A simple splendor

Emmott and Ione Fix Chase '33 built a garden that now is preserved as a national treasure

By Sandra Sarr

Ione Fix Chase ’33 never tires of the view outside her back door: open sky across a valley, to hills and Mount Rainier. On a clear day the mountain seems to rise just off the edge of the garden that she and her husband, Emmott, created, offering a stunning backdrop.

Set on a 7-acre plateau in Orting, Wash., the Chases’ garden blends Japanese influences and modernist concepts popular in the ’60s, says Rosina McIvor, who coordinates Friends of the Chase Garden and works with the Garden Conservancy, a New York-based organization dedicated to preserving selected private gardens. Last year, the group raised $34,000, which included a major gift from the Chases, to care for the garden. But while the couple, now in their 90s, is getting help today, for decades they did it all themselves.

To achieve her vision, Ione studied the contours of the land and placed natural materials where they seemed to belong.

“It’s really quite simple. I observe nature, enlarging what’s natural, and I bring in a few exotics, too,” says Ione, who still draws inspiration from magazines, books, and the mountain, where she spent much of her youth hiking and camping.

Ione’s ties to the land run deep. She remembers playing at age 5 in the sand spit on the lower corner of the 14 acres where she and high school sweetheart Emmott would build their dream home facing Mount Rainier. They later sold half of their land to a friend.

Emmott sat behind Ione in the eighth grade and says a high school teacher cornered him one day and asked, “Why don’t you go out with a decent girl, like Ione Fix?”

“So we tried it!” Ione says with a laugh.

That was 72 years ago.

As a student at Puget Sound, Ione majored in art history and lived in the Theta house. When she finished a pattern-making course in Southern California, Emmott asked to borrow his father’s car to bring her home.

“My father told me, ‘You can’t bring Ione home unless you’re married. It would be an immoral act.’” The couple married in time for Emmott to drive her north in his father’s new Nash.

The Chases bought their land in 1943, while Emmott still worked for Puget Sound Energy, but they didn’t move there until 1959.

Says Emmott, “We started from scratch. We had an architect design the house. We went to Rex Zumwalt in Tacoma, and he laid out the landscape plan for around the house to get us started. He designed the decks and the pools, and from there on Ione took over. We had an awful lot of work to do. We ran out of money and had to complete the house by ourselves. Ione did all the finishing, and I put the roof on and split the shakes.”

Ione subtracted from Zumwalt’s plan. “He had too much stuff,” she says. “I like the simpler things and was always reading magazines and library books about Frank Lloyd Wright. He had a mind of his own, and I like that.”

Ione built the stone fireplace that rises out of the center of their low-slung house with rocks from the Puyallup River Bar.

“Stone masons put the form up, and I put in all the rocks. I’d go down to the river with the old ’48 Chev and load the trunk with rocks I thought were suitable for the fireplace. Then I’d come up and pile them in front of where I was going to put them. I’d put up a few a night because they were round and slippery with wet mortar. I could only do just a layer at a time. I did another layer each day until it reached the ceiling,” she says. “When you’re working for yourself, it’s always satisfying.”

And demanding. Emmott claims they’ve moved every plant and rock around their place twice. “Every tree we’ve got here, like these hemlocks, we brought in on a backboard on our backs. We hauled every rock in ourselves. A woman called from back East wondering what kind of equipment we used to move rocks. We didn’t have any equipment. I just moved them.

“Ione says I could do anything she made up her mind to do,” Emmott quips as he sits with a guest in their breakfast room. “We’d do it all again,” he says.

Ione was 50 when she began clearing the brambles from the land. “She was a human dynamo,” Emmott recalls. “I used to go to work and come back at night. During the day she’d cleared out brush and cultivated all these banks using an old cultivator that would kill a mule.”

Ione’s work in the garden has slowed in the past couple of years, and a full-time gardener has been hired. She says, “I might yank a weed or two if it’s pretty conspicuous. I can’t resist.”

“She’ll leave here right after breakfast, just wandering around looking at the posies, and often it’s two hours before she comes back,” Emmott says.

“I don’t go out there just to look. I’m thinking about the landscaping,” Ione explains. “I study the garden in different lights and watch the light as it changes. In the early morning it’s especially lovely.”

After a work group finishes propagating plants for the next Friends of the Chase Garden plant sale, Ione lies down to rest on a daybed that has a view of the woods—garden books all around her. She still studies and plans. “I want to add more wildflowers to the woods and more dogwood trees at the woods’ edge. I also want a natural woodland pool, but I have to place it in the right spot because it could disturb lots of tree roots.

“You get to know every piece of the land,” Ione says. “When I look out at the gardens here, I just thank God that we were able to do this—a lot of people aren’t that healthy. I am thankful that we live on this side of the Cascade Mountains because I like the trees, shrubs, the green, and even the dampness. There is a freshness here.

“I grew up having fun here. And I’m still having fun here!” she says. “It’s not done yet.”

The Chase Garden is open for viewing in April and May by appointment. Call 206.242.4040 for more information.