Reflections, Travels

Chihuly at Franklin Park Conservatory

Summer is a great time to visit botanical gardens. It’s the best time to enjoy lush green foliage, flower in full bloom and of course, bask in special exhibits.

This was especially true of the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, OH where in the Pacific Island Water Garden colorful Central American butterflies fight for attention alongside leaping dolphin topiaries and Dale Chihuly glass artwork installations. The surrounding flora and fauna almost seem like an afterthought, proving perhaps there is such a thing as too many visual diversions for a botanical garden.

The Conservatory started as 88 acres bought by the Franklin County Agriculture Society to host the first Franklin County Fair in 1852. The site was expanded to 93 acres in 1874 and became host to the Ohio State Fair for the ensuing decade. After the fair migrated to a new location in 1884, the site sat vacant until 1886 when the State Legislature passed legislation making it a public park. Inspired by the 1893 Chicago World Fair, a glass structure was commissioned and opened to the public in 1985 as the Franklin Park Conservatory.

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The Victorian-style Palm House remain the heart and center of the garden grounds. For a short while in the late 1920s, animals were kept in the lower room before being moved to the newly established Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. During this time as well flamingos were kept in an enclosed garden space on the Grand Mallway leading to the main entrance.

In a fitting tribute, a flock of 75 flamingos with pink begonias for feathers line the Grand Mallway this summer as part of the topiary display. We found out after that the day we visited – June 23 – was National Pink Flamingo Day – go figure!

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To my great surprise as well, upon stepping into the Palm House, I instantly saw the recognizable cacophony of asymmetrical shapes and colors of giant proportions that define Dale Chihuly’s artwork hanging from the glass ceiling. For Chihuly’s flamboyant glass sculptures to appear was a completely unexpected outlier. His return to the New York Botanical Garden in 2017 had been such a highly publicized event; and I hadn’t recalled reading anything on this exhibit.

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To be frank, I had done my research beforehand and elected to visit the botanical garden for the topiaries – in this I was not disappointed.  In addition to dolphins and flamingos, there were also elephants, gorillas, Mexican wolves, butterflies and cardinals; all fashioned with plants suitable to their geographic regions.

I diverge. Coming back to Chihuly, I had driven near three hours last year down to New York City to see his seemingly otherworldly works in person, full of excitement and expectations, only to walk away feeling underwhelmed. What looked to be big, bold glass sculpture in photos appeared overshadowed and dwarfed by their physical surroundings, by the gorgeous Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, by the rich and colorful flora and fauna they were embedded in.

Here though, in Columbus, Chihuly’s glass artworks truly seemed larger-than-life, flaring out against their backgrounds at once both visually stunning yet harmoniously with their surroundings.

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Even the slightly unimaginative clear-green grass sculptures served to enhance the quiet mood of the Zen garden – adding, not subtracting.

At the same time, all this made it more puzzling, why wasn’t there any fanfare surrounding this exhibit?

Through an Internet search, I found my answer. The Franklin Park Conservatory had been the second botanical garden in the world to host Chihuly in 2003, following his blockbuster exhibit at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory in 2001.

Following record-breaking attendance, the private nonprofit Friends of the Conservatory purchased the exhibition pieces as a permanent collection for the Conservatory.

It made sense. These were “early” works of Chihuly, and much of it was designed specifically for the Conservatory space. Like all establishments (ie: restaurants), people always put more care and attention to detail into the first ones; with quality noticeably declining over time as hype become self-sustaining.

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