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Gardening on a Grand Scale

Carolyne Zinko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Aug. 28, 2004

When they bought a stately 78-year-old brick home in St. Helena five years ago, Athena and Timothy Blackburn found that it came on a plot that offered a modern — that is to say, low-maintenance — sensibility.

The front yard, separated from Main Street by a brick wall, had trees and a thick blanket of ivy. A tennis court took up an entire side yard, and a gravel patch and a blah-looking fountain greeted guests at the front door.

But the Blackburns, who split their time between the Wine Country and a home on Nob Hill, weren’t interested in the no-fuss approach. It didn’t fit their sensibilities as arts patrons, or the sensibilities of the three-story house built in 1921, which from 1940 to 1976 was the home of decorated World War II Adm. John Benedict McGovern, also a St. Helena mayor. (His daughter told the Blackburns that lively parties were held in the basement during blackout conditions in wartime.)

To visit the property today is to go back to a grander time, especially when the Blackburns entertain 70 to 80 guests on the new lawn, amid lush plantings and bursts of color.

“I want to see beauty,” said Athena Blackburn, a longtime Bay Area resident who grew up in Beirut, where high-rise apartments were the norm. “We take a tour every single morning to see what new flower has come up.”

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