After ten years of change, Duke Gardens hopes for a grand entrance

Writer: 
October 30, 2017

Duke Gardens executive director Bill LeFevre seems at home in a golf cart. He zips along the gardens’ crushed gravel pathways, up and down hills, through gates and over bridges, many of which were built during his tenure. Horticulturists, curators, and volunteers seem to have an ear for the cart’s humming and step aside, smiling as LeFevre rolls by.

He coasts to a stop at the Frances P. Rollins Overlook, a stone-paved plaza bounded by a low wall with a view of the gardens’ iconic eight-level terrace. The perfect spot for gazing, the overlook opened only in 2012. Before that people had no place to rest, though they had always stopped to look. “The original entrance” to the gardens, LeFevre explains, pointing up the path, “was the little stone gate behind the Allen Building.” Now the main entrance is across the gardens, off Anderson Street, designed in 1959 for its stunning view of the chapel down the Main Entry Allée. But even the Doris Duke Center there, added in 2001, rarely welcomes visitors. “They park, and they go off in different directions,” LeFevre says. “And we do not interact with them.

“We are the number-one tourist attraction in Durham, North Carolina, and we don’t have a front door.”

The gardens staff hopes, in several years, to resolve that with the Garden Gateway Project, a $30 million renovation of the Doris Duke Center and its surroundings that will provide an entrance with a sense of moment, featuring a striking shed roof straddling a new entry plaza. The expanded center will offer food service, restrooms, and even a rooftop terrace to enjoy that chapel view. Above all, the gardens will have their front door.

The gateway will tie the gardens together in a way their unusual history has not before encouraged. “This garden was not designed, per se,” LeFevre says. “It’s grown organically for eighty years,” though perhaps never so rapidly as during LeFevre’s tenure. Originally planned as a lake but sidetracked by the Depression, the gardens developed because in 1930 Duke neurologist Frederic Hanes disliked his daily walk to work through the debrisfilled lakebed. He proposed an iris garden and convinced Sarah P. Duke to donate funds. The resulting terraces were joined by the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants in 1968, the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum in 1984, and the Doris Duke Center in 2001. LeFevre arrived in 2007 as the gardens’ first full-time director (all previous directors had been Duke botanists, with more on their mind than the gardens). He says even then he saw the need to better join what sometimes felt like four separate gardens. Yet he wished to do so without upsetting the rhythms of an enormously successful and beloved place.

“The goal when my time here comes to its end is that these gardens do not feel any different,” he says, “but they work a lot better for the visitor.” And in ten years LeFevre has overseen a parade of improvements. Though some of them, like Wi-Fi and improved grading on paths, certainly make the gardens work a lot better, many do make visitors feel different.

During his term the gardens have added features like the Pine Clouds Mountain Stream Japanese garden and the Welch Woodland Garden Overlook, both of which include recirculating streams, and have redesigned the rose garden, installing the Roney Fountain (an idea hatched after LeFevre’s dog led him to the remains, on East Campus, of the original). On his watch, the gardens have improved sustainability by making the koi pond entirely recirculating rather than dependent on municipal water; and entirely new facilities have been added, like the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, which teaches vegetable farming, and the brand new Piedmont Prairie, giving space to the native plants and bugs that would have populated an open space long before there was a Duke. Garden staff have doubled, and funding has improved, and LeFevre’s colleagues have noticed—the gardens won the 2013 Horticulture magazine Award for Garden Excellence. LeFevre currently serves as president of the board of the American Public Gardens Association.

LeFevre is proud of the gardens’ growth in the last decade, but he takes little credit. “It was always beautiful. It just needed a little more,” he says. “We’re just polishing the gem.”

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.