Gardens to Gables

Photosynthesis for the Soul: The Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky

Science was not  my strongest subject in school, but chlorophyll always fascinated me. In my mind’s eye, scores of thirsty plants absorbed the rays of the sun with zeal after winter’s gloom – nothing short of magic. Not unlike those plants, I too gravitate toward the light streaming from the sky this time of year. My office is a warren of fluorescent lights and no windows, which when combined with the glare of computer screens and concrete floors, is not the most energetic of environments. I escape, whenever possible, seeking natural light. The other day, I slipped out for a small stroll through the Mathews Garden on the University of Kentucky campus – an understated and lovely oasis threatened by the voracious appetite of the University for expansion and demolition.

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The law school at the University feels compelled to expand, and the turn-of-the-century Mathews House on South Limestone, and its neighbor, the Ligon House, appear to be in the way. The  garden at the Mathews House, located at the corner of South Limestone and Washington Avenue, is a “living botany textbook, with every Kentucky variety of dogwood, azalea, hydrangea and viburnum, and many other plants,” according to an excellent 2014 article by Tom Eblen in the Lexington Herald-Leader. Although the earth is slowly waking up, and leaves still cover the ground of the garden, fresh faced daffodils and hyacinths are a welcome burst of color.

Truly my favorite flower - a host of golden daffodils hold sway in the Mathews Garden.

Truly my favorite flower – a host of golden daffodils hold sway in the Mathews Garden.

I was alarmed to see the sidewalk closed in front of the Mathews House, and a man wielding a chainsaw working on one of the trees on the South Limestone side. Although fundraising for a new law school has apparently stalled since the initial announcement, every day I go to work I fear I will see the bulldozers obliterating one more unique aspect of this land grant university – as UK moves further and further away, it seems, from valuing agriculture, horticulture, and individuality.

Perhaps he was just removing some dead limbs, but it caused my heart to skip a beat...

Perhaps he was just removing some dead limbs, but it caused my heart to skip a beat…

Clarence Wentworth Mathews, a native of Massachusetts, designed the threatened garden that provided me such a needed and blissful respite. He arrived at the University of Kentucky in 1892, and served as  the Chairman of the Agriculture Department from 1892-1908, the Dean of the College of Agriculture from 1908-1910, a professor of horticulture and botany from 1908-1917, and professor in and head of the horticulture department from 1917 until his death in 1928. From a dairy farmer (his occupation before he raised the necessary funds to attend Cornell University) to a pivotal figure in the University community, Mathews and his family lived at in this frame vernacular Queen Anne/Stick style house comfortably as the world – and the campus – changed around them.

How can you fail to be cheered when you see these happy little faces?

How can you fail to be cheered when you see these happy little faces?

Although the house and garden became part of the University in 1968, Mathews’ daughter Ruth lived in the house until her death in 1986. Ruth, a UK graduate, was also an educator in the community, teaching general science at Morton Junior High School from 1918-1923; English at the former Lexington High School, 1924-1928; and English from 1928-1966 at Henry Clay High School,  where she was also head of the English department, adviser of the debate team, and director of many senior plays. The garden her father planted, and she later tended, quietly transitions through the seasons, unnoticed by most commuters and pedestrians as well. Although I am a gardener, I can’t claim to be a specialist of native trees and shrubs, nor perhaps fully appreciate the diversity of the garden like those trained in horticulture or botany. But I do know that our values  – as a community, both the city and the University – are expressed by what we let happen.

Peonies in the side yard of the Mathews Garden (and a young girl enjoying a swing in the background).

Peonies in the side yard of the Mathews Garden (and a young girl enjoying a swing in the background). Image from University of Kentucky Special Collections and Digital Programs, Mathews family papers, circa 1840-1980, undated.

The Mathews Garden is a but a tiny pinprick (albeit a beautiful and valuable one) in the swirling struggle to define Lexington in the 21st century. Are we an urban area, skillfully revitalizing our landmark buildings (as in the Fayette National Bank Building, now 21C) and building on our unique local heritage, or do we continue to push for mediocrity, broken promises (CentrePit), bland architecture with the sole selling point of “newness” and erase our identity because it is easier than facing challenges with honesty and creativity? The uneasy relationship between the University of Kentucky and Lexington is not positive for either entity – and insisting that transformation can only occur with wholesale demolition is shortsighted and not worthy of what either this University or this community claim and aspire to be.

The Mathews House today.

The Mathews House today.

I felt reinvigorated after my short stroll through the Mathews Garden, for vegetation muffled the sound of traffic, and the small treasures I spied every few feet on the ground restored my belief in the adaptability of the earth, and perhaps in its people as well. In a 2014 editorial about the Mathews Garden, Erik Reece succinctly expressed what the retention of the Mathews Garden could mean – an “opportunity for UK to make a bold architectural statement about sustainable design and the importance of preservation.” As the state’s flagship university, with a foundation of publicly funded agricultural education and an institution with both a school of architecture and a historic preservation program, the inclusion of this small patch of earth,and the stories it holds of a family’s dedication to education, could be the greatest learning experience of all. More pavement and banal buildings do little to enhance the larger community, and like invasive plants, should be avoided whenever possible.

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4 Thoughts on “Photosynthesis for the Soul: The Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky

  1. Travis DuPriest, Ph.D. on March 21, 2016 at 3:00 pm said:

    While a graduate student in Renaissance English Literature at UK in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I house sat for Miss Matthews in the summer while she was at her family cottage in New Hampshire, I believe it was. One of the delights in staying at the Matthews house was, of course, the garden. My now-wife, Mabel Benson, also a graduate student in English, and I entertained several times in the garden, and I must say nothing was more like an English Garden Party than the drinks and hors d’oeuvres in Ruth’s meandering paths of soft grass and over-grown shrubs. The dahlias were our most challenging plants to stake and care for. I also remember Ruth talking so sweetly about the “volunteers,” the little plants, “unplanted” by humans, which just came up: She spoke of them as one speaks of a child; she could not bring herself to dig them up or cut them down. The garden, of course, is UK’s link to Ruth’s father, Professor Matthews and to its own history and “growth.” I delight in that spot of beauty at UK: May the garden thrive and bring a moment of beauty and meditation to all who walk past or through.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on March 22, 2016 at 8:37 am said:

      Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful memory. I hope UK doesn’t plow ahead with the same destructive tendencies it has shown other historic spots on campus.

  2. When I used to work at UK I would regularly go to Mathews Garden to detox from my job. Along with access to the Art Museum, it is one of the best perks of working there. Here’s a link to some photos . . .

    • Janie-Rice Brother on March 23, 2016 at 9:16 am said:

      Detox is a good way to put it! And lovely photos – thank you for sharing.

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