Boulevard garden is a mosaic of color

Kenny Kemp
The former dental office on Kanawha Boulevard has been reclaimed as a home with breathtaking gardens front and back.
Kenny Kemp
Thousands of tulips and daffodils fill the gardens of Louisa Swift at her Kanawha Boulevard house.
Kenny Kemp
Louisa Swift uses wrought-iron fences to create smaller gardens within her backyard landscape.
Kenny Kemp
Benches, containers and hanging baskets add interest, as well as resting places, to the garden.
Kenny Kemp
Louisa Swift keeps a series of compost piles in an area at the rear of her property.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The mosaic of colorful tulips in Louisa Swift's Kanawha Boulevard garden is overwhelming. There are thousands in the front yard, and that many and more in the back."When the bulbs come, I sort of panic," Swift said, laughing. She plants them as they come, without a layout or plan, and the effect is natural and breathtaking.Swift can be seen most days weeding, digging, moving and pruning in the little plot of land around the historic house in the 1500 block along the Kanawha River.The home she has shared with her husband, Jack Levin, since June 2006, was a dentist's office. The interior has slowly been reclaimed from office to home, and the garden has seen dramatic changes that have taken hours and hours of backbreaking work.Masses of concrete were removed from the back to allow for a terraced garden area. Paths of pavers, old bricks and stones weave through the beds. Wrought-iron fences dot the area, creating little rooms within the larger venue. Benches welcome visitors.They removed a large magnolia tree in the back of the house, because it was competing with a larger hardwood tree nearby. In its place, there's a brick patio with a large decorative planter in the center, filled with poppies. Raised beds line the former driveway, as well as compost bins made of wire and sticks. At the rear of the property, the couple had a large composting area built.Yarrow, periwinkle, daffodils, clematis, wisteria, wild poppies and, of course, tulips are just a few of the plants that fill the gardens. A row of oak leaf hydrangeas is planted along the side of the house. Numerous peonies are popping up. The different plants are numerous, yet Swift knows the species names of each one. She talks of the Clematis montana 'Elizabeth' and an orange/red/yellow striped species tulip orphanidea 'Flava' like they are her friends. She likes the species tulips (different from the hybridized garden tulips in that they are less widely grown) for their different shapes, colors and sizes.Swift and Levin are the ultimate proponents of the reuse/recycle lifestyle."The old brick for the pathways came from a building on the corner of Washington and Ruffner that was being dismantled," Swift said. They recovered several large columns from that house as well, and plan to incorporate them into the garden.
"They gave us permission to take the bricks, and once we started collecting, other people started to collect them too. The fact is, they were going to pay more money to take it to a landfill than to let us cart it off," Swift said.Swift was born and raised in Charleston, and left at an early age to pursue multiple careers -- she was a university professor for 10 years, a banker for 10 years and owned a market-research firm for 10 years. When she retired, she convinced her Manhattan-born husband that Charleston would be the perfect place to live.Levin worked at Charleston Area Medical Center as a social worker when they first came to West Virginia. He loved Charleston and agreed with his wife that they needed to live downtown so they could walk wherever they needed to go."But he kept wondering, 'Why does she care so much for the Boulevard?'" Swift said. "Now he feels it is worth every penny to live here -- the river is gorgeous. It's a working river, with the barges and the train whistles. When the fog settles in, it looks like snow."While the river drew her to the house, history was just as important in the decision to live on Kanawha Boulevard.
"My grandmother lived on the Boulevard -- I can't remember the address -- but when my mother was engaged, she had her engagement party at the house," Swift said. "I always had that in mind."Her grandmother, Emily Hogue, lived at one time in her life in the historic Craik-Patton House when it was on Virginia Street."She was into real estate before her time," Swift said."We really don't have a lot of neighbors here," she said, noting the former home-turned-insurance agency next door, and the large apartment tower a couple of doors down. But the garden certainly draws visitors."Whenever anyone walks past, we always just invite them to take a tour around the front and the back," Levin said.Reach Sara Busse at or 304-348-1249.
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