Designer's classic Squirrel Hill garden named to Smithsonian archives

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Even as a 13-year-old, Ron Kotcho had an eye for design. Walking to school in Squirrel Hill, he admired a house that looked a little like a French cottage but grander.

Nearly 40 years later, he returned to the same house to design an appropriate garden for its current owner. His design was recently selected for inclusion in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Gardens in Washington, D.C., a collection of more than 7,000 plots and 70,000 images documenting a variety of public and private gardens.


Each year, more are added. In addition to this garden, called "Le Petite Maison," two others are included this year: Hartwood Acres in Hampton and Indiana Township and a Pittsburgh garden identified only as "Reverie." Many already on the list are in the Sewickley Valley, including Newington, a private garden on a little more than 10 acres that dates back to the early 1800s.

The Squirrel Hill project began in 1999 when Mr. Kotcho, 59, met with the owner, who prefers to remain anonymous. It took nearly six months of collaboration to make both owner and designer happy, but it took him only a few more weeks to complete the plans.

The most important thing for Mr. Kotcho is to pair the home with the garden.

"The relationship between the architecture and the garden, to me that's one of the most important things. The garden has to complement the architecture."

Noted Pittsburgh architect Brandon Smith built the house in the late 1940s in the style of a small cottage on the property of a larger chateau or castle.

"The house is designed on a very long axis. It's like looking down a gallery in an art museum. I wanted that to be repeated out here," he said, standing in the garden.

Each room in the home is mirrored in the garden. As visitors walk inside, they see through the windows a garden with a very French flavor. Mr. Kotcho calls the design semi-formal.

"It's not totally symmetrical, but it is very balanced."

'Nikko Blue' hydrangea line the edges of the beds, the blue mopheads perfectly complementing the pure white conical flowers of 'Tardiva' hydrangea. At the far end of the garden, a round mirror seemingly doubles the size of the garden; it's covered with sweet autumn clematis, whose tiny white blooms have recently faded. Under the mirror is a beautiful blue Lutyens bench flanked by planters filled with boxwood and sweet potato vine. It offers a spectacular look back at the garden.

Each outdoor room is carefully thought out, and although it's just 10 years old, the garden seems much more mature. Thick deep green arborvitae reach over 20 feet and act as the bones of the garden, looming over white phlox filled with fat bumblebees buzzing from flower to flower. Other ornamental trees and perennials, sculptures, planters and a fountain all serve their purposes beautifully.

When Sally Foster of O'Hara first saw the garden two years ago, she fell in love. She is co-chair of the Garden Club of Allegheny County's Garden history and design committee and was the person responsible for nominating the garden for the Smithsonian's archives.

"I was blown away by not only the beauty of it, but the care, the flowers and the color scheme. It spoke to me," she said.

She has helped several other Pittsburgh area gardens find their way into the archives and for a good reason. "Gardens are ephemeral. They come and they go. A garden that's important enough to get into the archives will be interesting to scholars down the road."

It took her two years to complete the paperwork and navigate the system to have this garden approved. The Archives of American Gardens began with a donation of glass lantern slides from the Garden Club of America in 1997. Since then, the club has continued to scout out and nominate gardens its members discover. Some are chronicled simply with an historic photo Others are recognized, like Le Petite Maison, with a plan, documentation and photos.

Mrs. Foster said she and her committee are always looking for gardens that might be deserving of a place in the archives. Discovering them is like finding Easter eggs as a child, she said.

"You get to see the most interesting, fabulous gardens, but they don't have to be estates. They don't have to be this big. It's the spirit of the artist who creates that's so interesting to find."

Mr. Kotcho had never heard of the archives before his work was nominated. He's thrilled to see his work alongside places like Mount Vernon and Monticello.

"It was quite an honor to be selected," he said, smiling. "Gardening is a long process. It's a growing art form."

For more information on the Smithsonian's Archive of American Gardens, go to

homepage - garden

Doug Oster: or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at for more information about the Archives of American Gardens. Twitter: @dougoster1. First Published October 6, 2012 4:00 AM


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