OPINION | REX NELSON: Out of the woods

Garvan Woodland Gardens and the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design are working together to illuminate the future of forestry in Arkansas.

Peter MacKeith, dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, is animated as we eat lunch outside at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs.

We're surrounded by tall pine trees, and MacKeith is obviously in his element. When this internationally recognized educator came to Arkansas in 2014, no one could have guessed that the Fay Jones School would play a leading role in efforts to revitalize the Arkansas timber industry.

The industry is especially vital to the economy here in the south half of Arkansas, where the vast majority of counties are losing population.

"After I came to Arkansas, this was the first place I visited outside of Fayetteville," MacKeith says on a busy Wednesday as visitors fill the tables around us at the outdoor cafe. "I met here with alumni, benefactors and friends of the university. People sometimes ask me why a woodlands garden is a part of the Fay Jones School. It's unique, but it's essential to our mission.

"Being in a woodlands garden forces us to contemplate the forest. And that contemplation leads us to realize the role the forest plays in this state. We're the only school of architecture and design in Arkansas, and we must serve all of Arkansas. Some places have desert gardens or water gardens. It's appropriate that Arkansas has a woodlands garden."

The 210-acre botanical garden is near Lake Hamilton. In the 1920s, Malvern businessman Arthur Cook purchased the property. He planned to harvest the timber for use at his flooring mill, Wisconsin-Arkansas Lumber. When Harvey Couch's Arkansas Power & Light Co. constructed Carpenter Dam and created Lake Hamilton, the land became a large peninsula.

Cook died in an automobile accident in 1934. His two companies--Wisconsin-Arkansas Lumber and Malvern Brick & Tile--went to his wife and two daughters. The younger daughter, Verna, managed Malvern Brick & Tile with her second husband, Patrick Garvan, before selling it to Acme Brick in the 1970s.

According to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "The allure of the property inspired Verna Garvan to become a self-taught gardener and conservationist. She spent more than 30 years creating a personal garden highlighting Arkansas' natural beauty. The dream of a home on her prized peninsula was abandoned when Patrick became ill and died in 1975. Gardening became Garvan's passion.

"As she continued to develop the grounds after her husband's death, she decided the garden should be shared with the public. She enlisted the help of longtime Malvern Brick & Tile employee Warren Bankson to assist with her vision of a public facility. They constructed infrastructure and planted thousands of native and exotic trees, shrubs and plants. She named her landscaped creation the 20th Century Gardens."

Verna Garvan signed a trust agreement with the university in November 1985. The school's landscape architecture program agreed to operate the gardens with the understanding that Garvan would control the property until her death.

Garvan commissioned architects Fay Jones and Maurice Jennings to design the garden's first structure, an open-air pavilion made of wood and native stone. Garvan died in October 1993 while the pavilion was being constructed.

"In 1990, UA appointed landscape architecture assistant professor Judy Brittenum, who was assisted by visiting instructor Bob Byers, to work with Garvan and Bankson in documenting the plants, facilities and landscapes in preparation for future studies," the encyclopedia notes. "Engineering professor David Knowles was responsible for the detailed survey of the 210 acres. In 1994, Byers was hired full time as garden curator and resident landscape architect. Bankson was appointed garden superintendent.

"Behnke & Associates, a Cleveland-based landscape architecture and consulting firm, was contracted by UA in 1996 to create a 25-year master plan for the gardens. The plan was completed in 1999, and implementation began in March 2000 with construction of the Garden of the Pine Wind, a rock-and-stream garden."

In its third year of operation, the Garden of the Pine Wind was ranked by the Journal of Japanese Gardening as the 15th highest-ranking Japanese garden out of 300 in North America. In 2000, the name of the complex was changed to Garvan Woodland Gardens. The Hot Springs architectural firm French Harris constructed a wood-and-stone welcome center.

Six years later, the $5.8 million Anthony Chapel was named in honor of benefactors John Ed and Isabel Burton Anthony. The chapel, along with the Millsap Bride's Hall, Evans Groom's Quarters and 57-foot Anthony Family Carillon, were designed by Jennings and architect David McKee of Fayetteville.

MacKeith and I finish lunch and walk to the original pavilion. We then head to the Bob and Sunny Evans Children's Adventure Garden Tree House, which opened in the summer of 2018. Designed by Modus Studio in Fayetteville, it nestles in the trees of the children's garden.

CDI of Little Rock constructed the tree house. Tres Fromme of 3 Fromme Design in Florida designed interpretive learning elements, some of which were created by sculptor Dan Jennison of Texas.

Bettina Lehovec described the tree house this way in an article for the Fay Jones School's in-house magazine: "It seems to float in a small group of white oak and pine, its five levels depicting the strata of tree life. Each level is devoted to a distinct aspect of tree growth, from roots to trunk and branches to foliage and flowers to fruit. Interpretive learning elements in the form of sculpture and art encourage children to explore these concepts in a visual and tactile way.

