Duke Gardens is as much about people as it is about plants. Each landscape has been shaped by the diverse perspectives and unique encounters of the people who created it, and each garden tells a story that is inextricably linked to the history of its patrons and designers.
Indeed, the story of the Page-Rollins White Garden, located to the north of the Doris Duke Center, is really the story of Frances Page Rollins, whose passion, generosity and leadership brought this beloved garden to life.
Frances Page Rollins
Frances Page Rollins, a lifelong resident of Durham and graduate of Duke University who, with her late husband, E.T. Rollins Jr., formerly owned and published the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper, has been a loyal friend of Duke Gardens over the past two decades. She has served on the Duke Gardens Board of Advisors continuously since 2011, and she has been instrumental in the dramatic growth of the Gardens in recent years. When Duke Gardens decided to create a new gathering space overlooking the Terrace Gardens, one of the most breathtaking views on Duke’s campus, Frances provided the funding. The Frances P. Rollins Overlook, which was named in her honor, was dedicated in 2012. Her most recent gift to Duke Gardens will fund the entry fountains for the new Garden Gateway project.
But it is the Page-Rollins White Garden, located to the north of the Doris Duke Center, that is closest to her heart. “Of all the worthwhile causes I have supported, nothing has given me as much pleasure as watching the Page-Rollins White Garden develop from the seed of an idea that I had into this blossoming garden,” Frances recounts.
The story of the Page-Rollins White Garden begins with Eula and Irving Page, Frances’ parents. As an only child, Frances had always had a very close relationship with her parents, and when her mother passed away in 1999, fourteen years after her father’s death, Frances knew she wanted to do something special to honor their memory. At first she couldn’t decide exactly what to do. A scholarship, perhaps? Then, on a summer trip to England, Frances found inspiration at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, an estate located in Kent, today owned and maintained by the National Trust.
The White Garden at Sissingurst Castle Garden. Photo courtesy of the National Trust
Sissinghurst Castle Garden is home to one of the most acclaimed gardens in the U.K. Created in the 1930s by poet and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, the extensive gardens were designed as a series of “rooms,” each with a different color or theme. When Frances visited Sissinghurst in mid-June, she was particularly struck by the white garden “room,” which was at peak bloom at the time. The large round arbor that serves as the central focal point of the garden was enshrouded in white roses, and the surrounding beds lush with white calla lilies, flowering trees and the largest white irises Frances had ever seen. The extraordinary beauty made a lasting impression on her, and she wanted to bring a white garden to Duke as an enduring tribute to her parents.
When Frances returned to Durham, she worked with Kay Bunting, director of development at Duke Gardens at the time, and Dr. Richard White, at the time the Gardens' director, to make the white garden a reality. Construction began in 2001 in an underutilized area adjacent to the Virtue Peace Pond, north of the Doris Duke Center.
“The first time I saw the site for the garden, it was just brown dirt,” Frances recalls. “It has been really fascinating to see this garden grow from just dirt to what it is today.” The White Garden was dedicated in 2003, only days after Hurricane Isabel hit North Carolina. “I spent the whole week worrying that there wouldn’t be a garden left to dedicate. But the Friday it blew through this area, it was downgraded to a category three hurricane from a category five. So we did have to clean up the garden, but by Sunday we had the garden back in shape in time for the dedication.”
The Page-Rollins White Garden. Photo by Joe Rone.
The Page-Rollins White Garden has undergone several transformations since its original dedication, including its name. As Frances charmingly explains, “At first we were only going to call it the White Garden, but at the time the director of Duke Gardens was Richard White, so people thought it was his garden. So then we decided to call it the Page White Garden, after my parents. After my husband died and I dedicated a bench in his memory, we decided to call it the Page-Rollins White Garden, which is its name today.”
The landscape has also evolved. In its early days, the White Garden featured large trees, giving it the feel of a woodland garden much like the Welch Woodland Garden Overlook and Stream that borders it today. In 2012, Frances worked with curator Jason Holmes and the Doris Duke Center Gardens team, along with landscape architect Sam Reynolds, to redesign the garden so that it more closely resembled the white garden at Sissinghurst that had so captivated her. Several enhancements were made, including more formal plantings and the addition of the iconic Gothic Pavilion.
Photo by Robert Ayers.
Today, the Page-Rollins White Garden is a beloved destination, in part because its monochrome palette broadens visitors’ sensory experiences in the Gardens. “When you see colorful flowers, you don’t focus as much on the shape and form and the texture as you do in the absence of color,” Frances explains. The white garden makes people look at flowers differently.
It is also the primary location for weddings and special events. On any given weekend, brides and grooms start their lives together in the beauty of Frances’ garden. “It pleases me to think of the celebrations going on there, because my parents had such a long and happy marriage,” she says. Fittingly, the round bronze sculpture by Charles Strain featured in the White Garden is titled "Celebration."
The Page-Rollins White Garden is indeed a celebration on multiple levels. It's a celebration of singular landscape design, a celebration of one donor’s passion for Duke Gardens, and a celebration of love, especially the love of family. Frances says she takes great pleasure from sharing this garden with others. “For me, the garden will always be a symbol of the love and devotion, care and nourishment that my parents gave to me.”
Photos by Brian Wells (left) and Lime Green Photography.