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Americans in Paris: A Very Private Garden on Rue du Bac

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Americans in Paris: A Very Private Garden on Rue du Bac

November 1, 2018

A small newspaper ad caught the eye of art dealer Judith Pillsbury 45 years ago while she was hunting for an apartment in Paris. Truthfully? It would have gotten anyone’s attention.

The ad in Le Monde described a sprawling four-bedroom flat, on the ground floor of an 18th-century stone building on the Rue du Bac on the Left Bank. It was in an excellent location (the Saint-Germain-des Prés neighborhood was known equally well for its bakeries and brasseries as for the artistes who haunted them). And—most important to Pillsbury—the apartment had its own garden, a 445-square-meter leafy courtyard.

Reader, she went to see it the next day.

Although the garden “had been abandoned for a long time,” as she later recalled, Pillsbury found clues to its past lives: five mature maple trees, a “magnificent” fig tree, boxwood parterres, and a wall of ivy. She and her husband, Henry (the great-grandson of flour company founder Charles Alfred Pillsbury), had moved to France from the United States a few years earlier and were in search of a permanent home abroad for their family. They promptly bought the apartment for 900,000 francs (the equivalent of about $200,000) and subsequently asked designer Mark Rudkin, who would later redesign the Palais Royal garden, to rescue the landscape. And what a wonderful job he did.

Today the apartment is for sale again, asking price €12.7 million. See the full listing at A + B Kasha, and stroll around the garden with us:

Photography courtesy of A + B Kasha.

A sitting room overlooks the garden and is connected by an iron staircase to the courtyard. The apartment has exclusive use of the garden (but does not own it).
Above: A sitting room overlooks the garden and is connected by an iron staircase to the courtyard. The apartment has exclusive use of the garden (but does not own it).

Rudkin’s design for the garden is intentionally untamed. “I don’t get too worried about gardens,” Rudkin said, “because I know they’re always accidental.”

The view from upstairs is of leafy tree canopies.
Above: The view from upstairs is of leafy tree canopies.

Garden designer Rudkin was, like the Pillsbury family, part of the expat community in Paris. The son of the founder of the American baked-goods company Pepperidge Farm, he grew up in a family of gardeners on a 125-acre estate in Fairfield, Connecticut. A self-trained horticulturalist, his first public commission was a château garden in in Picardy.

Rudkin designed the octagonal pond. &#8
Above: Rudkin designed the octagonal pond. “The first thing we spent money on was the garden,” Pillsbury recalled. “I knew that all our neighbors look down on the garden and they would appreciate it.”
When Pillsbury&#8
Above: When Pillsbury’s children were young, there was a sandbox in the garden and, in wintertime, an ice rink.

Hydrangeas, boxwoods, and alliums flourish in the garden. Another touch of purple often seen in Rudkin’s gardens is his signature plant: Verbena bonariensis. Read more at Verbena: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

When the Pillsbury bought the apartment, the garden was paved with gravel. Today a rectangular lawn act like a rug, to create an outdoor living room.
Above: When the Pillsbury bought the apartment, the garden was paved with gravel. Today a rectangular lawn act like a rug, to create an outdoor living room.
After purchasing the apartment, Pillsbury and her husband demolished an old stable and re-used the stones to create a terrace and garden walls.
Above: After purchasing the apartment, Pillsbury and her husband demolished an old stable and re-used the stones to create a terrace and garden walls.
Ferns delineate areas of the garden without blocking views.
Above: Ferns delineate areas of the garden without blocking views.

A collector of gardens as well as of art, Pillsbury also purchased Parisian textile designer Nicole de Vésian’s iconic garden, La Louve, in Provence. Read more in Garden Visit: A Parisian Stylist in Provence.

Are you designing a garden from scratch or rehabbing an existing landscape? For inspiration, see our curated guides to Garden Design 101. For more of our favorite Paris gardens (and tips for how to add a chic element  to your own), read more:

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