Fountain City’s Savage Garden to mark 100th anniversary

Shannon CareyFountain City

Savage Garden is truly Fountain City’s hidden gem, and the garden’s owners and caretakers will celebrate its 100th anniversary with an open garden event the weekend of June 10.

That weekend, the garden will be open as part of the Dogwood Arts Festival Open Garden program, with docent guides available to lead visitors through the garden’s rich history and horticulture. Hours are Saturday, June 10, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, June 11, noon to 5 p.m.

Savage Garden was built on Fountain City’s Garden Drive, then called Tennessee Avenue, by Arthur and Hortense Savage in 1917. Their work continued for many years and included extensive stone towers, walls and architectural elements, along with tree, shrub and flower plantings that still thrive today. The garden features four trees that today are state or county champions of their kind, including Chinese Pistache, Umbrella Pine and Pond Cypress planted by the Savage family in the 1920s. Interesting plants include banana trees that actually bear fruit, extensive hydrangea plantings and Japanese maples.

Savage Garden owner and caretaker Bill Dohm

Those who grew up in Fountain City may have witnessed the garden’s decline after the Savages’ passing, but in 1986 husband and wife team Bill Dohm and Patty Cooper purchased the property from the Savage estate and set to work restoring the Savage home, greenhouse and garden to their former glory.

It was a stroke of luck for the garden and the community. Dohm said the Realtor who sold the property suggested he build condos on the garden site and “keep the walls for character.”

“Somebody needed to do something with it,” Dohm said. “I just saw something that needed to be taken care of.”

With a background in speech pathology and an interest in the Montessori method of education, Dohm and Cooper also opened Garden Montessori School on the opposite side of the Savage house from the garden. Students at the school use Savage Garden today to study nature, and for a quiet space for art and reading.

To Dohm, the school and the garden go hand in hand.

“I like to see children do well, and I like to see plants do well,” he said. “They’re really overlapping, different aspects of the same essence.”

The iconic Savage Garden pagoda as seen from Garden Drive

Dohm and his team, including invaluable helpers Eric Fortenberry and Terumi Watson, started their restoration with the garden’s structures, including the iconic pagoda at the northeast corner. Today, Savage Garden is a showplace, but Dohm said work on the garden is ongoing, even 30 years down the road. He hopes to add more water features, and weather remains a challenge. The garden has withstood two tornadoes, one in the 1930s and another in the 1990s. The most recent tornado knocked down 15 trees from the uphill side of the garden. Just this year, the garden suffered hail damage, too.

But it is the loving care that Dohm and his team show the garden that keeps it standing strong. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but more than that, it has a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in Fountain City.

The restored Savage Garden Tea Room was originally built by Arthur Savage in the 1920s.

Dohm said he met the daughter of a man who helped build the garden’s walls as a 12- to 15-year-old. Another woman who grew up across the street from the garden visited as well. She said Mr. Savage let her read books in the garden, a privilege only granted to a few. As an adult, she became a director of Fountain City Public Library.

Dohm said the garden is also a valuable connection to Fountain City’s past. When Savage Garden was built, Fountain City was a rural, resort town on the outskirts of Knoxville.

“It’s exciting to find people’s personal connection with the garden,” he said. “I feel very lucky to have found it and very appreciative to the Savage family and what (Mr. Savage) designed. I could never have thought of the things he thought of.”

This stone arch is uphill from the pagoda in Fountain City’s Savage Garden.

Dohm thanked Dr. Jim Tumblin for his help researching the garden’s history.

For more information about Savage Garden, visit this page on the Garden Montessori School website.

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