Amid the relaxed grandeur of a Southern plantation, it was the daffodils that caught our attention. In such a formal space, atop one of Tallahassee’s highest hills, an estate dating back to the 1830s, you’d expect to greet daffodils in neat formal rows. These ones ran wild, skipping across the green grass downhill from the reflection pool, peeping out of the expanse of the West Lawn. Sunbursts of yellow and snowdrops of white, they dance in the afternoon sun.
The daffodils are small, speaking to their age. “We know Senator Hodges was probably the first serious gardener here,” said our guide, of Goodwood’s fifth owner, a Florida senator who purchased the property in 1925. “But some of the bulbs go back to the 1800s.”
The genesis of Goodwood springs from Florida’s botanical history. Hardy Bryan Croom came to Florida from New Bern, North Carolina, a prosperous former state capital. His father, an affluent Southern planter, heard rumors of good land for planting cotton along the Apalachicola River, and began purchasing large tracts in the new Florida territory. Hardy first visited Florida in 1830. Impressed with plantation yields on the family’s West Florida lands, where his brother Bryan took up residence, he spent the temperate parts of each year in Florida for the next seven years.
A member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the New York Lyceum of Natural History, Croom was obsessed with the natural world, particularly botany. As our guide said, “He was a friend of John James Audubon, and he just thought this was the Garden of Eden.”
Fate put Croom in the perfect spot for botanical discoveries. Roaming the rugged ravines above the family’s holdings at Aspalaga Landing, he discovered plants unknown to the botanical world. His most famous find is the torreya tree (Torreya taxifolia), an evergreen named it for his friend Dr. John Torrey. In turn, Torrey named a little herb that Croom had discovered Croomia pauciflora. Both remain rare today.
On one of his seasons in Florida, Hardy Croom purchased part of a land grant originally made to the Marquis de Lafayette. Having his slaves clear the top of the hill in the spring of 1837, Croom had bricks ordered to build a three-story mansion. As construction commenced, he returned to New Bern to make arrangements for his family to move to Florida. That October, they boarded the ship the S.S. Home and set sail south.
They never made it to Florida. In fact, they’d hardly made it out to sea. A hurricane slammed the coast along Ocracoke, North Carolina, and the ship sank. There were no survivors.
Back in Florida, Hardy’s brother Bryan eventually received the news of the family’s demise and took over managing the plantation, overseeing the completion of the brick manor home. He moved his family in and oversaw his holdings from the estate that, by 1843, was called Goodwood.
A Fine Estate
Inside the manor house, the feel of wealth is ever-present. It’s an irony: when the house was built, Florida was the poorest territory in the United States, and the 1837 bank panic had virtually collapsed the American economy. For Bryan Croom to finish the home was a testament to his wealth and power as a planter. No expense was spared. “It was very, very modern,” said our guide. “If this had been built in Manhattan, it would have been state of the art. It was painted pink on the outside with dark red trim, big red shutters, and on the back and the front there were big elaborate verandas like you see in Charleston.”
With period furnishings, including many European antiques, the home’s classy interior is beautiful to behold. Enormous doors and oversized mirrors make you feel small. The first-floor doors are grained to look like flame mahogany and had silver hardware. Crystal chandeliers dangle from the ceilings, velvet drapes add a touch of Europe, and the ornate ceiling in the salon is considered the oldest existing fresco in Florida.
Traditional dogtrot architecture is broken up by a half-curved stairway in the center of the building leading up to the bedrooms, which are extremely roomy for their period. An ornate canopied alabaster bed frame sports an original lace bedspread; the medallion above the master bed is painted with delicate roses, as is the bath. “When you came in new, you knew you arrived somewhere,” said our guide.
Unfortunately, a family spat ruined Bryan Croom. His brother Hardy’s mother-in-law sued for more than twenty years, claiming she should have inherited the estate. She took her claim to the Supreme Court and won, receiving half of everything that Bryan owned, more than a quarter of a million dollars in value. Having built his empire on borrowed funds, Bryan lost it all.
