If you find yourself driving on Interstate 20 near Weatherford and are suddenly desperate to locate some Chinese gardens, it will be your lucky day. Tucked away in a neighborhood of historic houses, a genteel mile from the courthouse square, Chandor Gardens is an under-the-radar gem you might expect to visit in another time and another place. But not here, and not now.
The fact that this 5-acre estate even exists is the result of an effervescent collision of chance and fate—mobilized by the derring-do of its artistically minded founders, the celebrated English portrait painter Douglas Chandor and his wife, Ina Kuteman Chandor, a Weatherford native.
Douglas Chandor developed the former cow pasture between 1935 and 1952. “It’s laid out with the eye of an artist,” says Chandor’s head horticulturist, Steven Chamblee. With three formal gardens close to the house and five interconnected Chinese gardens nudged into the surrounding hillside, this deeply personal landscape fits neatly within the tradition of artists’ gardens. An enthusiast might say it holds its own even when compared to the international archetype: the gardens at Giverny, impressionist painter Claude Monet’s domain 50 miles north of Paris.
But the now-flourishing grounds haven’t always been charming. Douglas died in 1953 and Ina in 1978. Gradually everything fell into disrepair, as it appeared to a teenage Chamblee when he visited in 1987. Chamblee had to crack open the Chinese gate that spanned the once-grand allée, at that point a tunnel of vines and brambles. He describes his first impression: “It was eerie and quiet, except for the dead leaves that crunched under my feet.” Beyond that: A dank pit, a dust-covered motorcycle, a pile of dirty clothes and a creepy-looking house. When a dog started barking, Chamblee high-tailed it out, not to return for another 14 years.
In 1994 Melody and Chuck Bradford purchased Chandor and spent three years restoring it before selling to the city of Weatherford. The estate opened to the public in 2002 and is now lovingly overseen by longtime devotée Chamblee.
Today, things are much improved. Entry is via a drive up to the back of the house next to the Silver Garden. It’s framed by a semicircular pergola, atop which clouds of Lady Banks roses bloom in late spring. On the other side of the residence, a boxwood garden and an English bowling green await, built in the ’40s for playing bocce and croquet. Don’t expect the formalism to continue any farther, though. Chandor’s passion for Chinoiserie unfurls just beyond the wooden bridge arching over a stream that glints with koi.
Meandering paths lead down the hillside to the Great Pond, where a stone Chinese junk is moored. Nearby is Mount Cox, punctuated by a 20-foot waterfall that Chandor painted with lichen and moss patterns to give the impression that water always had flowed there. Soothing sounds of falling water are a constant, thanks to strategically placed fountains.
The three-tiered copper fountain offers a place to consider sweeping views of the gardens. A bronze chi lin fountain spraying merrily in an oval-shaped pond is a replica comprising two statues of chi lin, heavenly creatures with the body of a horse and the head of a dragon. Chandor embellished them with Coca-Cola and 7Up bottles, colored marbles and his own handmade ceramic tiles—the original is on view in the house, protected from the elements.
The high and mighty sought out Douglas Chandor as an artist—his 1952 full-length painting of Queen Elizabeth hangs in Buckingham Palace. Chandor’s likeness-es of Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt reside in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery.
But the painter’s greatest work of art may be his gardens. In an unlikely setting, they are an oeuvre that expresses the full bloom of their creator’s imagination. And the experts agree: In October 2014, both the house and the gardens attained the honor of a listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Read more of author Helen Thompson’s work at seeninhouse.com.