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[caption id="attachment_181223" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] Sarah and Pembroke Jones converted a late 19th-century inn (bottom left) on Airlie’s grounds into a private residence. The mansion is gone now, but the gardens

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_181223" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] Sarah and Pembroke Jones converted a late 19th-century inn (bottom left) on Airlie’s grounds into a private residence. The mansion is gone now, but the gardens

The Amazing Airlie Gardens

Tulips in bloom at Airlie Gardens, visitors walk beneath a canopy of Spanish Moss, and the converted late 19th-century mansion where Sarah and Pembroke Jones lived.

Sarah and Pembroke Jones converted a late 19th-century inn (bottom left) on Airlie’s grounds into a private residence. The mansion is gone now, but the gardens continue to bloom, including the more than 60,000 tulips that are planted each year. photograph by Matt Ray Photography; Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection 1083, Courtesy of New Hanover County Public Library, Local History Room

A Beautiful Beginning

Sarah Jones had a vision for the sprawling property that she and her husband, Pembroke, purchased on Bradley Creek in 1884: paths lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss; a freshwater lake with a romantic pergola; fountains and sculptures; and tens of thousands of camellias, azaleas, and magnolias. Today, that vision is alive at Airlie — named for Pembroke’s Scottish homeland — which New Hanover County purchased in 1999. More than a dozen gardens on 67 acres are open to visitors, who walk the flower-lined paths of which Sarah dreamed.

Garden of the Gilded Age

With an entertaining budget of around $300,000 each summer, Sarah Jones aimed to impress. She had Queens Creek dammed to create the 10-acre Airlie Lake, and in 1904, she commissioned a pergola that still features many of its original columns. Among the family’s guests were notable names of the day, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Flagler, and W.K. Vanderbilt.

The Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens, dedicated to Minnie Evans; Minnie Evans painting in the garden.

Among the images in the Bottle Chapel — dedicated to artist Minnie Evans (right) — are trees, a butterfly, and two angels: One face is white, as Evans always painted angels, and the other is Black, a symbolic gift to Evans from artist Virginia Wright-Frierson. photograph by Charles Harris; Historical Photo Courtesy of Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, Wilmington, NC

Message in the Bottles

Minnie Evans worked at Airlie from 1916 until 1974. In her 40s, she began drawing, often from her post at the gatehouse. Inspired by the Joneses’ art collection and the beauty of the gardens around her, Evans painted colorful, surreal scenes, a style reflected in the Bottle Chapel that was later created in her honor at Airlie. Built by artist Virginia Wright-Frierson and completed in 2004, the chapel features almost 3,000 glass bottles and small keepsakes donated by the community.

The Butterfly House sits within the Tranquility Garden in Airlie.

The Butterfly House, completed in 2010, sits within the Tranquility Garden, which contains several smaller gardens tended by private organizations. photograph by Charles Harris; Matt Ray Photography

Flights of Fancy

From late May to early October, native butterflies flit about the octagonal structure near Airlie’s entrance. But a few remain in flight all year long — the stainless steel sculptures that hang from the ceiling in a mobile created by Chapel Hill metal artist Gary Caldwell. Below them, flowers made from recycled, salvaged, and upcycled materials — created by artist Matthew J. Leavell, formerly of Wilmington — rise in full bloom, as if waiting for the metal butterflies to land on their unfurled petals.

The Spring Garden’s in Airlie Gardens. With oak tree and fountain with statue.

Prone to flooding during storms, the Spring Garden’s low-lying land has experienced floodwaters as high as the top of the fountain statue’s head. photograph by Charles Harris

Born From the Storm

The Spring Garden was designed in 1954, after Hurricane Hazel flooded this area, the lowest part of the estate. Waters from subsequent storms are said to have reached as high as the head of the fountain statue. Today, dappled sunlight filters through the Spanish moss that drapes over the branches of live oaks, and a column-lined path leads to a nearby brick patio — the only remnants of the Joneses’ mansion, which fell into disrepair and was dismantled in 1958.

Northern parula bird on a branch at Airlie Gardens, Earl the Frog on a park bench in Airlie Gardens.

Airlie is home to dozens of permanent art features, including Earl the Frog by Wrightsville Beach artist Andy Cobb. Waiting with Earl at the Pergola Garden tram stop, visitors might spot birds like the northern parula (left). photograph by Sally Siko of Best Life Birding; Charles Harris

Where Wildlife Thrives

More than 200 bird species have been spotted at Airlie Gardens — a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat and part of the North Carolina Birding Trail. Twice a month, the garden hosts birding events, during which careful observers regularly spot up to 40 of those species in an hour and a half. Environmental education has become a key part of Airlie’s mission. During the week, groups of schoolchildren learn about the natural world around them, from the ospreys and eagles in the trees to the oysters in Bradley Creek.

Along the self-guided walking trails that meander through Airlie, visitors can explore more than a dozen different gardens less than three miles from Wrightsville Beach. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

The View From Here

The first garden tour at Airlie, hosted by Sarah Jones, took place in 1931, when around 2,500 people drove through the estate, admiring the grounds. Today, more than 120,000 visitors come to Airlie each year for community events, environmental education, or simply a stroll among the vibrant blooms and along the tree-lined paths — the beautiful garden estate that Sarah Jones once envisioned, protected by and for the public for generations.

Airlie Gardens
300 Airlie Road
Wilmington, NC 28403
(910) 798-7700

Stop & Smell the Flowers
Watch the video to take a stroll through Airlie Gardens.


This story was published on Mar 22, 2024

Katie King

Katie King is a managing editor at Our State.