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Behind the Scenes at Bloedel Reserve

November 7th, 2010

Shortly after I published a previous article detailing the impact of my first visit to the sublime Bloedel Reserve, I received a lovely note from Ed Moydell, the reserve’s new Executive Director. It seems that he and I shared something in common — we were both deeply moved by our first impressions of Bloedel and we both wished that more people outside the gardening community knew about the place. In pursuit of the latter, Ed offered to take Sara and I on a behind the scenes tour of the grounds, where we took in the sights and smells of Fall as we discussed the past and, more importantly, the future of Bloedel Reserve.

Bloedel Reserve is luckier than most organizations and experiences that are vying for the attention of people these days in that not only is the place itself amazing, but it has an incredible history — a rich genesis story of family, love, art, forestry, and architecture that is fun to turn around in your head as you reflect on what the place means to you.

Narrative such as these offer an avenue for understanding and sympathy that, in turn, leads to deeply felt connection on a personal level. For instance, there’s a reason why a whole new crowd of people all of a sudden wanted to go see Prince live in concert after the semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain came out. The fact is, that once you give something a context — a framework for understanding — even the best experiences somehow seem better and more interesting. It’s a fact that concerts seem better when you know the words to the songs, but they seem doubly awesome when you feel like you know the performers themselves. More locally, one of the smallest, slowest towns around — Forks, WA — became a tourist destination just because it was the setting for vampire love in the Twilight book series. People naturally try to project a narrative onto everything they encounter, and they love it when that narrative already exists. Bloedel Reserve might not quite have vampires (or Prince), but the place does have a story to tell.

Bloedel does have challenges, though, as they try to start a conversation with a new group of would-be visitors. Even though they’ve got the charm and the pedigree, getting the word out to a new generation that may not exactly be open to hearing anything about a “garden” is a challenging project, to be sure. How do you make a place like Bloedel sound relevant to people before they experience it for themselves? How do you communicate the poignant environments, the history, the architecture, and the unmistakable feeling (energetically relaxed?) this place instills in you? Is this a brand you can deliver on with just history and a walk through the grounds, or do you have to add another layer or two to the experience? What are those other layers? Parties? Picnics? Concerts? Lectures? Interactive Video? How many layers can you add before you’re not telling the same story anymore?

You can’t shout a bedtime story, but there’s always a way to get more people to hear you without sacrificing the effect of what you’re saying. In today’s hyper-connected world, people are learning that they don’t necessarily have to talk louder to spread a story. Instead, they try to get the community to retell the story amongst themselves. Going viral is the new network TV. Fortunately for Bloedel, a good story is first ingredient in this elusive recipe.

Anyway, this challenge — of perception, appeal, and publicity — is one of the many things we discussed with Ed while we were on our walk. We also talked a lot about the recent improvements and future plans for the grounds at Bloedel.

A big draw of the Bloedel experience is the way that you almost feel like you’ve got the place to yourself as you explore its vast acreage. In order to increase the amount of visitors to the Reserve — and still retain this feeling of solitude — the park is on a trajectory to add even more pathways and open up more areas of the grounds to the public. One of the most exciting is called Fern Hill.

Fern Hill is on the eastern side of the grounds down the hill from the main house and close to the water. Once it is open, you will be able to enjoy numerous vistas overlooking Puget Sound as you wind your way through the ferns and giant trees of the forest. Adding more opportunities for ocean views highlights another unique and very ‘Northwestern’ aspect of Bloedel Reserve. When I think of this part of the country, the combination of water with lush green forests is very much at the front of my mind. This is a tiny slice of Puget Sound in its most elemental state.

At the end of our tour, Ed brought Sara and I into the guest house in the middle of the Japanese garden. A building tailor-made for hosting, this low-slung retreat is a nexus of glass, wood, and paper. If Mad Men’s Bert Cooper was looking for a vacation home on Bainbridge Island, this building would certainly do the trick. The place, designed by architect Paul Hayden Kirk, is amazing — possessing of a feeling of structure and openness that stems from the fact that none of the interior rooms are completely walled off. The open floor plan coupled with the 360 degree wrap-around porch makes this house the ultimate place to throw a soiree.

Outside, a zen rock garden calms the spot where the swimming pool used to be. Family friend and Pulitzer prize winning poet Theodore Roethke drowned here in 1963, the victim of a heart attack. The family ordered the pool filled in the very next day. There is no plaque, but the mysterious power of this hidden history lends this part of the garden a dark but redemptive essence.

In fact, it is easy to imagine that you are being accompanied by various spirits as you walk the grounds of the reserve. This is a place where people lived, and in many ways it feels occupied still. Perhaps Ed should set up a summer movie night where everyone can sit on the lawn and watch My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki’s lively ode to forest spirits, friendship, and family. This might be a fun way to introduce a whole new generation to the wonder and the magic that the natural world communicates to those that take the time to listen.

Bloedel Reserve is a truly a place for wonder and magic. Go Listen.


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Bloedel’s Retreat

September 7th, 2010

This past weekend, Sara and I rode our bikes onto the ferry to Bainbridge Island and headed out to spend the afternoon exploring the peaceful acreage of Bloedel Reserve.

In the 80′s, Prentice and Virginia Bloedel opened their former home to the public as a collection of gardens. Like all gardens, it is a curated, supernatural experience of nature. As if listening to a ‘greatest hits’ record of natural beauty, walking the grounds was an inspired dialogue  for someone left, too often, without the time or patience to seek out these sublime combinations in the wilderness. Unlike most other gardens, however, Bloedel Reserve is big enough to come across like the real thing. It is at once both wild and tamed — anarchic and groomed. It manages to be represent both inspiration and artwork all rolled into one.

One has the suspicion that the unique flavor of Bloedel Reserve has its roots in the union of personalities that birthed it. Prentice and Virginia were possessed of two very different sensibilities when it came to the things they fancied. Prentice was part of the Bloedel family — owners of a far reaching timber empire. He was Yale educated and, as a young man, desired to teach, but he was lured back into the family business. The way that he took to the industry, however, suggests that it may have the been the job he was born to do. He pioneered the economical practice of using sawdust and other mill “wastes” as fuel as well as the practice of reforestation of lands that were logged by planting saplings as the land was cleared. Overall, one gets the impression that he loved nature, the woods, and promoted man’s responsible and economical use of natural resources. He was attracted to the grounds that became the reserve because of its large acreage and rugged beauty.

Virginia Bloedel, however, fell in love with the French-style main house that occupied the plot (the Bloedels purchased the land and main house in the early 1950′s). She was lover of beauty and order. She filled the house with art and Louis XVI style furniture. She passed her love of art on to her daughter (also named Virginia), who ended up collecting (with her husband Bagley Wright) the bulk of what is now the Modern collection of the Seattle Art Museum. All the parts of the estate that seem to have an ordered class and an European beauty I attribute to Ma Bloedel.

There is a reflecting pool (pictured top) in the center of the grounds. It was the Bloedel’s favorite place to hang out in the garden. A single bench sits at one end of the pool, and a vase of bright flowers sits at the other. It’s a surprising venue for quiet contemplation.

The large shallow pool was built with the guidance of landscape designer Thomas Church and was later reworked by Richard Haag, who added a tall rectangular hedge around the whole thing. In a way, this place encapsulates the spirit of the entire Reserve — the surprising presence of man’s mind and hand in the middle of wild forest.

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