Thursday, August 28, 2014


3829 Busse Street is the address of my childhood home, in the middle of a working class neighborhood on Madison's far eastside. We were in spitting distance from the C&P grocery store, one of Madison's first mega groceries; at least that's how I remember it. In front of us were a couple more streets serving as a buffer to the farmland that lay beyond. Behind us was Atwood Avenue; all we had to do was cross the avenue to get to Olbrich Park. The park of my memory was a long sandy beach with a couple of lifeguard stands and a changing house with a concession stand. As kids we were sent to the beach for swimming lessons the city provided. I don't remember my parents ever going with us. I guess they thought we'd either learn or sink. It didn't seem to matter which option was the winning one I was the first, they had four more for backup.
The park stretched from the East Side Businessmen's, around to Starkweather Creek, across the creek and just beyond the hill where Oscar Mayer would set up its toboggan run in the winter, a huge scaffolded structure lined with blocks of ice and big enough to hold an eight man toboggan. The area on the other side of Atwood between the abandoned sugar beet factory and the Hungry, Hungry, Hungry an A&W drive-in with carhops who brought your frosted mugs of rootbeer to your car on metal trays that attached to the driver's window. I don't remember thinking this area on the other side of Atwood Avenue had anything to do with Ohlbrich. It was a pretty seedy area.
The plan for the park and garden that I knew nothing of as a kid had begun decades ago at the beginning of the 20th Century by a local lawyer, Michael Balthazar Olbrich. Once I saw his picture my gaydar went into full tilt the Geiger counter needle shaking like a leaf. I looked up his bio and couldn't find anything about a wife. He ended his life in suicide at the age of forty-eight. For me, the signs are there.

The man loved nature and the less fortunate. He had the vision to see a connection and Ohlbrich Gardens has become his legacy."No greater mistake can be made than the belief that taste and esthetic sense is a monopoly of the merely well-to-do or purely a product of formal schooling. The park proposed is intended primarily to bring back into the life of the worker confronted by the dismal industrial tangle, whose forces we all so little comprehend, something of the grace and beauty that nature intended us all to share. For this park has not a passive, but an active function. It is not to stand aloof, a treasure of the city, beautiful, still, reserved. This park above all others, with a warmth and strength of love - of love of all the working world - should hold out its arms, should invite them to itself, until its naturalness and beauty enter into their lives."
Michael Balthazar Ohlbrich, 1921
It took thirty plus years from the inaugural granting of the land that was to become the park to the first shovel establishing the gardens as more than a dream in the heart of Michael Ohlbrich.
From there the gardens have grown to become one of the ten most important gardens in the U.S.
A Rose Garden, a Perennial Garden, an Herb Garden, and an All-American Garden are just a few of the jewels in this botanical crown that now covers more than sixteen acres.
An extended set of administrative, convention and event buildings along with major greenhouses also occupy the site.
In 1991, the Bolz Conservatory was opened. The diamond-domed structure is a year round attraction housing tropical flora.
In an area of the country where almost half the year hovers around the too cold to swim zone, the ability to romp around in a jungle is a life saving opportunity.
The current crown jewel and karmic soul of the garden is the Thai Pavilion. The Pavilion was donated to the University of Wisconsin by the University's Thai Alumni Association. It was the University's decision to have the pavilion placed in the Ohlbrich gardens. The pavilion was built in Thailand by local artisans out of plantation grown teak and weather-resistance ceramic tile.
A coat of gold leaf ornaments the supports.
The ceiling is a blessing of symbolic Thai rosettes. The miracle of the Pavilion is its travel story. After the pavilion had been built then disassembled, packed and loaded on a boat for transport to Madison the artisans who built the sala were put onto a plane to come to United States and reassemble the pavilion. They boarded the flight to Chicago on September 11, 2001. They were the last flight allowed to land in Chicago.
While chaos had stunned an entire world a peaceful group of Thai artisans were taken by bus to assemble a small monument to peace in a garden far from the violence of the day.
It became a talisman of serenity and love for a garden built on a piece of landfill next to a polluted creek.

Orchid, 1987
Robert Mapplethorpe, photographer
Represented by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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