Glamour in the Garden

Hollywood transplants create an oasis of relaxation artfully tucked behind a classic downtown Colonial Revival

By William Irvine     Photographs by Mark Steelman

O30ne of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Wilmington can be found in the blocks immediately surrounding the Mansion District, that stately procession of houses lining Market Street in the high teens. Behind the former mansions of the Kenan sisters are the elegant houses of turn-of-the-century Wilmington merchants and bankers in a variety of sizes, ranging from the shingle style to robber baron Baroque.

And this is the neighborhood where Richard and Mia Hankins found their dream house, a prewar Colonial Revival property that would not look out of place in Buckhead or on a Hollywood backlot as a stand-in for an antebellum plantation house. But it’s also a house with a secret — behind the stately Colonial house is a garden straight out of Beverly Hills or Bel Air, an oasis of glamour in plain sight (if you can get behind the locked gate leading out back). And now you are invited to do so: The Hankins garden will be on view from April 7 – 9 as part of the Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour.

Richard Hankins is no stranger to Hollywood. An Emmy Award-winning production and stage designer, he worked for many years in theater companies and television on the hit series NYPD Blue. The couple met in Los Angeles, where Mia was working as a producer on an Elmore Leonard film. A mutual friend introduced them: “The first time we talked on the phone, the conversation went on for five hours,” Mia says. Soon they were an item. But North Carolina beckoned, and Mia, a Raleigh native, wanted to come back home and started to look for houses in Wilmington. “We found the house online. Richard was still in L.A. and the house was vacant, so I went with the real estate agent to look at it,” she says. But there was an unexpected surprise: “Being an architect’s daughter I could read a blueprint, and I couldn’t find the basement. We discovered a secret door behind a bookcase, went down the stairs, and we saw . . . big fans and grow-lights!! The shelves were empty, but we found one cannabis leaf on the floor, the previous owner’s calling card, I guess.” But Mia was sold. She and Richard bought the house in March 2010 and were married on the front steps two months later.

Thankfully, the house’s first owners, the Edwards family (who owned a prosperous Wilmington nursery), were more interested in legal plants, as is evidenced in the front garden, where a bushy 75-year-old plum-pine hedge flanks the curved walk leading up to the house. “When we moved here it was so tall it was like walking through a green tunnel,” Mia says. She points out a new arrival, a hybrid gardenia and rhododendron that is about to burst into bloom. “I’m crazy in love with it,” she says with a laugh. And there are other surprises. A life-size metal giraffe by renowned local artist Michael Van Hout peeks out from behind old-growth azaleas. And there is a large Japanese maple tree. “I bonsai my maple,” she says. “It can be very temperamental.” A flowering plum tree was moved closer to it to provide shade.

Originally a separate lot, the left side of the property was owned by a sister of the Edwards family, and was eventually combined to form the front yard of the almost ¾-acre property. And many of the original plantings remain: giant old-growth camellias and azaleas. “Salmon-red, a very unusual color,” Mia says. “It’s like our own little ecosystem over here.” And she bravely shepherded along some of the existing roses. “These were spindly and pathetic when we moved in, but I educated myself about caring for them. These are old English climbing roses, and I love them.”

On the white wooden gate to the rear of the property hangs a sign: THEATRE NOW OPEN, DAILY SHOWINGS AT DUSK. So you are fully prepared when you open the door to the back garden and see an outdoor, film industry-standard movie screen, a perfect spot for guests who come in the summer for a swim and to watch revival films (it’s strictly bring-your-own-chair). The centerpiece of the back garden is a blue-tiled Moroccan-style swimming pool surrounded by towering sabal palms, a good 20 feet in height. The general atmosphere makes you feel as if you are waiting for a poolside cocktail at, say, the Beverly Hills Hotel. In addition to the palms are a collection of potted plants in colorful terra-cotta urns as well as 25-year-old azaleas. The Hankinses added a pergola to cover the red brick terrace, which has become a perfect spot for outdoor dining in the summer. And there are Richard’s masterful architectural birdhouses (a natural fit for a former production designer): everything from a tobacco barn to a Dorothy Gale-worthy Kansas farmhouse to a perfectly rendered Maine lobster shack, complete with dock.

This fantasy was all created, like a stage-set, from scratch: “It was a total jungle back here when we moved in. . . a trash heap with nothing but tiny saplings scattered throughout the yard,” Mia says. She leads me over to the spacious bed/swing in the shade overlooking the pool: “I call this my diva swing. It’s very therapeutic. Richard built it all by himself for our sixth anniversary.” The structure is fully fitted as a functioning room with electricity, a fan and built-in lighting. “All I need is a kitchen in here and I will be all set!” she says. The side garden, which is framed by Richard’s nearby studio and workshop, features an idyllic metal gazebo cascading with yellow Lady Banks roses, all surrounding a stone fountain. Elegant tree-size white camellias provide cooling afternoon shade.

Of course all this beauty requires some assistance, and Mia has worked for the last few years with her trusted helpers Chris and Armando, of Carolina Coastal Landscaping. “It has been a lot of work,” she says. “But I fell in love with the garden and its potential. I knew I would create a place so pleasant that I would never want to leave.” Mission accomplished. 

William Irvine is a former senior editor of House Beautiful magazine. He is also a palindromist and the proprietor of Schermerhorn Books & Art, a virtual bookshop specializing in arts and design. A late-onset Southerner, he lives in the historic district of Wilmington.

The 64th annual Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour will be held this year from April 7 – 9, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Ticket holders can tour 12 gardens (10 private and the public gardens of Airlie and the Bellamy Mansion). Founded in 1925, the Cape Fear Garden Club is the oldest and largest garden club in North Carolina and a longtime steward of the beautification of Wilmington. Proceeds from the Azalea Garden Tour go to scholarships and conservation efforts, most notably the Battery Island wildlife sanctuary, which is owned and managed by the National Audubon Society and supports North Carolina’s largest colony of wading birds. Info: Tickets are $25. To purchase garden tour tickets, visit

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