Sunken Garden: Peaceful spot near Wiscasset’s downtown
Sunken Garden, off Federal and Main streets in Wiscasset, has “a certain peacefulness about it,” Garden Club of Wiscasset’s Emily Adler said. Created in the early 1900s in the foundation of a burnt hotel, it is free for the public to step down into, away from a busy week and into the tranquility, said Adler and, interviewed separately, Terry Heller of the club and head of Wiscasset’s Appearance of the Town Committee.
“The Sunken Garden is a hidden jewel in the middle of the historic village, a place of sweet calm for anyone who is looking for a quiet spot for a walk or a moment to just sit and be surrounded by nature's abundance,” Heller said. “I'm passionate about it because it has its own special beauty and a remarkable history.”
Heller explained, Sunken Garden is sunken because it was the cellar of the 1845 Hilton Hotel that burned in 1903. “All that was left was the cellar. And the garden was designed in this sunken area to bring it new life, literally. The walls of the cellar are large granite blocks, and – when walking the brick paths that are laid out within those walls – you can't hear the busy street just a few yards away. It's a lovely respite from everyday noise and busy-ness,” she said.
“We all feel it’s a really special place,” Adler said.
The club and committee tend the garden the Sortwell family gave the town in 1958. “It feels kind of private and it’s almost spiritual, and there's little bird baths and you can sit there and, so many times, watch the birds play ... You really are in your own little world,” with the roses and other flowers, some historic, Adler said.
According to Heller, Adler and Wiscasset Newspaper files, the town and club have tried to have the spot look like it did about a century ago. In November 2020, an evening gathering, with jars of twinkle lights lighting the paths and attendees in face masks due to the pandemic, celebrated the addition of a pergola and two arbor arches. And this spring, Heller hopes to work on a 1920s moonlight garden theme she said was “so popular when Frances (Sortwell) was establishing the garden. I know the family enjoyed summer parties there from early pictures. Eventually I'd like to restore some of those early times in the garden with some tea parties and moonlight gatherings there for the whole town to enjoy with their families.”
The south wall was restored around 2010; the north wall, last fall, for about $15,000, with the same granite rocks that formed it more than a century ago.
Wiscasset’s Norma Gordon spent many years working on the garden, Adler said. When Adler works there, she likes knowing she and the others are keeping it going as Gordon and others have done before them.
Adler said another nice aspect of Sunken Garden is, from it, you can look across to the garden at Nickels-Sortwell House, now a Historic New England property. The club also tends that garden, she said.
Heller’s favorite Sunken Garden spot? The stone bench at the table under the pergola. “And I like to bring a sack lunch there especially in early June when the peonies and irises are in bloom.”
The garden never closes, she said. “It’s always open for a quiet visit to catch a breath of fresh air.”