Listen to the Gardens

There are more than one-and-a-half acres of historic gardens at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. Set against the backdrop of the St. Johns River, the gardens, which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, are certainly among the most serene and beautiful places to visit in Northeast Florida.

That’s the premise of “A Vision Awakening: A Celebration of The Cummer Gardens” at the museum’s Terry Gallery. The event, the first of its kind at the Cummer, is a collaborative effort by singer-songwriter Lee Hunter of the band Tammerlin, percussionist Charlotte Mabrey and violinist and Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Philip Pan.

The trio then invited actor, poet and radio host Al Letson to join them. “We knew we needed a narrator of some kind, and Al was the obvious choice,” Hunter said. “Al is someone I’ve always admired but haven’t had the chance to work with.”

The Cummers were one of Jacksonville’s most prominent families, settling here in the early 1900s. Brothers Arthur and Waldo Cummer came from a long line of Michigan lumber barons and built their homes on either side of the home of their parents, Ada and Wellington Cummer, on the banks of the St. Johns River.

The brothers headed the Cummer Lumber Company while their wives, Ninah Cummer and Clara Cummer, masterminded the gardens surrounding the homes.

“A Vision Awakening” has been in the works for nearly a year. Hunter, Mabrey and Pan began by researching the archives of The Cummer and digging through the letters and diaries of Ninah Cummer, wife of Arthur and the driving force behind the 1910 English garden, designed for the couple, which provided the basis for later ornamental gardens.

“My main contribution will be a diverse selection of violin excerpts designed to complement or help dramatize entries read by Al from Ninah Cummer’s garden journal,” Pan said. “I discovered this journal in the Cummer’s archives and was immediately struck by the story it told of the garden’s initial creation, in Ninah’s own voice.”

The Cummer Gardens have been growing for more than a century, comprising the Lower Olmsted Garden, Italian Garden, English Garden, Tea Garden and Upper Olmsted Garden. Typical flora found within the various growths includes dwarf oleander, gloriosa lily, Victoria blue sage, scarlet sage and hundreds of azalea blooms amid mature live oak trees.

Reflecting pools, fountains, arbors, antique ornaments and sculptures also adorn 
the property.

During the past 100 years, some of the biggest names in landscape design and horticulture — Ossian Cole Simonds, Ellen Biddle Shipman, Thomas Meehan & Sons, and the Olmsted firm — have worked on the gardens. These prominent experts boosted the gardens’ national importance, ensuring inclusion on the National Register.

The Cummer finished renovation of the Olmsted Garden in April; the Riverside Avenue renovation will conclude next month, with the opening of the Sculpture Garden to the community on Sept. 21, according to museum officials.

The renovations were another reason, Hunter said, that the group decided now was a good time for a celebration.

“The Cummer Gardens are a living, changing entity that both complements the museum and stands on its own as an art form,” Pan said. “It is also special in exemplifying an aesthetic unique to this locale’s climate and way of life. Even more than the great works of art displayed indoors, it requires an intimacy of human interaction, plus nature’s magic that can be seen, smelled and touched.”

In addition to Pan’s violin excerpts, “A Vision Awakening” will feature music and spoken word with text from Ninah Cummer’s speeches, garden journals and other writings; Letson will perform the spoken word.

Other features include a marimba solo by Mabrey, a piano and vibraphone piece by Arvo Pärt performed by Mabrey and Hunter and an original song — “St. Johns River Dream” — written by Hunter, with improvisation by Letson.

“A lot of what we have put together for the performance comes from that sense of place,” Hunter said, “the sense of The Cummer and a celebration of its beauty as well as insight into who Ninah Cummer was and what she brought to our city.”