Mary Jane Dunlap

Preserving the Garden of Eden a soul-searching business for KU artist

Thu, 08/25/2011

In the early 1900s, at age 64, S.P. Dinsmoor began construction of his Cabin Home and Garden of Eden using ladders and makeshift scaffolding. Conservators with the Kohler Foundation of Wisconsin used a power hoist to work on the taller portions of Dinsmoor's art. (Photo credit: Erika Nelson: Friends of S.P. Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden)

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LAWRENCE — In the early 1900s, an eccentric Civil War veteran, Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, labored more than 20 years constructing his home and mausoleum in central Kansas, naming it “The Garden of Eden” and charging visitors for tours.

Dinsmoor’s showplace in Lucas, Kan., endures today as “one of the world’s top 10 grassroots landmarks,” said John Hachmeister, a University of Kansas associate professor of visual art, who has been a primary force in preserving the aging and weathered landmark for 23 years.

In October, the Garden of Eden will have the freshly minted look it did when Dinsmoor constructed it, thanks to the Kohler Foundation of Wisconsin.

Hachmeister had asked the Foundation for funding three years ago, but he had to back away from the Foundation’s initial offer.

Renowned for its arts and education mission specializing in outdoor art environments, Kohler Foundation policy requires ownership of properties as gifts or purchases during the restoration process. Once completed, the Foundation gives the site to a nonprofit to be its caretaker.

In the case of the Garden of Eden, the Foundation wanted to close it during restoration. Hachmeister felt the site was too important to the economy of Lucas to close it. The Garden and its farm community were like family.

“There were moments when selling the Garden was like setting a child out on the curb,” he said.

Hachmeister had purchased the Garden of Eden in 1988 by forming a corporation and selling shares. His motivation then had been to keep Dinsmoor’s work intact – to avoid having it dismantled and sold piecemeal to art dealers.

Grassroots art – also called visionary, idiosyncratic or outsider art – tends to be work by self-taught artists using whatever materials may be at hand. Dinsmoor, who had been a farmer, school teacher and lawyer, used Portland cement and screen wire to sculpt his garden. These artists often start late in life – Dinsmoor was 64 when he started his Garden of Eden. Their art often communicates a political or religious message – Dinsmoor’s structures reflect both biblical and populist themes.

Hachmeister, who began teaching sculpting and metal casting at KU in 1994, knew a lot about grassroots art, but little about the business of maintaining a rural arts landmark.

Looking back, he said: “We were under-capitalized. We never had a dividend. There was never enough money to do major work.

“When I started this, I had no idea how much time it would take.”

In 23 years, he wore out two cars making trips to and from his home near Lawrence to Lucas – a 420-mile roundtrip.

In time, Lucas residents began to support the tourist potential of the Garden of Eden. In the 1990s, the town raised $70,000 to transform three abandoned storefronts into a Grassroots Arts Center, creating a second major tourist attraction. Unlike many farm communities west of Topeka whose economies and populations are dwindling, Lucas has become a destination spot for art patrons and the curious.

“Grassroots art and tourism has become the third wheel of the economic engine that runs the community,” Hachmeister said. The Garden of Eden primed that engine. To close it during restoration just wasn’t an option.

Kohler’s executive director, Terri Yoho, understood.

So the Foundation offered again to buy the Garden of Eden but to keep it open during restoration. This August, all legal hurdles were cleared, and the Foundation owned the site. Once restoration is completed, Kohler Foundation will give the site to a newly formed nonprofit: the Friends of S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden.

Hachmeister formed the new nonprofit with Erika Nelson, an artist educator, KU arts alumna and Lucas resident. Nelson’s grassroots specialty – The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things – landed her a guest appearance on the Conan O’Brien’s TV show last December.

Nelson and Hachmeister serve with two others on the four-member board of the new nonprofit: Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of KU’s Spencer Museum of Art; and Doug Hickman, retired bank executive in Lucas.

“Having the site so wonderfully restored eases the load,” Hachmeister said.

Kohler Foundation has rented two houses in Lucas and dispatched a team of conservators to the farm community located off Interstate-70, about a 3.5-hour drive west of Kansas City. They have also hired two of Hachmeister’s students and two KU arts alumni to work on the restoration.

“The Garden of Eden is one of the top outdoor environments in the country. It is one of highest profiled sites that we’ve ever worked on,” Yoho said.

It is also the first site that Kohler has restored where the original artist is still there.

“He is our first mummy, but not our conservator’s first mummy,” Yoho noted.

Dinsmoor and his first wife are entombed in the mausoleum he built. When he died at the age of 89 in 1932, Dinsmoor requested his body be placed in a glass-topped cement coffin that he built with his plan to attract pay-for-view visitors. In part he wanted to provide for his family after death. In part, he had a message to convey. Maybe he knew that if he built it, they would be coming for years to come.

Congrats to Noah Ries, another @kucollege student and the recipient of the Rusty Leffel Concerned Student Award.…

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