Curious Cbus: What's The Story Behind Topiary Park?

Jul 3, 2017

This story is part of the Curious Cbus project. You ask the questions, you vote for one of the questions and we answer. Linda Blaine asked, "Whose idea was Topiary Park and who created it?"

In a patch of green space near downtown Columbus, families spend a bright summer morning admiring bushes - but not just any bushes. These carefully trimmed plants depict men and women dressed in the fashions of the late 1800s. 

They stand in the Topiary Park, a small garden full of figures cut out of shrubs and arranged to mimic the scene in Georges Seurat’s famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon On The Isle Of La Grande Jatte." 

“It’s a little treasure in the southeast part of downtown,” says Tom Diehl, who frequents the garden with his two daughters. “The girls like the figurines, made out of the plants. They like looking for the fish in the pond. The openness of it is another thing.”

Diehl and his family have been coming to Topiary Park for the past 10 or 15 years, but the history of the park extends far beyond that.

In fact, in the early 1800s before the area was a garden, it was a school for the deaf, says Carlene Palmquist, who directs Friends of the Topiary Park, the nonprofit responsible for raising money to maintain the garden.

“Ohio, interestingly enough, was one of the first states in the union to really have a school for the deaf,” Palmquist says.

Credit Topiary Park

Back then, Palmquist says the area was less than exciting, but it got even blander in the 1960s when the school moved and abandoned the property.

“The building sat unoccupied for many, many years and then, once they decided to do something for the AmeriFlora convention coming to town, they decided this would be the perfect location for something,” Palmquist says.

The AmeriFlora convention was a Columbus celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. With floral exhibits and outdoor horticultural displays, the six-month celebration attracted millions of visitors from around the world.

Part of the elaborate garden exhibition was the Topiary Garden, the brainchild of Jim and Elaine Mason. Jim was a local sculptor, and both he and his wife worked with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department.

After sharing their idea with the director of the department, they received widespread support from the surrounding community to create the green space.

“Jim was an artist, and Elaine was an artist too, but a different kind of artist. She was the first topiarist. We like to say the brains behind the garden,” Palmquist says. “She came up with the idea of the topiary and she put Jim to work creating over 50 characters out there.”

Topiary Park was crafted to resemble Georges Seurat's iconic 1884 painting.
Credit Topiary Park/Wikimedia Commons

Topiary, by the way, is the practice of clipping plants into shapes

For four years in the late 80s and early 90s, the pair brought to life every character in Seurat’s famous painting – women with parasols, men in top hats, dogs and even pet monkeys.

“They talked about a lot of different paintings, but if you know this painting, you’ll notice that all of the figures are sort of individual, which means that they would be easy to represent in a garden by putting a single plant to represent each character,” Palmquist says.

This year, Topiary Park is celebrating its 25th anniversary, complete with a fundraiser on Bastille Day. It serves as an oasis for patients at the nearby Grant Medical Center, a popular lunch spot for local workers, and a fun place for school children on summer vacation.

Julia Moore visits Topiary Park with her grandmother, Wendie Pfaff.
Credit Erin Gottsacker

Julia Moore, for example, recently stopped by for the first time while visiting her grandmother in Columbus.

“It’s very pretty and there’s so much detail everywhere,” Moore says. “I like that.”

For Moore, like all the park’s visitor’s, the garden offers something 

“This is the only park like it in the world,” Palmquist says.

After all, Topiary Park is the only such park in the world based entirely on a painting.

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