Charming Saturday

Charming Saturday

Historic garden tour will spotlight seven houses in Old Town.

Tours of Alexandria’s historic gardens offer many charms. Vintage architecture, fascinating collections, matchless antiques, botanical wonders —Historic Garden Week 2006 Alexandria Tour has it all. Sponsored by the Hunting Creek Garden Club and the Garden Club of Alexandria, the tour will take participants to see a wide variety of sights, including Anita Mann’s silver flower bud collection and Lucy Rhame von Raab’s many daffodil varieties.

Seven houses will be featured on the April 22 tour, scattered over a six-block radius in Old Town.

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., docents will guide you through the house, telling you about its history and pointing out its highlights. Each of the seven sites has its own story to tell, and each garden is bursting with the promise of spring.

It’s a walking tour, so be sure to wear appropriate shoes. Refreshments will be available to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House on South Fairfax Street. Tickets for the self-guided tour are $30 each — including entrance to seven houses and gardens

FRANK AND ANITA MANN live at 218 South Royal St. The house was built in 1818 on one of the city’s original lots. Designated as Lot 75, the land changed hands several times before being purchased by Reuben Johnson, a developer who built several houses on Royal Street. He rented the building out to tenants until his death in 1840. It then changed hands a number of times, passing through several owners and a handful of renovations. The Manns bought it in 2000.

“Perhaps the low point of the history of the house came in the period 1892-1930, when the Mount Vernon Electric Railroad ran a line down the middle of Royal Street,” wrote local historian Ruth Lincoln Kaye in a history of the house. “Although this trolley line was a delight to children and picnickers who carried along their baskets, passage of the trolleys must have rattled the teeth of occupants of the homes along the way.”

Walking in the Mann’s house, one is immediately struck by the key to the city — Frank Mann was mayor of Alexandria from 1961 to 1967 and then again from 1976 to 1979. Also on display in the central passage is an architectural drawing of many of the historic buildings that Mann worked to save: the Carlyle House, the Lyceum and the Athenaeum.

The hall is stuffed with a number of framed book plates — those individualized identification markers that bibliophiles often affix to volumes in their libraries. Be sure to walk into the parlor to check out Anita Mann’s wonderfully varied collection of bud vases.

“The collection started with a few single-stem vases,” she said. “And then I guess it branched out from there.”

Most of the vases are on the mantle, right under a portrait of a distinguished looking 19th-century gentleman. As he glares at visitors, Frank Mann offers thoughts on the man’s mysteries.

“I call him my Dutch uncle,” Mann said. “What I like about him is the look in his eyes. If he isn’t a devil, I’ll kiss your foot.”

In the garden, the Manns have a bucolic pool set amidst a relaxing array of plant life. Around the edge of the water, visitors will enjoy a Japanese maple, a Camilla, a rhododendron and a crape myrtle. It’s a retreat where the Manns like to spend time with family and friends, an inspiring slice of nature in the middle of Old Town.

IF DAFFODILS are your passion, be sure to check out Lucy Rhame von Raab’s garden. She is a daffodil judge — and an expert on the perky yellow flowers. Since moving into her house at 508 South Fairfax St. in 1989, von Raab has planted a mind-boggling array of daffodil varieties in every conceivable nook and cranny of the garden.

“The Romans would take them into battle,” she said. “If they were mortally wounded, they would eat them instead of suffering.”

The ancient version of the flower was known to induce death, but its modern varieties are a little more tame. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the eye candy.

“They come in all different colors and trumpet sizes,” she said. “This has evolved over the years into sort of a hobbyist’s garden.”

The von Raabs live in an old carriage house that was originally built as an outbuilding to a grand Wilkes Street house. It was constructed around 1801 for a very important horse, who apparently had the entire building to himself. According to a 1991 history of the house by Ruth Lincoln Kaye, the horse was later “supplanted by a cow.”

“Its initial purpose was utilitarian,” Kaye wrote. “Like the garages of today, old time residents had to have their carriage houses to shelter their main means of transportation.”

In the early 1990s, the von Raabs created an extension that added a kitchen and a dining room. Applying creative attention to detail, the couple made sure that the hand-made bricks on the garden path matched the historic carriage house perfectly. The result is a functional home set in the middle of an unforgettable garden.

“The house has 11 windows with a southern exposure,” she said. “So I get a lot of light in here.”

Although the revived carriage house is a jewel, the daffodils in the garden are sure to be one of the highlights of the tour. They are a labor of love for von Raab, who is quick to offer advice to would-be daffodil growers: “Don’t fertilize them now because they are about to go dormant,” she said. “Fertilize in September because that’s when their roots start to grow.”