After restoring Craig Mawr, their 19th-century Victorian cottage on Mackinac Island, Ann and David Levy took on the grounds with the same careful eye and an award-winning landscaper.

This home is featured in the April 2018 issue of Northern Home & Cottage, a bi-monthly home publication included in all subscriptions to Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe! 

When Northern Home & Cottage last checked in with David and Ann Levy back in 2005, the couple and their three daughters were just settling into their freshly renovated Mackinac Island cottage, Craig Mawr. The cottage, which graces the island’s East Bluff, is a treasure of Victorian cottage architecture, with its two turrets, long, languid front porch, banks of mullioned windows and splendid carriage house and stable.

Craig Mawr’s renovation has been widely recognized as historically meticulous. It’s earned an Honor Award from the Michigan chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the deep respect of Phil Porter, director of the Mackinac State Historic Parks. “They did a first-rate job. We hold it up as an example,” he says.

Along with the cottage, the couple restored the splendid grounds, working with JJR, the landscape division of the Smith Group, based in Ann Arbor. Inspiration for the plan came from photos of the estate that date to the early 1900s, provided by the Mackinac Island State Park and also from Craig Mawr’s previous owners. The photographs revealed there had once been a wading pool on the grounds, as well as a lawn tennis court. Both lent inspiration to incorporate a natural-looking swimming pool and spa, and a putting green for David, an avid golfer.

Originally there had been a fountain fashioned in the likeness of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus; it had been mounted on a stone wall and would have to be rebuilt. “As with the cottage, we tried to be true to the spirit and personality of the garden,” Ann says. “We think of it as an approachable oasis where beauty and everyday life can coexist.”

In 2006, JJR won an award for the landscape plan that follows a series of four original tiers moving up a slope from the back of the cottage. Carter Excavating & Landscape did the actual work of rebuilding the garden’s original four tiers that rise gracefully from the back of the cottage, as well as the plantings. The stonework was done by Elden Winberg, of Winberg Masonry in St. Ignace. (His son, Aaron Winberg, now runs the business.) “They are terrific at what they do and at using the old methods for stone work,” David says.

The stone walls surrounding the garden are made with limestone dug from under the cottage when the foundation was replaced. As motor vehicles are prohibited on Mackinac Island, materials had to be delivered by boat, horse and dray, and bicycle. Digging and moving of earth and stone was by shovel.

After Dick Carter of Carter Excavating & Landscape retired, the Levys eventually hired Jack Barnwell of Barnwell Landscape and Garden Services. In Jack, the couple found someone who shares their devotion and sensibilities to the grounds.

Jack completely redid the first tier of the gardens. He began with an overgrown herb garden that he swapped out for a set of raised herb and cutting-flower planters. Made by his brother Emory Barnwell, they are as handsome as they are functional. “Ann can step out of the kitchen and cut a bouquet or herbs to use in dinner,” Jack says.

In a corner of the first tier, Jack also created a seating area under an ornamental cherry tree. The area feels “like a quiet secret place right in the middle of all of the activity,” Ann says. “Jack has also told me he sees the garden as becoming less and less formal as it moves away from the house,” Ann continues. “The boxwood he planted to formalize this first tier is one of the many ways he has brought that idea into better focus.”

Under Jack’s tenure, the lush, sensual plantings are all authentic to the Victorian era. “We used classic, old plants like wedding veil spirea, daylilies and hosta—nothing fancy or hybridized,” he says. Mingled with the newer plantings are a number of lilac bushes (now the size of trees), two apple trees and a rosebush that, at over 130 years old, are original to the grounds. “The rosebush is our pride and joy,” Ann says. “If you look into it from behind, the branches are so thick and heavy with thorns they look like they could have come out of a fairy tale.”

The Levys’ strong commitment to maintaining the history and character of Craig Mawr has culminated in embracing the lifestyle that comes with living in the historic cottage on Mackinac Island. Says Ann: “We make grape jelly and use the apples in a variety of ways in the fall. We eat the herbs, berries and vegetables we grow during the summer. We don’t mow the grass up by the barn—we save it for the horses to graze on. The dogs also like to snack on the apples once they start falling from the trees. But none will fall near the horse paddock. The horses will pull them from the trees long before they turn red!”

The horses are two Friesians Ann and David house in the Craig Mawr stable from May to October. They pull the couple’s four antique carriages—with Ann at the reins. Ann also serves as secretary of the nonprofit Mackinac Horsemen’s Association.

Jack shares a similar devotion to the gardens at Craig Mawr. “Hopefully, if I pass the shovel on to my sons they’ll work in these gardens as well,” he says. “They’ll be able to say their father planted these trees and pruned them in such a way that in 20 years they would fan out over the sitting area.”

Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor of Northern Home & Cottage. // Photos by David Speckman

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Photo(s) by Dave Speckman