Rooted in the Past: Beechwood Gardens
by Stephen Faure
“I wish I could take credit for how beautiful the property is,” Sandi Forman says, as she looks around Beechwood Gardens, the home she and husband Harold own in St. Tammany north of Covington. Stewards of some of the loveliest camellia and azalea gardens in the country, the Formans continue a legacy started years ago by Mayer Israel, Jr. and his wife, Martha, whose vision and hard work transformed a patch of woods by the river into a floral oasis.
The Israels were far ahead of the curve when, in 1936, they were among the first of the “Come Heres,” as St. Tammany natives christened southshore folk who migrated to Lake Pontchartrain’s northside. The Israels’ decision to “come here” was St. Tammany’s gain, as they created a marvelous island of beauty in Beechwood Gardens.
A dynamic businessman, Mayer Israel headed the family business Mayer Israel & Co., a Canal Street clothing store, from the time he was 22 years old. During the Great Depression, he was tapped by President Roosevelt to serve as chairman of the National Recovery Act for the New Orleans area.
As a community leader, Israel served as president of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce in 1936, was an original member of the board of directors of the Vieux Carre Commission, an organizer of the Boy Scouts of America in the New Orleans area, helped create and was president of the Jewish Welfare Fund, served as a member of the Children’s Welfare Association, served on the board of directors of the Red Cross and was one of an 11-man team who raised funds for the enlargement of Tulane Stadium for the Sugar Bowl.
As Mrs. Israel wrote, “My husband, being far-sighted, decided twenty years ago that he was going to learn to relax. Seeking a quiet restful place where he could forget business for at least a weekend, and after looking here, there and everywhere, he found a spot in beautiful St. Tammany Parish where time is of little importance and nature has done her utmost to create everlasting beauty.”
Purchasing 93 acres on the Bogue Falaya off of Hwy. 25 about five miles north of Covington, the Israels set about building a comfortable house with two bedrooms and a six-foot-wide fireplace near the center of the property. The idyllic setting found in Beechwood suited them just fine. The couple and their guests spent weekends enjoying the woods and the sun and the water of the Bogue Falaya.
Restful pursuits, however, weren’t entirely suited to an accomplished man like Mr. Israel. “After a couple of years of this lazy life, there came the feeling that this was not enough. He would have to have some other interest in order to keep from being bored,” Mrs. Israel wrote.
She thought of planting some vegetables and flowers on the property, an idea that Mr. Israel wasn’t too interested in. Then the Israels received a catalogue in the mail. It was from a nursery, and featured 700 types of camellias. Mrs. Israel hoped this might be the type of hobby Mr. Israel would enjoy. “Seven hundred varieties of camellias sounded fantastic to me back in 1938. If only I could get him interested in collecting them,” she wrote. For his next birthday, she gave him 100 plants representing 20 different varieties of camellias.
The Israels fell victim to the “sting of the ‘camellia bug,’” as Mrs. Israel wrote, and took up their relaxing hobby with a vengeance. Quickly exhausting the plots set aside for camellias, Mr. Israel had the idea to give the growing collection a “more attractive setting,” and Beechwood Gardens was born. Mr. Israel took charge of the project. His wife noted, “Credit for making Beechwood the beauty spot it is today belongs to Mr. Israel. All of the planning and execution of the gardens was accomplished without any professional advice or outside help of any kind.”
Showing great foresight, the Israels installed a water supply and irrigation system that works perfectly well today. The impressive system was described by Mr. Israel in a letter he wrote to a real estate agent. “The well is 1603 feet deep with about 40 pounds pressure and galvanized pipe was used from top to bottom … There is also a rock fountain in the center of the lake out of which this well spouts. … Galvanized pipe also extends underground in all directions and is controlled by four different valves. The azalea beds along the road, starting from the front entrance to the well, have an underground watering system.”
Preparing the grounds for camellia planting was another challenge. Mrs. Israel wrote, “Woods had to be cleared, drainage corrected, the various gardens had to be landscaped so that the natural beauty, which was abundant, would not be destroyed, and countless other obstacles had to be overcome.”
A major problem was a hard layer of clay underneath the topsoil, which would prevent root growth and proper drainage. The solution was a hydraulic auger, which they used to dig 3-foot wide holes through the clay that were filled with topsoil and sand.
After 20 years of hard work, the gardens contained, according to Mr. Israel, “about 4,000 camellia and sasanquas, consisting of 600 or more named varieties, each bush having identification tags showing the name of the variety.” Thousands of azaleas lined the entry road and the frontage along Hwy. 25.
Part of the Israels’ legacy is a 2-inch-thick binder, containing meticulous records detailing the number, variety and location of each plant placed on the property. Another legacy is a large white board covering one wall in the barn. It is divided into twelve columns, one for each month of the year, and each column has specific written instructions regarding the gardens’ maintenance needed for that month.
