There’s a telling little anecdote about the first time that Neal Fenwick brought his wife, Tina Dann-Fenwick, to the big 1930s Georgian property in Lake Forest. Both from the Surrey area, south of London, they were on a mission to find the perfect home for their family’s move to the U.S., Neal having secured an executive position at Acco Brands and Tina, then a barrister, finishing a similar job transfer with Fortune Brands.
It was October in the late 1990s, nearly 18 years ago. The real estate market was a bit dodgy and nothing they saw would do. The realtor told them this house was out of their target price range but they insisted on seeing it anyway. When they walked into the historic home, perched on a lot that stretched from Ridge Road into the forest, Tina turned to Neal and very memorably said: “How could you bring me here?”
Everything about the property felt like home back in England—the Georgian architecture, the grounds, the potential. But could they afford it? The seller was motivated, and ultimately, they found a way to make it happen.
“We had always wanted a big garden, and the rest is history,” says Tina, serving classic Earl Gray tea with a cake from the Lake Bluff French market on one of the home’s terraces one day earlier this summer. Hummingbirds gather in a feeder that Neal hand-crafts at home to unwind from his busy job as a CFO.
Over tea, the story of the garden’s evolution is told in a series of vignettes. The one about how in the beginning, none of the splendor that exists today was there, and how it evolved over time. The one about how there were moments when she was “slightly overwhelmed” but he was not. And another about how—even though both Tina and Neal have done most of the planning and design themselves—certain relationships over the years have helped their garden grow.
“When you do your own garden, it’s a process,” she explains. “In the early days, we needed help. We discovered there was a nun attached to St. Mary’s Church. She arranged for laborers who wanted work to come down from Waukegan. And that’s how we met Lorenzo.”
The early work crews helped the couple replenish the soil and clear areas for the lush “garden rooms” that exist today. But Lorenzo was eager to learn more from the couple’s own expertise in traditional English gardening
“Most landscapers don’t really know how to weed like we do,” Tina says, explaining that both she and Neal learned a lot about plants by watching their own parents and grandparents. “We also have some unusual plants and planting schemes that most landscapers would not pick. One person told me early on to just plant ivy in shaded areas, but I found roses that take less light, so those are the little differences.”
The couple was so impressed by Lorenzo’s devotion to the art of gardening that they sponsored him to get a green card, which now allows him to work for a prominent North Shore landscaping firm. He still stops by to help when he has time, but for the most part, the garden is Tina and Neal’s ongoing labor of love.
The result is nothing short of spectacular.
In addition to more than 25 different types of English roses, the gardens include antique fountains, an elegant gazebo, two beautifully appointed terraces, a cutting garden, and a “wild garden” with an arbor that leads to a path to exotic native plants that emerge naturally in the forest. Neal has taken a special interest in the natural pond that emerged as they were cultivating the grounds, now stocked with fish and a fountain the couple had custom made based on one they had seen on a Garden Conservancy “Open Days” property they toured in England.
Plants have names straight out of a Jane Austen novel—species like Abraham Darby and Daphne Carol-Mackie flourish in a setting befitting the film version of those Regency tales.
The secret, Tina says over tea, is to create something that is “curated, not contrived.”
Interesting enough, the process of carefully renovating the 1930s Georgian while simultaneously cultivating this garden masterpiece inspired Tina to make a “curated” career change halfway through life. When her children were older, a visit to The Ritz in London resulted in the “a-ha” moment that led her to pursue a profession as an interior designer.
“I went to school to become a barrister, but I had always won competitions for art in school. I loved fabric when I was young and used to make my own clothes and draperies,” confesses Tina. “In England at that time, if you were an academic, you didn’t do arts.”
However, art and creativity is something that seems to run in the family. Her great-aunt used to make clothes for the royal family and her cousin was the Art Director for the Financial Times in London.
Tina attended and graduated from Harper College, taking on a Lake Forest friend as her first client. And like her garden, she continues to grow and evolve.
“We love living in Lake Forest and this garden brings us great joy. It’s something we do together and I can’t imagine not having it,” says Tina. “Sometimes we sit and watch the birds, or sit out here and have our tea, and it really does feel like home.”