By Howard Pousner
If the original Yankee Stadium was the “House that Ruth Built,” then the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s expansion is the addition that Dale Chihuly propagated.
A suggestion that he has Great Bambino-like clout may come as a surprise even to Chihuly, the famed, eye-patch-wearing Seattle glass artist. But his 2004 exhibit at the Atlanta attraction elevated and repositioned it, seeding a $55 million expansion, Phase 2 of which opens Saturday.
“The Chihuly exhibit was our coming-out party,” said executive director Mary Pat Matheson, who took over in 2002 with a strong grow-the-garden agenda. “It was very deliberate. I knew what the impact would be: tremendous.”
Garden visitation mushroomed from 200,000 to 425,000, memberships from 12,000 to 19,000 households. Tourists came and spent.
Matheson was tilling the soil, trying to show metro Atlantans that the garden was not just a pretty plant place but a major cultural asset. The distinction was important because she was preparing to ask potential donors for gifts that “would be considered extraordinary.”
The master plan she commissioned by Andropogen Associates of Philadelphia was ambitious. The first phase opened last April and included a parking deck tucked into a steep slope at the rear of the garden, an entry drive with wide sidewalks safely separated from car traffic, a spacious visitor center and a 95,000-gallon underground cistern. And now, barely a year later, Phase 2’s trio of attractions are debuting: the 600-foot-long, treetop-high Canopy Walk; the waterfall-dominated Cascades Garden; and the Edible Garden and Outdoor Kitchen.
Billed as an architectural icon for the city, the Canopy Walk was intended for Phase 1 but was delayed after it collapsed in a construction accident that took one life and injured 18 others. A memorial Jonquil Garden will open at its base Saturday.
Sparked by the Chihuly exhibit, there was donor will for the expansion even before the capital campaign went public in 2006, but a roadblock stood in the way.
Matheson and other leaders wanted to remove an overrun asphalt parking lot and the climbing entry drive to it and replace it with the deck at the rear of the garden. The citizens group Friends of Piedmont Park mounted a grass-roots campaign and a legal charge against it, but the garden got the green light from the city and Fulton Superior Court.
Removing the driveway and lot from the middle of the garden cleared the way for the attraction to expand, doubling from 15 to 30 acres. Long-time members and visitors will be immediately aware of how much more there is, including 5,000 new plantings, because the three newest assets open up land that was either inaccessible or underutilized for years.
The entrance onto the Canopy Walk is a quick stroll from the Hardin Visitor Center. Guests enter the gracefully curving reverse suspension bridge at its highest point, 40 feet above ground, at eye level with the upper reaches of maples, oaks, tulip poplars, beech and black cherries. (It’s considered reverse suspension because, instead of being hung by cables from above like the Golden Gate Bridge, its cables are anchored to the ground via four masts.)
The 12-foot-wide circular walk winds down into Storza Woods, which had been fenced off for years, though that never stopped vagrants, hustlers and unlawful others from calling it home. The 13-acre woodlands make up one of the city’s few remaining hardwood forests.
A paved path from the Canopy Walk’s base leads to a tunnel under the entry road and out of the shady woods and into the bright sunlight of the Cascades Garden. This feature is dominated by a three-tiered waterfall landscaped with subtropicals — hibiscus, banana, canna, more than 50 varieties of ginger and Sabal palms.
Besides adding a handsome water feature that will cause many a visitor to linger, the Cascades Garden works within the lay of the land, replacing the steep entry road. Matheson acknowledged its plantings are more eye candy than educational.
“When you go to the High Museum of Art, you want to see that wow Monet,” she said. “This is kind of our wow Monet.”
But for those who come to the garden hoping some green thumb will rub off, the Edible Garden, planted on the acre of the former parking lot, offers that chance with a 55-foot-long wall of herbs and a “vegetable amphitheater.”
Matheson is most excited about the Outdoor Kitchen, which will feature chef demonstrations Saturdays and during Cocktails in the Garden on Thursday nights. Apparently, so are Atlantans. Ahead of the grand opening, a Well-Seasoned Chef Series of monthly appearances by top chefs such as Linton Hopkins and Anne Quatrano sold out.
She said she believes the interactive kitchen will stoke the appetites of donors for the final $2.9 million needed to conclude the $55 million, nearly recession-proof campaign.
After eight years of growing plants, attendance, budgets and facilities, what’s next?
On a table in Matheson’s office is a design for an educational pavilion deep in Storza Woods. There’s no budget or time frame yet, but she called it “one of our priority projects,” adding that the garden is testing a naturalist program for Atlanta seventh-graders.
“I’m always saying, ‘Be here now,’ ” Matheson said, “but I’m always thinking ahead.”