Other improvements made, and then lost, add character to the grounds. A tennis court in need of serious maintenance lies fallow on the north end like an archeological wonder from another time. Workers clearing the grounds after Katrina uncovered a stone bridge, probably installed by the Israels, which had been lost to time and growing vegetation.
All in all, the Israels were responsible for building, as Mr. Israel proudly stated, “one of the acknowledged finest camellia gardens in the country.” He added, “The plants are in perfect condition and the varieties represent a most comprehensive collection.”
The Israels sold Beechwood in 1956. It has had other owners since then, including members of the notable Freeman family, who sold the property to businessman Harold Forman and his wife, Sandi. The Formans had enjoyed the farm life in Folsom for years, where Harold indulged his passion for horses. Sandi passed the gates of Beechwood four times a day while ferrying her daughter, Sarah, to and from school in Covington. Sandi often told her, “You know, if we lived there, we would be home by now.” They toured the property at the height of the seasonal blooms in early spring and were hooked. After putting up the Folsom farm up for sale, and finding a buyer within a month, Sandi believed fate had been sealed on the move to Beechwood.
Acquiring Beechwood was not without difficulties In order to finance the maintenance, preservation and improvement of the gardens, the Formans decided to divide the outlying parts of the property into 2? to 3-acre lots for sale. This left 40 acres, the core of the Israels’ garden plantings, as common area for all the residents of Beechwood to enjoy. The Formans built Sandi’s Tuscan-inspired dream home yards away from the home the Israels built in the 1930s. That original house serves now as a guest home and pool house.
After buying Beechwood, the Formans hired a groundskeeper to get the gardens, lawns and paths into shape. Soon, they were entertaining guests and hosting fundraising events such as the 2003 Chef Soirée patron party and events for St. Scholastica Academy, Sarah’s school.
Then, of course, Katrina came and changed everything. “We came back two weeks afterwards. We drove past the gates—we didn’t even recognize our own property,” Sandi recalls. The grounds were devastated. “We looked at each other, and Harold said he didn’t know if we could do it. But seeing our groundskeeper, who had stayed on during the storm, out working to clear the roads with the single chainsaw we had in the barn, I knew we had to try.”
Harold hired two out-of-state timber companies to clear the fallen trees. One company started at the south end of the 93-acre tract, the other, the north. After the trees were cleared and stumps pulled out of the ground, hundreds of holes were left. Earth dredged from the main pond was used as fill—so much fill for so many holes that the pond grew from 1/2 acre to 2 acres in size.
Like Meyer Israel had before him in building Beechwood, Harold planned, coordinated and supervised its recovery. As Mrs. Israel said of her husband’s task in creating the gardens, Harold’s task of clearing and restoring them must also have been one “requiring imagination, patience, and a certain undaunted vigor to overcome numberless difficulties.”
Sandi is certainly proud of him, “It amazed me to see how hard my husband worked to get this all together. It just proved what a special person he is.”
While touring the property, the Formans point out many of the features the Israels and subsequent owners added. Stone bridges, ponds, rock gardens and stone-lined waterways—all originally placed by the Israels—enhance the grounds. Shaded paths lead to two different beaches on the Bogue Falaya.
All of the improvements were exceedingly well built in the ’30s and ’40s. Harold admires their quality; 60-year-old stone bridges in several places on the property easily supported the heavy equipment brought in to clear out fallen timber after Katrina.
One year, members of some of the world’s camellia societies who were meeting in Slidell came to visit Beechwood. Sandi was fascinated as the experts, including some from Japan, marveled at the rarity of some of the garden’s specimens. “They talked about camellias growing at Beechwood they had not seen anywhere but in books,” she remembers.
Like the Israels, Sandi has now felt “the camellia bug’s sting,” and is learning the cutting, grafting and rooting skills she’ll need to develop and plant her own varieties at Beechwood. “I have to wait for the next blooms to come out later this year to see exactly what we have.” She now spends a good part of each day in the dirt. “It’s my job. It’s prune and cut and fertilize. Digging is great therapy.” Her adopted Katrina-dog, Pepe, keeps constant company shovel-side. “He’s my best friend.”
Sandi’s favorite spot is the Serenity Garden, an area near the house with tables and benches where Sarah would often go to study. Serenity is pretty much the theme of Beechwood. After the hectic time of storm cleanup, and working to re-plant the grounds, things are settling down to a new normal for Beechwood.
“It was too quiet for the longest time after all that, but now the birds are back chirping and the deer, the turkeys, the squirrels are all running around again.” The azaleas bloomed along Hwy. 25 and the drives in Beechwood this year, the first time since the storm. “It’s nice to come down my driveway and not feel pain anymore. Now, I feel we’re back, and we’re ready, and I’d love to do something like host Chef Soirée again,” she says. “I wish Mr. Israel was around to see how much people appreciate Beechwood.”