Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Oven Park is often called the “crown jewel” of Tallahassee’s city park system--and I'd have to agree with that description. It's definitely Tallahassee's fanciest park, its most ornately landscaped. It was once a private residence, a private garden, but in 1985 it was donated to the city by its generous owner, Will J. Oven, in memory of his wife, Dorothy.
Six acres of gardens surround an English Revival-style house and its matching carriage house, both designed in 1936 by Alfred B. Maclay, the creator of Maclay Gardens. The house is available for rental, for wedding receptions and such. It’s very elegant. Our friend Meagan got married there a few years ago, and I felt very special finally getting to go inside. I spent most of the party standing around eating stuffed mushrooms and red velvet cake and ogling the rare magnolia-wood paneling. (The house is famous for its magnolia paneling.)
But as lovely as the house is, the gardens are really the best part of the park. They’re highly detailed. They feature cabbage palms and live oaks, citrus trees, azaleas and camellias, anise hedges, Japanese magnolias, and shady drifts of ferns. There are pools of daffodils in spring. Brick walks wind around, leading to a sparkling, five-tiered fountain and a gazebo. Near the house a pummelo tree grows, and in winter the fruits are so big and round and bright they make me think of Japanese paper lanterns; they seem to glow.
A little more history: Back in the 1920s and early ‘30s, the property wasn’t a residence; it was a camellia nursery, called (logically enough) the Camellia Nursery. I believe this business was quite large, well known all over the Southeast. Anyway, when you walk around in Oven Park today, you can still see remnants of the long-defunct Camellia Nursery. An old water tower stands among the pines, and in its shadow lie the mossy, damp ruins of greenhouses. Of course, there are camellias galore. One section of the park is actually a forest of old camellias—very dark and shadowy, wonderfully creepy.
The city is always improving the park and adding more plants. About 10 years ago Kris, Bunny, Jacob, and I made a donation and an Alba Plena camellia was planted in our father’s name. He loves camellias, and the Alba Plena has always been one of his very favorites. Sometimes during my lunch hour, I like to go and check on Dad's camellia. It's doing great, by the way; it's getting really big.
Oh, and now I have to tell you about Christmas. Christmastime is the best time in Oven Park. Each year, the park is transformed into a winter wonderland, a glittering dreamland. Every camellia, pine, and live oak is wrapped in fairy lights, and the gazebo and the house are lighted too. Workers labor for weeks, getting everything just right. Then in early December, when the decorations are all in place, the city throws a party in the park, with hot cocoa and cookies and candy canes and Christmas music. The party is known as Elf Night, and everybody comes. (It's an absolute madhouse.) I remember one Elf Night, quite a long time ago now: Sophie was almost two and showed up for the event in the most sumptuous fake-fur coat. I thought she looked so fetching in her "fur," and I couldn't believe I finally had my very own niece. We played hide and seek in the dark that night in the mazes of camellias, and I believe Sophie made us dance with her to the Christmas music (I have a recollection of dipping her in the gazebo); she was a very bossy baby.
But I’m getting off topic, as I tend to do. All I wanted to say is Oven Park is a pretty nice place.