As the last of the sun disappeared and the moon started to rise Nov. 24, the Sunken Garden came alive with light. Jars full of twinkle lights lit the paths and arches lit up the path entrances. The lights celebrated a new era for the Garden as a small group gathered to mark the completion of the project to restore the historic landscape architecture of 1910.
In July, Wiscasset selectmen approved the construction of an open-air pergola and two arbor arches. The Sortwell family gave the town the garden in 1958.
The project was led by the Appearance of the Town Committee, Garden Club of Wiscasset and other volunteers, with resident Terry Heller taking on the primary leadership role. Heller said after she saw photos of the Garden in the early 1900s, she had hoped to restore it to its beauty then. She did extensive research, going to Sortwell family historian Seaver Leslie, other Wiscasset residents and a docent at Castle Tucker. Through that research, she learned of Frances Sortwell, who designed and built the Sunken Garden.
“Frances was an inspiration, and I knew I wanted to restore the Sortwell family Sunken Garden to its original state as she had designed and built it, with a pergola and arches. Inspiration is a filmy thing to most people. For me, it was a fire in the belly. Alongside all of this, I devoured the Fannie Chase book on the history of Wiscasset as the very essence of early Maine history. I was totally smitten with my new hometown. Taken altogether, I wanted more than anything to restore the Sunken Garden to its original magnificence as a jewel in the heart of Wiscasset,” said Heller.
Heller said one reason she put in so much effort was “my own sense of belonging in this community – an extraordinary gift from the wonderful people here who have become dear friends in a very short period of time. Wiscasset is a special place. I wanted to give something back. Restoring the Sunken Garden became my passion.”
Members of the Sortwell family, including residents Claudia and Dan Sortwell, attended the celebration, with Claudia expressing thanks for Heller, all of the volunteers, the builder, Steve Monroe, and the selectmen for approving the project.
As for what’s next for the Garden, Heller said, “The future of the Sunken Garden is vested in its beauty and its historic value. People will drive for miles for both reasons. And it is a private treasure and a respite, as gardens always are, for the community. This year, we are trying out the idea of putting lights in the garden during the holiday season as a tiny version of the ‘gardens aglow’ idea for both visitors and townspeople alike. Next spring and summer, or as the pandemic allows, there may be opportunities for teas (which the Sortwells held in the sunken area) and small gatherings for fundraisers to support the garden as well.”
The Sunken Garden is open to the public.