From his office in historic Gates Hall, overlooking the beautifully maintained gardens of the Morris Arboretum, Paul Meyer need only make a couple clicks of the mouse to remind himself how far the Arboretum has come in the past 30 years.
Stored on Meyer’s computer are photographs of what the Arboretum grounds looked like a few decades back. The stately old buildings that today are so beautifully maintained were, back then, falling into serious disrepair; so badly had the old Morris mansion deteriorated that it had to be torn down in 1968. The garden features were overgrown. Old fountains had run dry. There wasn’t even a proper entrance to the place: Visitors had to park their cars on Chestnut Hill’s Hillcrest Avenue, then enter the grounds through a partially hidden back gate.
“The Arboretum was somewhat of a forgotten place,” says Meyer, who took his first job at the Arboretum in 1976 and has served as director since 1991. “But we’ve been slowly turning it around.”
That may be an understatement.
It should open next summer.
Compare those old photographs to what the Arboretum is today—one of the finest public gardens in America, drawing more than 100,000 visitors each year—and it’s almost difficult to believe it’s the same place.
Meyer has been here through all of it, and this year, will oversee a celebration that marks not only the Arboretum’s 75th anniversary as a part of Penn, but also the remarkable and ever-continuing rebirth of what was once the private estate of John and Lydia Morris. A private drive has built up the Arboretum’s endowment to more than $30 million, and this spring, the Arboretum will launch the public phase of the Always Growing campaign.
This month, the Arboretum will unveil a public art project that will see 300 10-foot tall poppies emerge along Northwestern Avenue, and continue planning for the soaring “canopy walk,” a planned exhibit where visitors, especially kids, will be able to literally walk among the treetops.
With so much going on, we recently joined Meyer for a drive around the Arboretum grounds and an update on all of the recent improvements—of which there are many. We began our tour, on Meyer’s golf cart, on a hill overlooking the Wissahickon Valley.
Q. We can see almost the entire property from up here. Tell me about where we’re located.
A. We’re looking out across the Wissahickon Valley and, really, it’s hard to imagine that we’re sitting right in the middle of the city of Philadelphia. We’re looking out over Northwestern Avenue and it seems like we’re out in the middle of the country. But the city goes out several miles. And if you think of the entire Philadelphia metropolitan area, the Arboretum sits right in the middle of it. To have this amount of open space here in the Wissahickon Valley—not just the Arboretum, but also Fairmount Park next door and the nearby Fort Washington State Park and then also the estate of the late Fitz Eugene Dixon, which is a fabulous open space we’re working to save—it’s an amazing asset. We are basically looking at the Central Park of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Q. The Arboretum has, by all accounts, changed dramatically in the past several decades. Can you give me an idea of just how much things have improved?
A. We’ve been really working from a master plan that was first developed back in 1978. This year is the 30th anniversary of that master plan and the 75th anniversary of the Arboretum being part of Penn. Probably more than any other institution I can think of, we’ve stuck to our master plan and have really been implementing it step by step.
Though the Arboretum became a public garden in 1933, not much was done to make the transition in a physical sense from a private estate to a public garden. The needs of one elderly couple [the Morrises] are quite different from the needs of 100,000 visitors coming to a public garden. And that’s really what the master plan was about—guiding that transition from a private estate to a public garden. In 1976, when I started here, there was no visitor’s center. This driveway did not exist. There was no parking lot. Our classrooms were in an unfinished basement. It was really tattered.
Q. Obviously, it’s a very different place today.
A. Yes. The driveway was installed. The parking lot—which is actually a sustainable parking lot; it’s water-permeable so the water can percolate back into the soil and replenish our groundwater—was installed. The old carriage house was adaptively reused as an education and visitor’s center. We put in a system of pathways that are actually handicap-accessible, because a huge part of our audience is multi-generational families. We have grandparents and we have kids. So some of our guests may need wheelchairs or may have some difficulty getting around, and we also have parents with their kids who might be in strollers. Well, this accessible path that was completed in 1995 was just really key for us to serve our audience. And then of course we went about restoring the many garden features that we have here.
Q. Speaking of which, one of the big new features you are now planning is the “canopy walk.” We’re overlooking that area now. Tell me what this is all about.
A. Well, ‘Tree Adventure’ is actually going to be an Arboretum-wide exhibit, with a number of different stations, but the iconic and most exciting part of it—and the part that everyone wants to talk about—is going to be ‘canopy walk.’ We’re going to go to the Trustees in June for final approval, then hopefully break ground in the fall and open for Memorial Day weekend next year.
This is not just an attraction, though. It’s an exhibit. The bottom line that we want to get across is: We need trees, and here’s why we need trees, and our trees need our help. Trees are central to our communities. Our arborists are going to go up in these trees and gently open things up and do some pruning to open up some views and vistas [for the walk]. There will be something called a bird’s nest—it’s suspended, leaning on something that looks like two chopsticks, and held up in place by two cables. The suspension bridge, meanwhile, will really be a suspension bridge. Everything will have a little give to it. It will be exciting. When we were planning this, we had families in to discuss it, and all of the kids of course said, ‘We want it to be dangerous’ while the parents said, ‘We want to be safe’ [laughs]. Well, we want it to be safe, too of course. It’s all carefully engineered. But because it will have that little bit of give to it, it’s going to convey a bit of danger that will be fun.
