History

Sarah P. Duke Gardens has been serving the Duke and Durham communities for more than 75 years.

The idea of a public garden arose in the early 1930s, due to the vision and enthusiasm of Dr. Frederic M. Hanes, an early member of the original faculty of Duke Medical School.

Dr. Hanes possessed a special love for gardening and was determined to convert the debris-filled ravine, by which he walked daily, into a garden of his favorite flower, the iris. In the previous decade, the land had been under consideration for creation of a lake. But funds were short and that project was abandoned. So the idea for a garden took root.

Dr. Hanes persuaded his friend Sarah P. Duke, widow of one of the university's founders, Benjamin N. Duke, to give $20,000 to finance a garden that would bear her name. You may read her letter of approval in the slideshow above.

In 1935, more than 100 flower beds were in glorious bloom in the area that is now the South Lawn. They included 40,000 irises, 25,000 daffodils, 10,000 small bulbs, and assorted annuals. Alas, heavy summer rains and the flooding stream caused washouts and disease, including iris rot.
By the time Sarah P. Duke died in 1936, the original gardens were in decline. Dr. Hanes convinced her daughter, Mary Duke Biddle, to construct a new garden on higher ground, as a fitting memorial to her mother. Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950), a pioneer in American landscape design, was selected to design the plans for both the construction and the plantings for the new gardens. Sarah P. Duke Gardens was dedicated in April 1939 (see archival footage from the dedication here). We celebrated the 75th anniversary of that dedication in 2014.

Duke Gardens is considered Shipman's greatest work and a national architectural treasure. Most of the approximately 650 other gardens she designed have long since disappeared.

Since that time, Sarah P. Duke Gardens has developed dramatically and beautifully. It now features four distinct areas: the original Terraces and their immediate surroundings, known as the Historic Gardens, including the Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden and historic Roney Fountain; the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, a representation of the flora of the southeastern United States; the W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, devoted to plants of eastern Asia; and the Doris Duke Center Gardens, including the new Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden.

There are five miles of allées, walks, and pathways throughout the gardens. We hope you enjoy seeing the world-class botanic garden that has blossomed at this world-class university through the decades.

See a video of our 75th Anniversary Celebration.