Generations of locals and tourists travel to the historic property and leave amazed by the breathtaking display of elaborate gardens, local wildlife, historic structures, walking trails, sculptures, 10-acres of freshwater lakes, and the grandeur of the 468-year-old Airlie Oak.
A 67-acre county park, Airlie Gardens garnered nationwide fame for its spectacular plantings, which include more than 100,000 azalea bushes and countless camellias.
The couple who originally owned the property were J. Pembroke Jones, a wealthy rice trader, and wife Sarah Jones. They bought the 150-acre tract in 1886 not long before their wedding. They named their estate “Airlie,” after the ancestral Scottish home of Jones’ family.
The Jones family built an elaborate mansion on the property with hardwood floors, high ceilings, a tennis court, a banquet hall with ballroom, and 38 guest rooms.
Sarah Jones used the estate to entertain guests and host numerous parties. The Joneses were wealthy industrialists noted for their lavish entertaining, even gifting travelers jewelry and expensive watches. The Joneses would use the vast acreage for small game hunting, picnicking, and holiday celebrations. Some say the adage “Keeping up with the Joneses,” sprung up about their extravagant lifestyle.
Sarah Jones began planting the property in 1901 and in 1906, commissioned German landscape architect Rudolf Topel to transform the tract into a picturesque garden. Airlie reached its peak during the 1920s, at which time it was reported that over a half million azaleas and 5,000 camellias were in the garden; many of these plants still bloom and thrive in the garden.
The property was created to encompass the natural lay of the land and conform to the plants and trees that are best suited to saltwater creeks. Live oak trees, longleaf pines, azaleas, magnolias, wisteria, and camellias, all fit the bill for the gardens.
After the Joneses’ deaths, the Airlie property passed to the Corbett family in 1948. Bertha and Waddell Corbett operated the gardens as a private tourist attraction and as a residence for many years.
After Hurricane Hazel in 1954 brought much damage to the grounds, the Corbetts decided to pare down the property, tearing down the mansion and building a new smaller home on the estate. They also geared the renovations toward the lake and the stables, as well as a smaller section of the gardens.
After another round of Hurricanes, Fran and Bertha in 1996, the Corbetts, faced with an extensive cleanup, sold 67 acres of the property to New Hanover County.
In 1999, New Hanover County acquired Airlie Gardens at a cost of $10.5 million to make it a public park. The gardens are now preserved for public use.
Today, Airlie is a local treasure as one of the last undeveloped land tracts along Bradley Creek. The gardens give the illusion of past and the present flowing into each other in perfect harmony, providing a sanctuary that feels miles away from the bustling city of Wilmington.
The park keeps a good balance of the natural habitat of the area with pristine floral displays. Airlie Gardens is home to over 160 different species of birds, and several varieties of local fish enjoy the 4,000 sq. ft. oyster reef habitat, which re-nourishes the salt marsh.
Throughout different areas of the park you can visit unique attractions, including the gigantic Airlie Oak, estimated to be more than 468 years old, the Pergola Garden, the Minnie Evan’s Bottle Chapel (Evans was a local artist and Airlie employee to the Jones family), and the Butterfly Gardens.
Airlie Gardens also plays host to several community events throughout the year, the North Carolina Azalea Festival and Garden Party, Summer Concerts, Weddings, Oyster Roasts, and Enchanted Airlie—a lighted holiday display.
Visit Airlie Gardens and appreciate the historic gardens and celebrate more than a century of gardens by the sea.
Hours of Operation at Airlie Gardens are 9am to 5pm seven days a week.
Cost: Admission is $9 for adults, $5 for New Hanover County Residents, $5 for Military, $3 for children aged 4-12. Children younger than 4 are admitted free.
Visit www.airliegardens.org for more information.
300 Airlie Rd
Phone: (910) 798-7700
Visit the Airlie Gardens website