Arts & Entertainment and Travel & Tourism

Fred’s last gift to Lena

At a cost of $22 million, Japanese garden combines spectacular use of horticulture and sculpture.

September 12, 2014
| By Pat Evans |
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Japanese Garden
The Japanese Garden at Meijer Gardens spans eight acres and features a three-acre pond. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Tranquility and space is at the heart of the new Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

The exhibit, which is set to open June 13, 2015, immediately puts visitors at ease, even in its unfinished state. There’s a high point in the park that gives visitors a look at the entire eight acres of land, three of which are covered in water.

Considered the last gift from Fred Meijer to his wife, Lena, following his death, the idea was solidified during a conversation with Meijer Gardens President and CEO David Hooker. The site had been designated as a space for an international garden, but no other nation’s traditional garden had been considered.

“He said, ‘David, I’ve been thinking about gardens. I’d really like to create a Japanese garden. I’d really like to do it for Lena. What do you think?’”Hooker recalled of his impromptu conversation with Fred Meijer at Meijer headquarters.

“I just said, ‘Fred, that’s fantastic. Of course we should do it.’

“For those of us who were blessed to know Fred well, he had somewhat of a folksy way to him, but he didn’t say it lightheartedly. He was very serious.”

All $22 million needed for the project already had been raised with the help of 220 donors before the boulder placement in October 2012 that kicked off the construction.

With nine months to go before opening, Director of Horticulture Steve LaWarre said the exhibit is 90 percent complete. Last summer, there were approximately 30 craftsmen working to construct major parts of the gardens, including the earthwork, hardscape and buildings. This summer involved a lot of refinement, including pathways, plants and trees.

“That last 10 percent feels like another 90 percent,”LaWarre said. “It’s a lot of details.”

Nature is at the garden’s core, but it’s all intentionally planned, including the path through the garden, a carefully thought-out aspect by the garden’s designer, Hoichi Kurisu, of Kurisu International in Portland, Ore.

The path begins with two boulders and a pathway of cherry trees that lead to the Japanese-style entry building.

“It’s meant to be a slowing down — a decompression time,”LaWarre said.

Kurisu’s use of space is subtle, but dynamic. Like other traditional Japanese gardens, the Meijer Gardens’ incarnation will continue to mature for many years to come.

“A lot of it is in regard to space,”he said. “Some areas are intimate and close, others are expansive and open. It’s all intentional. He’s a master of the space.”

Water plays an important part in the garden: A large pond sits in the middle of the eight acres as the path wraps around it. There’s an island and a peninsula, along with four waterfalls.

LaWarre said there seems to be a preconceived notion that Japanese gardens must contain only Japanese plants. Instead, it’s all about how the plants are arranged — and all of them in this garden are hardy enough to withstand West Michigan’s weather.

Most of the elements of the garden are traditional, but sometimes they’re also innovative, such as six contemporary sculpture installations that will be scattered throughout, including David Nash’s Sabre Larch Hill tree sculpture.

The wood structures in the garden were partially built in Japan before being deconstructed and sent to Meijer Gardens, where they were assembled by crews. The buildings are intricate, with detailed joint work and copper roofs that were hand rolled and fitted by hand from large sheets. Along some of the paths are hand-tied bamboo fences.

There’s a traditional teahouse that can be used for tea ceremonies and a Zen garden. A bonsai garden also is planned.

Hooker said although the idea for the Japanese garden was Fred Meijer’s, the name was the Meijer family’s idea. With so many projects already using the Meijer name, they felt it was important to include other well-known West Michigan names.

“When we sat down with the DeVos family, obviously it was well-received,”Hooker said.

Hooker acknowledges the project is one of the most significant construction projects Meijer Gardens has taken on, but he said it just contributes to the broader mission of the gardens and adds to its incredible collection of art.

The Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden will open up visitors’ eyes to this type of garden.

“It’s another one of the great things that helps this institution become something significant and rewarding in people’s lives,”Hooker said. “It will continue to broaden our appeal to people of all walks of life. It will help people see the type of gardening, horticulture and sculpture you can’t see anywhere else nearby.

“We were able to combine horticulture — Lena’s love, and sculpture — Fred’s love, together in a unique way. You can find other terrific Japanese gardens, but you won’t find one anywhere in North America that combines them together. It’s a huge benefit for members and guests.”

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