CLEVELAND: Most folks in Northeast Ohio have heard of the Botanical Gardens, but far fewer are aware of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens.
And yet the Cultural Gardens are among Cleveland’s most unique assets.
Located in Rockefeller Park on the city’s east side, the public gardens consist of over 30 distinct gardens, each commemorating a different ethnic group, nation or cultural identity whose members have contributed to the heritage of the United States and Cleveland. Cultural figures and icons in a variety of materials are represented. And each garden’s landscaping suggests the particular country or nationality for which it is named.
The gardens were originally conceived in 1916 and were to feature literary figures. The first garden honored William Shakespeare and featured British icons and landscaping.
In 1926, Clevelander Leo Weidenthal altered the character slightly from literary to cultural when he planted the Hebrew Garden, the first ethnic garden.
His purpose was to get nationality groups working with each other and learning more about each other’s cultures.
This came at a time when recent immigrant groups often carved out self-imposed ghettos, where they lived and rarely interacted with other groups or learned other languages or cultures.
The gardens were a great success from their earliest years. The unusual project had almost universal political, media and civic support that only grew with time.
That support became critical when the original plan to have each nationality group fund its own garden became unrealistic amid the hardships of the Great Depression.
The city of Cleveland came to the project’s rescue, channeling federal money and manpower through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) into building the remaining 13 of the original 15 planned gardens.
Since the WPA years, the number of gardens has continued to increase as new immigrant groups to the region fund their own gardens and take pride in their heritage.
In 1936, the American Legion Peace Garden was added, inspired by veterans of World War I.
The last garden to be added, the Albanian garden, was dedicated Sept. 22, 2012, and features a bronze statue of Mother Teresa — one of the most well known Albanians — by noted Albanian sculptor Kreshnik Xhiku.
Ben Stefanski, president of the Polish Cultural Garden Committee, said, “there’s nothing else in the world quite like these gardens. I’m so pleased that more and more people have been coming out to visit them in the past few years.”
According to Stefanski, funds are being raised to create a Norwegian garden, a Russian garden and an African-American garden.
Stefanski has been an active fundraiser and champion of the gardens for many years. He is currently working to replace lost statues of John Hay and Abraham Lincoln that once stood in the American garden. Hay was the secretary of state under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt and also served in the Lincoln administration.
The oldest and largest gardens are along East Boulevard from St. Clair Avenue on the north to Superior Avenue on the south. The newer ones are along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, starting just north of St. Clair, continuing to Superior on the south. An exception is the Chinese garden that is also along MLK Jr. Blvd but located halfway between Chester Avenue and East 105th Street, across from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Wade Park Lagoon.
The gardens extend roughly 1½ miles on both MLK Jr. and East Boulevards.
To reach the gardens, take the MLK Jr. Drive exit off I-90 and proceed south for 0.4 mile to where the gardens begin.
To schedule group tours, contact Mary Hamlin, coordinator for Cultural Gardens tours and speakers at 440-461-2533 or firstname.lastname@example.org. A self-guided tour pamphlet is available for download at http://culturalgardens.org/documents/TourSelfRev6-3-2012.pdf.