By Laura Camper / email@example.com
Now that Coweta County commissioners have rezoned the last portion of the Dunaway Gardens property to Limited Use Historic, the Gardens will come full circle.
Tena Clark and her business partner, Lynn Eden, purchased the property in 2021 and plan to return Dunaway Gardens to its original purpose, including a restaurant, theater and spa.
They plan to break ground in February. It should be completed in late-2024, Clark said.
Dunaway Gardens was created by Hetty Jane Dunaway, a well-known actress in her day. She married her booking agent, W.P. Sewell, and moved to his family’s property outside of Newnan. But she wasn’t ready to give up show business.
She built the gardens with three theaters, a restaurant, cabins and inn to create a retreat and training ground for celebrities and others involved in the theater as well as entertainment for locals.
Famous guests during the gardens’ heyday in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s included Minnie Pearl, a comedian from Hee Haw, and Walt and Roy Disney. But the property closed by the 1960s and Dunaway’s dream was slowly overtaken by kudzu and time.
That is until Jennifer Bigham and her husband, Roger Bigham, bought the place in 2000. The Bighams spent years restoring the property, later using it as a wedding venue.
When Clark saw it, she fell in love with the stone and moss amphitheater that Bigham had uncovered. Clark, a Mississippi transplant by way of California, has worked in entertainment for decades. When she moved back to the South to a home in Serenbe, she began to look for a property to build a studio.
After touring a few cow pastures with realtors, she stumbled on Dunaway Gardens and knew it was more perfect for her plans than she had ever imagined a property could be.
It’s amazing that so much of the garden has survived, Clark said. In late summer, the gardens of Dunaway are more lush than colorful; a few flowers raise their blooms to the sun, some probably planted and nurtured by the original owner, or descendants of those plants.
Hetty Jane started construction on the gardens in 1916, said Keith Robinson, who is heading the restoration of the historic gardens. It opened in 1927 or so, he said. Originally it was mostly a full sun garden, but over time it has become a shade garden, Robinson said.
Clark intends to add sound stages and a recording studio in a seven-acre piece of property away from the historic gardens. They will accommodate filming in the county, Clark said. There has already been filming in the gardens, in fact. Clark said portions of “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” were filmed there.
“We bought 350 acres,” Clark said. “The historical piece of this is 137 (acres).”
Some of the additional acreage was zoned Rural Conservation, but now has been changed to match the zoning of the original gardens to allow for the construction of the sound stages.
But other than that, their plans are to rebuild many of the facilities that had been a part of Hetty Jane’s gardens, Clark said. She had a 1,000-seat amphitheater, a 300-seat theater, restaurant, lodge and cabins.
“We’re reducing the footprint in a lot of ways,” Clark said. “We want it to be more intimate.”
They will be allowing only 500 in the amphitheater, for instance. The restaurant, which they had originally envisioned as 7,000 square feet, will be between 4,000 and 5,000 square feet and will be built to mimic an octagonal stone cistern already found on the grounds. They will also have a spa and event center. But all of it will focus on the beautiful outdoors with walls of windows strategically placed to encompass views of the wetlands of Cedar Creek.
The 77-acre wetlands are also part of the conservation efforts.
“We’re working with the Corps of Engineers to be able to mitigate and take out the invasive species,” Clark said. “We’re going to hopefully make that a lot healthier out there.”
Clark and Eden purchased the 212 acres adjoining the wetlands because it had been zoned for 64 tract houses, she said. Eden is particularly concerned about its conservation.
“We wanted to keep all that pristine,” Clark said. “We’re going to have bird watching. We’ll have a place that you can walk out and look at the ducks. We’ve been putting up wood duck boxes to bring the wood ducks back.”
Clark not only fell in love with the property, but the history of Dunaway Gardens. She plans to highlight much of it in the last remaining original structure, the home of Hetty Jane’s niece. The home will be the welcome center at the Gardens and is filled with items people have given Clark including pictures, playbills, even a tambourine used at the theater.
In addition, much of Hetty Jane’s original focus on the arts, entertainment, education, conservation and wellness will all be a part of the new Dunaway Gardens, Clark said. There will be education opportunities for area underserved children, including a Debbie Allen Dance Academy.
The restaurant will open under the management of Robinson, who is also a chef. Currently, there are 10 people on staff at the gardens. When fully opened, they expect to have about 75 employees, Clark said.
Robinson said he has been working in the gardens since January.
“I have a degree in environmental design, as a landscape architect as well,” Robinson said. “When I came here, I saw that there was a lot of work that needed to be done to preserve what we have and also to make it even better.”
When the garden was originally created, it was designed as rooms dedicated to different countries. The largest plum yew in the state is growing in the Japanese garden, Robinson said.
In another area of the garden, an heirloom crinum lily called “first blood” blooms.
“I know how old this is because my grandparents’ house in Mississippi, which was a heritage house, had these in the yard. They are a very, very special heirloom.”
Four and one-half acres are devoted to an organic tea garden filled with a hybrid tea that was gifted to Hetty Jane. Master gardeners from all over have come to the gardens to see the unusual plants, he said.
Clark is thrilled to be able to move forward with her plans.
“It was the most beautiful piece of property I had ever seen,” Clark said. “When I walked in and saw that amphitheater, I really thought I had died and gone to heaven.”