Cummer opens Olmsted Garden after renovation

Holly Keris – photo  courtesy of Max Marbut

Holly Keris – photo
courtesy of Max Marbut

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

One of Jacksonville’s gems in both art and gardens has put the same creative effort into designing
a parking lot as it does into its exhibits and collections.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens has designed an experience that starts in the parking lot across Riverside Avenue and leads the eye – and the visitor – straight to the portals of the Museum.

Following on the heels of the re-opening of the lot in late March, the  Cummer also threw open the figurative doors of the Olmsted Garden, the last of three beautiful but different places of earthly delights. First developed in the early 1930s by the renowned landscape firm Olmsted Brothers for homeowners Waldo and Clara Cummer, the garden was maintained by the firm until 1958 when it sold the property to Barnett Bank. For several decades employees of the bank used the garden property as a place for picnics and recreation, including a shuffleboard court.

After the Museum was established, it bought the property in the early 1990s and used it for a summer camp, creating faux archeological digs, according to Holly Keris, chief curator. “The Museum staff ‘planted’ archeological items from various periods so that children could get involved in uncovering history.”

Olmsted_01The revival of the original Olmsted Garden has been nearly a decade in the making. Although Olmsted the architect didn’t document the results with “as-built” drawings, correspondence between the firm and Clara Cummer, as well as archival photos, provided a good blueprint for the Cummer’s current staff and contractors to create a near-faithful 21st century facsimile.

“Some plant types are simply no longer available nearly 90 years later,” said Keris. “Some, like junipers, just don’t do well in Florida climate. It was more important to have something that will grow into the right size and proportion than to find exact matches.”

The plants were sourced from a number of locations, including a particular variety of Heirloom roses grown only in Oregon. Keris often finds herself in the position of having to turn down the well-meaning offers of residents who want to give plants and trees from their homes.
The Cummer put Keris in charge of the restoration in order to continue the curatorial and archival mindset that she brings to the museum’s art collections. “All the gardens are registered with the National Registry of Historic Places,” Keris noted. “So it was important that it’s bound to the integrity of the historical precedent set by the Olmsted Brothers.”

Even the new parking lot is a work of art! Brick pavers and planters provide form for the function

Even the new parking lot is a work of art! Brick pavers and planters provide form for the function

Aside from three majestic oak trees, the curved stone wall at the back of the property, the pergola and the feature wall that separates the Olmsted Garden from the Italian Garden, almost everything else is brand new. One historic piece – the Mercury statue – was tracked down in Melrose, FL and returned to sit proudly in the center of the garden.

Keris isn’t resting on laurels though. The third phase of the renovation project – the outdoor TreeCup Café and sculpture garden – was recently launched, with a target completion of October 2013. By that time the Museum’s chief curator will be a new resident of Riverside, much closer to the work and the place she loves.

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