Subsequent owners had the wealth and station to handle a plantation as fine as Goodwood. Arvah Hopkins married into it: his wife, Susan Branch, was the daughter of Governor John Branch and a descendent of Thomas Jefferson. Doctor William Lamb Arrowsmith and his wife Elizabeth purchased the property after the Civil War, which destroyed the fortunes of the Hopkins. Elizabeth Arrowsmith sold Goodwood to Mrs. Fanny Tiers, a New York socialite who was a relative of Louise Fleischmann Maclay. The final owners, Senator William Hodges and his wife Margaret, resided at Goodwood for more than 50 years.
Among the Gardens
During the era of the plantation, formal gardens were not very spacious. The one at Goodwood was placed off the back veranda. “There were probably a couple of roses, a couple of camellias,” said our guide, but in the 1830s, ” you had a beautiful dirt yard. The last job of the slave in the evening was to sweep all the dirt around the buildings.”
Keeping the dirt swept helped keep down the bugs and vermin near the house, but also showed any tracks of intruders trying to creep up near the windows and doors, which stayed open at night to keep the home cool.
It was not until after the Civil War that gardens became an important feature of Goodwood. Familiar with the gardens of her native England, Elizabeth Harris Arrowsmith laid out the design of the gazing globe garden. Facing the main road, it is one of the prettiest features close to the home, where delicate lilac blossoms of a Japanese magnolia frame a reflected view of the manor in spring. By the time she sold the property, she described it in terms of the beauty of the ancient live oaks and magnolias, the shrubbery and flowers, and the well-bearing fruit trees.
As you walk around the gardens today, they feel old and relaxed, and they are meant to feel that way. Layers of ownership meant the gradual accumulation of layers of gardens, each a little different in style and presentation. During her reign over Goodwood, Fanny Tiers had home and gardens renovated with an eye to entertaining her Northern friends during the winters. She believed that manor homes should be green and white. Colonial Revival architectural features defined her new garden spaces, including the pool and terraces. She added new exotic and tropical species, the better to impress her guests.
In 1925, William and Margaret Hodges settled into Goodwood with a love of gardens that would nourish the estate for nearly half a century. The Senator built a large greenhouse for their hobby. They tinkered with the design of the gardens, adding lilies, sprinkling camellia bushes through the woods, and developing formal rose gardens. Margaret set a policy of not mowing the West Lawn to protect her new spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) planted there, which in turn helped bring the heirloom daffodil bulbs back to life.
After the Senator died and Margaret eventually remarried, her second husband wasn’t as fond of gardens, but he did set up a foundation in his wife’s name to ensure that Goodwood outlast them both. When Goodwood fell under foundation care in the 1990s, there was much work to do. Fortunately, Senator Hodges had carefully documented “the arrangement of the plantings” in 1926, which gave volunteers a blueprint to work from.
The gardening philosophy at Goodwood today is to focus on heirloom plants, avoiding any plants that did not exist in the region before 1930, when the Hodges carefully attended to the gardens. Working from a list “of about 2,000 plants,” volunteers continue to maintain the formal plantings and the wilder spaces.
Goodwood Museum and Gardens is located just a mile from busy downtown Tallahassee, its shroud of forest protecting it from the bustle of a surrounding medical complex. Follow Miccosukee Road north from downtown to the well-marked entrance. The gardens are open 9 AM to 5 PM Tuesday-Friday, Saturday 10 AM to 2 PM, and closed Sundays. Admission is free.
Home tours ($12 adult, $10 veterans/students/seniors, $6 ages 3-12) are offered Tuesday-Friday at 10, 11:30, 1, and 2:30 PM, and on Saturdays at 10, 11:30, and 1 PM. Photography is not allowed inside the home except with special permission. Researchers are welcome to use the garden library; please call in advance for an appointment:850-877-4202.