Q. This month you are launching the public phase of your capital campaign. How important is this for the Arboretum?
A. Well, we’re doing a public launching this month but you do a lot of building of a foundation before that launch. We’ve raised about $36 million in the campaign so far, toward our goal of $60 million. So we’ve been at this for a while, and a number of things have come in during the last few years. Included among them was the funding for the Pennock Flower Walk, which was installed about two years ago. Up above that is the Gayle Maloney Garden, which was first installed last spring. It wasn’t really until late summer that it really came into fruition. That involved not only a horticultural plan, but also a fair amount of paving and also the water works to restore the fountain. When that fountain was turned on last summer, it marked the first time since probably the 1930s that it was up and running. There’s a similar story with the Moorish fountain, which is just now being readied for the summer. That fountain was an idea the Morrises stole from the Alhambra. And with these kinds of things, you’re seeing the fruits of the capital campaign.
Q. How about your endowment? How healthy is it, and how does it compare to those of your peers?
A. The other key component of the campaign—and it’s something that you don’t think you see, but you do see—is about the building up of the endowment. Now, compared to our peers—that’s hard to say—because they’re all over the map. For example, if we were talking about the Holden Arboretum outside of Cleveland, their endowment probably exceeds $100 million. The Arnold Arboretum in Boston, which is part of Harvard, I can’t say exactly what it is but it’s probably close to $200 million. But then we also have some peers who barely have any endowment. We’re around $37 million. By comparison, we had about $6 million in 1991. We’ve really come a long way, and like I said, you don’t see it but you do see it—it’s that extra income from the endowment that is allowing us to really care for the Arboretum at a much higher level. We have endowed internships now. We’ve endowed the curator’s chair in this campaign. The Pennock Garden is endowed. We also have a new endowment that is strictly for unrestricted operating support. That was funded by one of our late board members, who used to say sort of half-jokingly: ‘I want to make sure Paul has enough money to pay the electric bill.’
Q. Along the same lines, how important are volunteers for you?
A. If you counted everyone who volunteers once in the course of a year, we probably have about 400 people who help out. But if you just look at our Wednesday morning volunteer group, who are here most every Wednesday [and help with gardening/maintenance], that’s probably about 30. We also have about 100 volunteer docents that lead people through the grounds and do all kinds of different programs for us. One of the things we’re doing recently is, on days of very heavy visitation, having different stations set up where docents have objects or other things that kids can learn about or feel or stop and chat about.
Q. Speaking of kids, tell me about the Garden Railway, which is one of your most popular features and will open again this summer.
A. The trains are about bringing in families. Kids love the trains. We want kids to want to come here. But the thing is, we’ve heard about the ‘nature deficiency syndrome.’ So many kids today—and I really believe this is right on the money—spend their lives in front of their televisions or in front of a computer or with their Gameboy. They don’t grow up the way I grew up, running around in the woods.
Q. We’re crossing Northwestern Avenue now and heading across to the Arboretum’s Bloomfield Farm property, which is where your maintenance facility is located. How will the planned new Horticulture Center, which will house staff and host public events, improve things?
A. Right now, Bloomfield is serving part of its function, but it’s serving it poorly. This [maintenance] building was built in 1982, with the idea that it would eventually be extended and expanded. We’ve been working on that idea for a long time, but the reason [expansion] hasn’t happened yet is that we’ve always put the public first. We have always told the staff, ‘You just have to wait a year.’ But finally we said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ This building will stay but it will obviously get a big facelift with the expansion.
Q. I have to ask about this new entrance—it’s a great improvement over the old one.
A. There were so many reasons for the new entrance. This was a very big campaign project.
What was here before was kind of a temporary gate, and it was problematic because it was so close to the road and there were these two small one-lane roads—one inbound and one outbound. It was too narrow. Turning a school bus or a tour bus—which are important for us—was difficult. And so once or twice a year, a bus would get hung up on the fence. It would do $3,000 in damage to the bus and $2,000 to the fence. And it wasn’t a very welcoming thing for visitors, either. So with this new gate, we did better signage, better lighting. We made it wider. It’s more welcoming. We pulled the whole thing back away from the road. And we’re getting some really nice comments about it. The beds are being designed by one of our interns—it’s actually her internship project—and she’s going to focus on native meadow flowers. The beds will look like these big meadows, but with more wildflowers mixed in.
Q. Finally, for those in the Penn community who may not know where you’re located, care to offer a friendly invite?
A. Certainly. I don’t think people realize, they can actually get on their bike, hop on the Schuylkill Trail, take Walnut Street or Chestnut Street, go right up the Wissahickon and you’re here. Really, I’ve biked from our property here to the Art Museum, and it took just about 50 minutes at about 14 miles per hour, which really isn’t all that fast on a bike. We’re really accessible, actually, for students or other energetic people. They can hop on their bike, come on out to the Arboretum, park their bikes and enjoy the gardens. Then they can grab a drink at Bruno’s [on-site café], hop on their bike and head back home.
Originally published April 24, 2008