When new owners purchased what is now The Inn at Irwin Gardens in December 2009, the ornate, century-old, Italian-themed grounds awaited more than spring’s renewal.

The popular Fifth Street mansion and property, known partly to locals especially in recent years as the boyhood home of former Cummins leader and architectural aficionado J. Irwin Miller, had been untended for about a year while a buyer was found. The grounds were closed after the community leader’s wife and arts supporter, Xenia Miller, died in 2008.

In that downtime, problems appeared.

Cracks in all of the fountains left them unable to hold water. Crumbling brick pathways led mostly to a sad state of disrepair and neglect. Hedges grew well over their edges.

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But that was then. This is now — about halfway through a six- to eight-year effort to restore the approximate one-acre classic gardens to their original heyday.

Lately, that has signaled the largest-scale work, including some new paperbark maple trees. New stone and brick. Rebuilding retaining walls.

Sarah Johnston, managing innkeeper at the site until just recently, sees a bright future for the area completed in 1913. Owners Chris and Jessica Stevens reopened the gardens to the public in 2012.

“The feedback that we have been getting every summer when we reopen (the grounds) is that the gardens are looking the best ever,” Johnston said. “A lot of what we have left to do over the next two to four years is a little more ornamental and not quite as glaring (regarding repairs).”

The restoration is part of a push “to maintain it well for the next 100 years,” according to Johnston. Besides being a draw for tourists, the gardens also are a popular rental property for events, weddings and other activities.

That means that refurbishing has had to be limited mostly to winter to avoid infringing upon bookings, staff members said. They hope eventually to see a renewed gardens open more to the public, thanks to volunteers. Those visits always are free, though visitors are free to donate.

“Maybe the biggest hurdle with all this work is the simple fact that nearly everything here is 100 years old,” said Andrew Pauli, gardener at the grounds. “And we have to look at ways of using modern technology to try to repair something to make it like the same thing (it was), and make sure that it still fits in with everything else.

“Those are things that are we always are up against.”

Pauli acknowledged that sometimes there are “days that press me a bit,” as he wrestles with the work. But he compliments the Stevenses for their commitment to continue to improve and beautify the property while keeping its original design and grandeur.

“Obviously, a lot of community members understandably feel a lot of emotional attachment to the gardens,” Johnston said. “And (in December), it may have looked a little scary as we were tearing some things out.”

Pauli is working to restore some sections of the gardens to the same design they featured when the grounds first opened last century. Until now, only some of the linden trees and wisteria represented the garden’s early days. He and Johnston estimate that a substantial reworking of the gardens occurred sometime in the 1950s or 1960s.

“Returning to that original design will give us a lot more lawn and grass space for people to mingle and appreciate the space a little more,” Pauli said.

Helmut Meng, the gardener at the facility from 1993 to 2008, said that caring for an older site sometimes can be a challenge.

“The limestone always took a beating,” he said of one of the maintenance demands during his time. “Once you get water inside there and then it freezes and thaws, it’s eventually going to break apart.”

He said he was “ecstatic” when he recently moved back to Columbus and saw some of the progressing work of the renovation.

“It’s obviously an icon of downtown Columbus,” Meng said. “I’m really pleased to hear that they’re wanting to bring it back to its heyday.”

Travelers on websites refer to the gardens as everything from “a hidden gem” to “inspiring” to a property “to die for.”

Erin Hawkins, the Columbus Area Visitors Center’s director of marketing, said the gardens always have been a point of interest among many visitors.

“Columbus, of course, is very much known for modern architecture,” Hawkins said. “But all modernists must keep in mind that there are a lot of people who very much appreciate other styles.

“And that place impresses anyone, since it’s such a beautiful space.”

Irwin Gardens at a glance

  • Architect Henry A. Phillips,in collaboration with Arthur Shurcliff, modeled the luxurious, one-acre formal gardens after those exhumed from the remains of ancient Pompeii.
  • Construction began in 1910 and was completed in 1913.
  • The gardens feature fountains, pools, and a classical well.
  • Only an English sundial and a Japanese bronze elephant sculpture that is a replica of one at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair pavilion do not follow the property’s Italian motif.
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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.