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Jim Causley Buick
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Above left, young visitors are encouraged to play among the children of the world statues that act as an entrance into the children's garden. Above center, Frederick Marshall's mother bear and cub near the entrance to the children's garden. Above right, towering 42-feet tall is the Alexander Liberman "Aria." It is one of nine sculptures standing more then 23-feet tall in the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. photo by Ann L. Fouty.

August 07, 2014
The ever-changing Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids is a consolidation of experiences for the senses.

"First and foremost the gardens and park are a visual experience," said Joseph Becherer, vice president and chief curator of the 134-acre horticultural and art expanse. But the other senses are in for a treat, as well.

"A walk in the park is a wonderful thing," he said.

Either walking or riding a tram on trails varying from one mile to 2 1/2 miles, visitors can touch a tall bronze horse, smell the fragrances of native Michigan and Midwestern plants and thousands of annuals and perennials, hear water tumbling from fountains and a waterfall and squeals from children in a garden built just to their size.

The interactive children's garden includes a sand quarry to learn about fossils, sites to build bridges, explore tree houses, visit a log cabin, walk a butterfly labyrinth and peek into a child-size beaver lodge. Child-oriented sculptures are surrounded by natural wetlands and 10 areas.

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Children gravitate to the Great Lakes Garden: An outline of the five lakes built for toddlers and young children to learn about the lakes. Plastic boats are supplied and can be floated, or pushed, from Lake Ontario to Lake Superior or down Lake Michigan. Getting wet is a given.

The children's garden is bordered by the (Gwen) Frostic Woodland Shade Garden. That leads the visitor to Michigan's Farm Garden with farm animal sculptures, a 1930s family farm with an heirloom vegetable garden, orchard, barn, sugar shack, produce stand, windmill and a replica of Lena Meijer's (Frederik Meijer's wife) childhood farmhouse.

Opening in 2015 will be the Richard and Helen De Vos Japanese Garden located at the northeast end of the park.

The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is probably best know for the 24-foot bronze cast of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomically correct horse, unveiled in 1999. It took Meijer's backing to bring "The American Horse" concept into being by sculpturess Nina Akamu. After a second bronze was cast for Milan, Italy, the mold was destroyed. It is the centerpiece sculpture of the De Vos Van Andel Piazza and culminates a tram ride during which visitors see creations by Chakai Booker, Roxy Paine, Antony Gormley, Henry Moore, Sophie Ryder, Auguste Rodin, George Segal, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jonathan Borofsky, Mark di Suvero, and Claes Oldenburg, among others.

Beginning

The gardens and park began as a collaboration between the West Michigan Horticultural Society and Frederik and Lena Meijer.

"The story started out in the 1980s with a longstanding interest in botanical gardens in west Michigan," Becherer said.

West Michigan was an obvious choice because of the extensive produce-producing acreage.

"Betsy Borre was president of the horticultural society. She approached Fred Meijer. They needed two things — an angel and they needed land," Becherer said.

Because of Meijer's business — he and his father created Meijer Thrifty Acres — the company had significant land holdings and knowledge of acquiring land, Becherer said.

"Lena Meijer was interested in flowers and plants and gardens. Fred's passion was sculpture," he said.

A marriage of the two — horticulture and sculpture — began in 1990 when Meijer made a commitment of property and gifted land holdings to the society. Meijer's collection of Marshall Frederick's bronze sculptures could now be seen by the public. The two had built a relationship when Meijer commissioned Frederick to create a sculpture based on Hans Christian Anderson stories for Meijer's hometown, Greenville.

"They (the Meijer family) are down to earth and approachable. They live modestly. They are giving back to the community," Becherer said.

In April 1995, the gardens and park were opened at 1000 East Beltline. Michigan's largest tropical conservatory greeted guests, plus three indoor theme gardens, outdoor gardens, nature trails and a boardwalk, sculpture galleries and a permanent sculpture collection. The 15,000 square foot glass house is home to tropical plants from five continents, as well as the gift shop, cafe, auditorium, library and two meeting rooms.

Beginning with 71 acres donated by Meijer, the now enlarged park is barrier free and handicap accessible.

"It began with 36 or 37 sculptures, mostly Marshall Frederick. It was his (Meijer) own taste. We have 300 works and the visitation has expanded," Becherer said.

To date, some seven million visitors have had their senses stimulated by viewing 300 sculptures situated both outside and inside, heard a multitude of birds chirping among the natural vegetation habitats and inhaled the fragrances of trees, flowers and shrubs.

When it opened in 1995, the estimate was to host 78,000 people annually. In actuality, annually 600,000 people visit. And, Becherer said, last week, he just said goodbye to 110 Chinese visitors.

"It is a national destination," he said.

A destination to see eight colossal pieces defined as standing more than 23 feet tall, including the Alexander Liberman 42-foot tall "Aria."

In one grassy meadow is California-born Deborah Butter-field's mare. The sculpture began as wood scraps from an old barn and drift wood. Becherer said the sculpture was built, taken apart piece by piece and cast in bronze. A chemical was applied to produce the faded wooden color and to make it weather-proof because the grounds are open 362 days a year. The mare is tucked between the De Vos Van Andel Piazza, where the well-known 24-foot tall da Vinci bronze horse stands, and the sculpture park.

Nearly every year since its opening, a new attraction has been added. In 2000, indoor galleries were opened and the carnivorous plant house opened in 2001. Another 200 acres was gifted in the spring of 2014 from the Meijer family.

"We have no immediate plans for the new acreage. The gift is for long term," he said. "We have a very, very different freedom to become who we are."

While the site and sights have a secure future, today people can come for both the art and horticultural experiences and see how the two come together harmoniously in a pleasant day trip, Becherer said.

Extras:

There are six exhibits a year:

three sculpture showings in the galleries and

three horticulture exhibits and

42 Christmas and holiday traditions from around the world, both indoor and outdoor with 300,000 Christmas lights, horse-drawn carriage rides and educational activities.

Concerts are in the amphitheater garden.

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