In our 30+ years in Wilmington, my wife, Sandy, and I have seen mind-boggling changes in the area as it has grown — some good, some bad. We’re so glad that there have always been people committed to holding on to those places and things that make Wilmington special. Airlie Gardens is one of those treasures, almost given up on a decade ago, but now a thriving part of our community
In 1901, Sarah Jones, wife of Pembroke Jones, decided to transform the original estate into picturesque gardens for the family’s lavish entertaining. (Gee — pizza and a bottle of wine have always been good enough for me!) With the help of landscape architect Rudolf Topel and horticulturalist P.J. Berckmans, Sarah’s vision of a fairytale retreat with mysterious winding paths, wooden bridges over its lakes, and thousands of azaleas and camellias became a reality.
The Corbett family purchased the property in 1948 and, although they used it for their primary residence, made the gardens accessible to the public each spring when the blooms were at their most beautiful. The Azalea Queen and her entourage have a tradition, established in 1948, of visiting Airlie Gardens.
Disaster struck in 1996 in the form of hurricanes Bertha and Fran. Hurricanes and ice storms had altered the landscape before, but the damage from Bertha and Fran was so extensive that the situation looked hopeless. Sandy and I walked through after the storms, and the destruction was horrifying. It was hard to imagine the gardens recovering from such a blow. The Corbett family felt that they didn’t have the massive resources and energy it would require to restore the gardens and decided they had no choice but to sell. This was a pivotal moment because, without those special people who are determined to find a way to save their local treasures, Airlie Gardens could have been an upscale development. Instead, the 67-acre property was purchased by New Hanover County in 1999 with the help of a grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Today, Airlie Gardens belongs to all of us and it is bustling with energy. The next event of the Airlie Concert Series is dancing to the Aquatones in September, and how could you want to miss the Annual Oyster Roast in October? There’s still time to visit the temporary Butterfly Greenhouse (a permanent one is in the planning stages) before the end of October, and “Enchanted Airlie” is not to be missed during the holiday season. There are bird hikes the second Wednesday of every month, kayaking eco tours and many other public programs. Go to www.airliegardens.org to see what’s coming up. Of course, you could just saunter through the beautiful gardens, stopping at the Airlie Oak (460+ years and counting!), the Bottle Chapel built in honor of Minnie Evans (the famous visionary artist who greeted visitors at the Airlie gate from 1949 to1974), and the lovely small chapel built in 1875 which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Change is inevitable, but there are things worth holding on to no matter how great the obstacles. There are people who know this and are willing to make the effort on behalf of all of us. Think of them when you’re dancing with your sweetie at Airlie Gardens, picnicking on Masonboro Island, taking a class at the USO, driving down an unspoiled Airlie Road, or watching a play at Thalian Hall.