Muscatine Art Center to preserve and restore Japanese Garden

MUSCATINE, Iowa–In 1929, Laura Musser McColmb’s Japanese Garden added a fashionable outdoor gathering space to the spacious grounds of her property. Photos from the Muscatine Art Center, now housed in the Musser mansion, show the Muscatine Garden Club meeting in the Japanese Garden. Rare video footage of the Century Club gathered in the garden gives an unparalleled peek into the past and highlights the garden’s popularity throughout the 1930s.

With the coming of the Second World War and the anti-Japanese sentiments it created, many gardeners removed their Japanese gardens or let them fall into disrepair. However, Musser preserved hers, quite possibly making it the last Japanese-style garden in the State of Iowa, according to the work of Beth Cody, a researcher studying the garden thanks to a Humanities Iowa grant.

Musser’s care did not entirely protect the garden from the hands of time. In the 1950s or 60s, after she moved away from her home, Yews added to the garden blocked out much of the space’s natural light. Later, the pump that ran the garden’s water features broke. Subsequent gardeners changed the kinds of plants grown in the garden, giving it a very different feel than Musser intended for it.

Over the years, staff at the Art Center knew they wanted to do something with the Japanese Garden. However, they knew restoring it represented a huge undertaking and would require both funding and expert knowledge.

In 2019, the Art Center took the first steps towards restoring the garden by contacting Iowa State University Professor Heidi Hohmann and inviting her to create a historic landscape preservation plan, which she did in summer 2020.

With the plan in hand, the Muscatine Art Center applied for and received a $122,402 grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the National Park Services, which provided only four other such grants throughout the state. The grant will enable the Art Center to restore the pump and get the water features working again; mend the garden’s décor or replace it with reproductions; improve the handrails and bridges and help them better fit in with the garden’s original look; preserve several original stone features of the garden and excavate many of the rock features covered with mulch over the years; and update the paths into the garden to bring back the original one and to make a new one well suited to those who need a more accessible entrance.

Though the bulk of the actual restoration will take place in 2022, the Art Center will begin laying the groundwork for the project this summer. To that end, they will commission an archeological study of the site. They will then put out a request for proposals to landscaping firms and choose a company to carry out Hohmann’s plan. In the fall, Cody will complete her research, and the Art Center will publish a booklet about the history of the garden and hold several public programs about it, helping the public to understand the goals of the restoration and to get them excited about it.

With the Japanese Garden project only just beginning, Art Center Director Melanie Alexander anticipates it will take a lot of time and effort to restore, but that the results will prove stunning. “I’m glad we have Heidi as a resource and that we can give the garden the care it needs,” she shared. “The workload will be heavier, but it’ll be worth it in the end.”