Yards, gardens, and patios offer homeowners a space for expressing the personality of their home in the context of its surroundings. These outdoor spaces greet neighbors, visitors, and passersby; they articulate the homeowner’s vision and esthetic; and, ideally, they complement the adjacent architecture. A well-conceived outdoor space, regardless of its size, can elevate any home and turn it into a vibrant, inspiring landmark.
Jeff Wilson, Senior Vice President of TTR Sotheby’s International Realty, understands the difference a striking garden can make in a neighborhood. With artfully designed landscaping and unique artisanal touches, he’s transformed the area around his family’s historic Washington, D.C. townhouse. What was once a weedy, overgrown wilderness is now a refined, welcoming green space where people come to rest, chat, and take in the scenery. Recently, he told us the story of how he created an outdoor utopia for his one-of-a-kind home.
Sotheby’s International Realty: What first drew you to your home? Was space to entertain outdoors a must from the very beginning?
Jeff Wilson: I was always drawn to 19th Street because of the beautiful homes, the canopy of trees, and the lovely gardens that change completely as you go from house to house. It felt very much like some parts of London and I was smitten. I also loved the steady stream of people walking past—going to and from work, walking their dogs, pushing strollers, and talking with their kids. It felt like a place where people really lived.
I was initially focused on the deck at the back of the house, where I created an outdoor dining room surrounded by potted trees and featuring a recessed fountain. More recently I was able to turn my attention to the front garden, and have watched it become a place that inspires frequent conversations with neighbors as well as strangers passing by. It’s become a place of engagement.
Sotheby’s International Realty: How did you approach your outdoor redesign and renovation? Were there notable hiccups along the way? Any pleasant surprises?
JW: Initially I hired a landscape architect who drew up two sets of plans—one that included the 60-foot mulberry tree that towered over the house and took up most of the yard, and one without it, creating a blank canvas to work with. After 10 years of indecision on my part, the tree started dropping large limbs and had to be taken down. That precipitated a three-year legal battle, stalling the project and leaving the front garden looking like scorched earth where wild tomatoes and six-foot-tall weeds eventually grew. It was horrible, but after getting seven city agencies to sign off on the plans, we finally prevailed.
In the midst of our legal turmoil, I found a statue of Flora, the goddess of spring, at an auction. I knew instantly that she had to be added into the mix. Once she was ours, we modified the plans to include her and to move the placement of the bench. She’s become the essence of the garden, drawing attention and sparking innumerable conversations. Interestingly, she was sculpted in France the same year our house was built—1913. Just one of the reasons why I feel like she belongs here and that this was all meant to be.
Sotheby’s International Realty: How would you describe your garden’s personal style? How did you achieve this look?
JW: The garden is definitely a formal garden, symmetrical and ordered in design, which pairs nicely with the style of the house. We used granite cobblestones to create a rectangular field, surrounded by neatly-paired rows of boxwood and accented by hedges of lavender and tea roses. The groundcover is a lush carpet of mazus that blooms white inside the field and purple in the outer band.
It’s all tucked behind a wrought iron fence we had custom-built, referencing the balustrades on the house’s second floor. We didn’t want a gate, preferring instead to keep the wide brick walkway open and inviting as you approach the ground level front door—another feature I particularly love about this house.
We set the statue slightly behind a pair of European hornbeams to create a grotto effect, and low-voltage lighting washes the restored façade and the statue with soft light at night. We worked hard on every detail from plant selection to customizing the new house numbers. It only took us three tries to get those right!
Sotheby’s International Realty: What is your favorite feature of your outdoor space?
JW: I really love the statue. It was a risky addition and could have gone so wrong. But, I think in the end it was the best single element we added. I love her patina, and that she represents spring, my favorite season. And I’ve had so many people ask about her and compliment us on her that she’s clearly the star of the show. To me, landscapes are a form of art in and of themselves, but adding art into a setting can make it that much more special. I feel like we accomplished that here.
Another aspect I love about our garden and our neighborhood is how many people we meet sitting out there—sometimes on the bench, many times on the steps. People stop to talk about the statue or to greet the dogs.
Sotheby’s International Realty: What advice do you have for other homebuyers looking to find or build their ideal outdoor space?
JW: I’d say to bring your imagination, a great landscape architect, or both! There is so much inspiration out there. You can readily find something to help you create the perfect reflection of your style—something that represents how you want to live in the space.
For dinner parties, we are out back. When it’s time to become part of the fabric of our community, we’re out front. And maybe that’s the lesson here: the difference between public and private spaces, and how each can be used to enrich our lives in different ways.
Wilson’s outdoor space perfectly embodies his spirit of creativity and social engagement—he’s even curated special events, such as hiring a professional photographer to take pictures of locals and their pets in his garden. And it goes to show that a beautiful landscape doesn’t just benefit the homeowner: it brings a sense of serenity, neighborliness, and joy to the community as a whole.