A garden tribute to Andie Ray

Beth KinnaneEast Knox, Our Town Stories

It’s just a stone’s throw from the big red Adirondack chair and the Trees 4 Two Nations. There are keys cast in the concrete at the foot of the wooden garden door that is always open. Curiosities await in The Secret Garden at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens & Arboretum as spring is just around the corner.

The one-acre garden amongst the gardens on Wimpole Avenue was created from two sources of inspiration. One is its namesake children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A prolific writer, her other well-known books include Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess.

Francis Hodgson Burnett

Hodgson Burnett was born in England but moved to Knoxville at the age of 15 with her family at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Financial straits back home following the death of her father 12 years prior had them sailing for America to live with her mother Eliza’s brother, William Boond, who once had a successful dry goods store downtown. Soon after their arrival, they all removed to a log cabin in New Market due to the economic devastation in the wake of the war. Eventually, they did move back to Knoxville.

Her career as a writer began here, with stories running in periodicals such as Harper’s Bazaar, Godley’s Lady Book and Publisher’s Weekly. She remained in Knoxville until 1872 when she left for an extended trip back to Europe, returning in 1873 to marry her neighbor Swan Burnett. The couple moved to Paris where Swan pursued his medical training and she supported the family with her writing. More can be gleaned about her life in Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1849-1924 by Ann Thwaite.

A party is a good word for the primary reason the garden exists. In one section you’ll find a patinaed, art nouveau style sign attached to the stone wall that reads Vagabondia. It was the name of Burnett’s first novel (the Hodgson home here was called Vagabondia Castle). Though set in London, her son Vivian wrote in The Romantick Lady that the characters and events in the book were about his mother’s time in Knoxville. The sign originally hung over the bright yellow entrance to a dress boutique on Market Square that belonged to Andie Ray.

Andie Ray at KBGA in 2014. (Photo/ Cynthia Moxley/The Blue Streak)

Ray was one of the first to plant a flag (2004) to reclaim the retail wasteland that much of downtown had become. She was known for her love of history, hats, flowy skirts, flowers, cats, dogs and gorillas, and getting around on her bicycle. She was civic minded, creative yet business savvy and believed in the renaissance of the center city. An avid reader, she had a particular affinity for the work of Hodgson Burnett, especially The Secret Garden. In mid-December of 2015 she was suddenly and unexpectedly gone, dead at the too-young age of 48 from a brief illness. A community that adored her was stunned by the loss.

The Secret Garden at KBGA is her parents’ gift to the city. Richard and Jane Ray endowed its creation in memory of their daughter. Designed and installed by Sara Hedstrom Pinnell of Hedstrom Landscape Architecture, It includes animal statuary, a giant replica robin’s nest and egg, a little library and a reading circle. Best of all, it is fully ADA compliant and wheelchair accessible, a natural respite for all. The golden yarrow and lavender will be blooming soon. Make a plan to come set a spell.

To learn more about the Knoxville Botanical Gardens & Arboretum, go here.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for KnoxTNToday.com. It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

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