Williamsburg’s Sunken Garden

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Once the capital of Virginia, the historically significant city of Williamsburg offers a journey across time, from its early days as a British Colony, to its major role during the American Revolution and up to its somewhat low-key status nowadays. Amid the city's well-maintained campus of the College of William & Mary, the country's second-oldest academic institution, lies the Sunken Garden, a rectangular lawn that serves as the beating heart of this famed college while also resonating with Williamsburg's English legacy.

When strolling around Williamsburg’s historic district and coming across the reconstructed scenery of pre-independent Virginia, it’s difficult to guess that the town actually has far more to offer than just its British colonial buildings and their white-headkerchief covered attendants. In fact, Williamsburg is also a college town, home to the College of William and Mary, the country’s second oldest university as well as the ninth oldest one in the entire English-speaking world.


Named after the British royal pair, the nationally renowned college takes pride in its list of top tier graduates, including 3 US presidents (John Tyler, James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson). While the verdant campus boasts many charming crannies, it is the Sunken Garden which is both a historic relic and an authentic showcase of the W&M student life.


Originally designed in 1923 by the college senior architect, Charles M. Robinson, the Sunken Garden was modeled after London’s Chelsea Royal Hospital, incorporating elements of 18th century English gardening. Due to budgetary problems, the plan came into fruition only a decade afterwards, when a Civilian Conservation Corps unit made of unemployed men was tasked with carrying out the job.


Stretching over 220 meters from the Wren Building, the campus’ first edifice, to the Crim Dell woods, the 70-meter-wide rectangular garden seems as if it was a rural meadow, surrounded by an ample forest, which as it turns out, was the deliberate intent of its original designer. As its name suggests, the Sunken Garden is few meters beneath the campus’s ground level, with seven walkways crossing its grassy flat terrain.


Besides its obvious cultural merit as a fine example of English landscape design, the garden is also one of the most popular public spaces among W&M’s students, who often relax at its lawns or sit on the many Adirondack chairs strewn around. Occasionally, the green void serves as a venue for frisbee games, where swarms of flying discs reach the canopies of the nearby oak trees.