Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Shakespeare Garden

Last year, as part of the Cleveland One World Festival, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presented an abridged version of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the British Garden, which is one of the 35 (and growing) plots which make up the Cleveland Cultural Gardens.

I missed the production, but I did see the photos, and was shocked, utterly shocked, the discover that there exists in Cleveland a bust of Shakespeare. How did I not know this???

You may well ask how I never knew there was even a British Garden, not to mention a Polish, Hebrew or Slovenian Garden. I had never seen these before. That explanation is simple, and also one I am not too proud of.

Many of us, especially those from the West Side, are familiar with the cultural gardens only in so much as we use MLK Jr. Blvd. as safe passage to get from I-90 to the orchestra or art museum and back. We see the gardens from our car windows, and they do look very nice.

When I first trained for a marathon in 2006, I chose to run down MLK to the lake, and this was pretty much the first time I had ever taken in the gardens on foot. One weekend morning eight years ago I chose the Italian garden as my turnaround, but instead of doubling back, took a little walk up the steps and was astonished at what I saw. This garden didn't exist merely in this valley, but extended up the hill and featured statues and fountains and beautiful foliage. My exploration, for the time being, stopped there, unfortunately.

In the past year or so, however, construction on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights and on Chester in Cleveland has been ridiculous, and like others I have been choosing to take Superior downtown (more on that soon.) Taking Superior to MLK, rather than say through University Circle, is a much faster way to get to Ohio City and Gordon Square, and so I discovered old East Boulevard, and all those gardens which do not include a face on MLK Blvd.

Photo dated 1926
Note original bust by Joseph Motto and Stephen Rebeck
The Shakespeare Garden (now the British Garden) was in fact the first of Cleveland's cultural gardens. Dedicated on April 14, 1916 as part of a global celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Bard's demise, there is in fact a gate announcing the British Garden on MLK Blvd., which leads up the hill to East Blvd. and then across the street.
From the Cleveland Cultural Gardens website:
At the entrance are gateposts of English design and the garden boundaries are defined with hedges.
The central flagstone walk is lined with multi-hued border plantings, and, together with other her-bordered paths, converging on a bust of Shakespeare flanked by trees.
A mulberry tree grows here from cutting sent by the late Sir Sidney Lee, famed Shakespearean critic, from the mulberry, Shakespeare himself planted at New Place, in Stratford.
The garden is adorned with oaks planted by the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, and by Phyllis Neilson Terry, niece of Ellen Terry; a circular bed of roses (Shakespeare's favorite flower) sent by the Mayor of Verona, from the traditional tomb of Juliet; Birnam Wood sycamore maples transplanted from Scotland, and several other representative English forest trees.
Today, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens are flourishing. Several of the the older gardens (Italian, 1930 or Greek, 1940, to name two my wife and I strolled through last weekend) feature new, recently installed statuary and well-tended gardens and lawns. The upper level of the Italian Garden, in particular, presents a stunning fountain, the kind which should on a gorgeous day in any other city be surrounded by people reading, talking, eating, just enjoying themselves.

Recent additions, like the Croatian Garden (2011) proudly share this international stage, with a beautiful new waterfall feature and emotionally affecting statue of an "Immigrant Mother" by Joseph Turkaly.

Unfortunately, the British Garden feels entirely abandoned and is in sorry shape. The plantings are all overgrown, flagstones are missing from the weed-encumbered walk, and the pillars marking the entrance are either in partial collapse, or dangerously close to being so.

In less than two years, the Cleveland Cultural Garden will be celebrating its centennial, and the world will note the 400th anniversary of the death of the man whose signature marks the greatest plays in the English language. Hopefully by then his garden will be ready for the party.


  1. I greatly enjoyed your article and I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the state of the garden. I'm happy to inform you that restorations have begun on the garden and it's already making a difference. If you'd like to join us in lending a hand or if you'd like to track our progress, please join us at

    1. We now have a face Book page, British Cultural Garden, here you will find photos of our progress.

  2. Outstanding news! I am now following your organization on Facebook, and thank you for your work which I will be following with interest.

    DID YOU KNOW ..? The Folger Library will be providing a copy of an original First Folio to the Cleveland Public Library in 2016! Details coming soon.