s existence, with a three-pronged event on Saturday.

The celebration begins with a short documentary film, based on interviews with people who knew the society’s founders, to be shown at 4 p.m. at nearby Memorial Hall, followed by a discussion with the filmmakers. The party then moves to the Hedge House for a reception in the newly restored garden, and the opening of a fiber-art exhibition inside the house.

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In the second decade of the 20th century, motor vehicles were rumbling along Plymouth’s streets, telephones were jangling in its stores and offices, and old buildings were crumbling, said Donna Curtin, the Plymouth Antiquarian Society’s executive director.

But some civic-minded locals saw the need to preserve what was good. So when the town decided in 1919 to raze the Hedge family’s house on the main street downtown, a group of women who believed that houses were as an important a part of history as the works of art collected in museums formed the Plymouth Antiquarian Society to save it. The group raised funds to move the house from Court Street to its current location, and turn it into a social and domestic history museum.

Prominent architect Joseph Everett Chandler designed a Colonial Revival garden for its new Water Street grounds, including some traditional plants such as wisteria, and a broad, red-brick courtyard on the Memorial Drive side of the property. The plan was never fully executed, but the courtyard remained an important feature over the decades while neglect claimed other pieces of the garden.

The Plymouth Antiquarian Society restored the garden in the aftermath of an extensive drainage project started three years ago to save the house from basement flooding. The old garden was dug up to install drainage pipes to take the water away from the house.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work on this property,” Curtin said.

When the drainage project was finished, the society consulted the original plans and worked with landscape designer Bob Hoxie of Great Hill Horticultural Services to rebuild the garden along the lines of Chandler’s vision for the site, including a never-built barrier wall. They built a new courtyard and planted shrubs and perennials, including lilac, lavender, rhododendron, rose, vinca, bayberry, boxwood, astilbe, inkberry, hydrangea, sweet pepper bush, bayberry, shrub roses, and creeping juniper.

“It’s now a young garden,” Curtin said. The old wisteria, which had worked its way inside the house, had to go.

The garden’s centerpiece is a stone memorial that honors Rose Thornton Briggs (1893-1981) and the society’s other founders. The stone is inscribed with words taken from a letter written by her mother: “With courage we planted our garden again.”

According to local historians, Briggs was a key figure in Plymouth preservation history and a model for the generations that followed. In a recent presentation based on material from the society’s archives, historian Timothy Orwig noted that she headed both the upstart antiquarian group and the older Pilgrim Society for decades.

“She guided both organizations through challenging periods in their histories, and served as an expert on all things Plymouth during those times,” Orwig stated. “The society, Rose later recalled, was a women’s society at its beginning, ‘because men didn’t think we could do it.’ ”

It was women who preserved the houses, clothing styles, and domestic arts of earlier periods, Curtin said.

“It’s how people lived. It’s social history,” she said. “They said, ‘We are not going to watch this being torn down.’ ”

The short documentary being shown Saturday, “Antiquarian: The Story of Preserving Plymouth,’’ by town natives Jon Dorn and Scott McEwen, includes images of turn-of-the-century Plymouth, interviews with local residents, and snippets of recently rediscovered film from the 1920s. Dorn, who holds a fine arts degree from Emerson College, is program director at Passim, a landmark folk music club in Cambridge.

Dorn “was intrigued by the house and the story about it,” Curtin said. “The film is in the Ken Burns style of interviewing, with clips of old pictures and some funny snippets of old film with society members dressed up like Pilgrims.’'

Falmouth fiber artist Salley Mavor created representations of nursery rhymes to illustrate a book titled “Pocketful of Posies.” On display in the Hedge House, her three-dimensional works are made of felt, wool, embroidery, and natural materials such as sticks and acorns. The family-friendly exhibition is free to Plymouth residents during the house’s public hours this summer.

The garden restoration drew on a $92,500 preservation grant from the town’s Community Preservation Act program. Curtin said the town’s support is critical.

“When they talk of the South Shore’s appealing look, it’s almost always the historic character,” she said.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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