"A pebble mosaic in the root plaza traces a network of roots from the base of the tree house to a nearby pond, for example. A bronze cardinal on the second level demonstrates seed dispersal in a way that's both memorable and fun. ... A garden design advisory board made up of garden staff, garden members and Fay Jones School faculty worked with Josh Siebert of Modus Studio on the design."

Garden director Becca Ohman told the magazine: "We wanted to create a place for children to experience and engage nature. The vision was to combine interactive learning elements and architecture and the forest--all three components working togather to tell the story of the woodland."

When MacKeith came to Arkansas in 2014, he added an emphasis at Garvan on dendrology, the study of trees and other woody plants.

From 1999-2014, MacKeith was professor of architecture and associate curator for architecture and design for the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He served from 1995-99 at Helsinki University of Technology in Finland. In 1990, MacKeith had received a Fulbright fellowship to Finland, where the timber industry is essential to the economy.

MacKeith was honorary consul for Finland in Missouri from 2012-14, and in 2014 was installed as Knight First Class of the Order of the Lion of Finland in recognition of his contributions to the advancement of Finnish culture. He understands the parallels between Finland and Arkansas, a state in which 56 percent of the land is covered by forests.

Arkansas has the largest national forest footprint in the South with 2.5 million acres within the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest and Ouachita National Forest. Both pine and hardwood are growing far faster than they're being removed.

According to the Arkansas Center for Forest Business at the University of Arkansas at Monticello: "Net timber growth continues to exceed harvest by more than 18 million tons annually, which will keep fiber resource costs low for the near future. Expansion and interest in the forest resources of the state remain strong."

In 2016, the Fay Jones School and the Arkansas Forest Resources Center of the UA System's Division of Agriculture received a grant of almost $250,000 from the U.S. Forest Service. It helped fund a project titled From Forest to Campus: The Innovative Timber University. MacKeith wanted UA to take the lead in areas such as the use of cross-laminated timber for construction and wood pellets for heating multistory residential facilities.

MacKeith said at the time: "These funds represent a significant step forward in our initiatives in advanced timber and wood design technologies. ... The funds are the stimulus for larger statewide economic development."

MacKeith sees Garvan playing a role in those efforts. He wants this beautiful place, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, to be about more than plants, gardening and landscape architecture. It will also be a place to learn about Arkansas forests and their role in the economy.

Ross and Mary Whipple of Arkadelphia, who own thousands of acres of timberland, gave $2 million to construct the Whipple Family Forest Education Center at Garvan. An additional $250,000 gift from Arkadelphia native Peggy Clark, who hails from an old south Arkansas timber family, will support the Clark Family Exhibition in Timber and Wood and the Clark Family Endowed Scholarships in Timber and Wood Design.

The UA has established a graduate degree program known as the master of design studies, which includes a concentration in integrated wood design.

A third gift of $750,000 from the Ross Foundation of Arkadelphia will support programming for a forest and sustainability institute. The foundation was founded in 1967 by Esther Clark Ross and her daughter Jane Ross. The initial endowment consisted of 18,000 acres of timberland that had been part of the estate of J.G. Clark, Jane Ross' grandfather.

The 5,000-square-foot Whipple Family Forest Education Center will serve as an environmental education facility and economic development tool for south Arkansas. Constructed of Arkansas timber, the center will house the Fay Jones School's summer design camp and be the home of public programs designed to build appreciation of the timber industry.

According to the school, the Clark gift "will fund the research, design, installation and maintenance of a permanent exhibition demonstrating the character and attributes of Arkansas forests. The exhibit will focus on their importance to the historical, societal, environmental and economic development within the state, with recognition given to the role of forest communities and the importance of stewardship and sustainable management."

The gifts were announced in November 2019. In 2020, more than 70 UA students came to Garvan to help with site selection. Seven sites were chosen as finalists.

By the summer of 2020, the list had been narrowed to three sites. The students determined the best location for the Whipple Family Forest Education Center was an overflow gravel parking lot. Ohman describes the center as the third major element of Garvan, along with the garden/welcome center and the Anthony Chapel.

"This place will connect people who have long been involved in the forest products industry," MacKeith says. "We'll show how the character of the forest overlays with various economic, cultural and social aspects of life in Arkansas. It has always been about more than architecture to me. When I first met with Ross Whipple, I'm sure he wondered why he was hanging out with the dean of the architecture school.

"We need our students to understand how we use the forest. I hope we can have everything open here by 2024. The future of forestry is in the American South. And this is one of the most heavily forested states in the South. The more we grasp those facts, the more we'll accomplish as a state. People here and elsewhere are just now becoming aware of what Arkansas can do."