Morris Arboretum's new Horticulture Center a pleasure for the staff

The new Horticulture Center, part of a $13 million complex, the first new building at the arboretum since 1887.
The new Horticulture Center, part of a $13 million complex, the first new building at the arboretum since 1887.
Posted: October 01, 2010

In 2001, Paul W. Meyer, director of the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, summoned his board of directors to the garage at Bloomfield Farm, across East Northwestern Avenue from the arboretum's public gardens.

"I wanted the board to see what our horticulture staff was living with," Meyer recalls of the tiny, cluttered space where, for years, his employees held their morning meetings and ate lunch.

His strategy worked. After years of authorizing projects to make the 92-acre garden visitor-friendly, the board agreed it was time to tend to the needs of staff.

On Tuesday, the day Meyer says he has "been waiting for for 30 years," a new $13 million Horticulture Center complex will be dedicated at a private ceremony. It's the first new building at the arboretum since the property was bought by John and Lydia Morris, wealthy Quaker siblings and plant collectors, in 1887.

The new complex includes a 21,000-square-foot, energy-efficient "hort center," as it's called, with 24 work spaces in an open floor plan; two conference rooms; a kitchen and break room; men's and women's bathrooms and showers; a unisex locker room; and two green-roofed garages with 10 bays for arboretum vehicles and equipment.

"It's so quiet here. It's beautiful," says employee Kathy McDonnell, sitting at the reception desk in the hort center, training a recent hire to answer the phones.

The center will be closed to the public except for special events, scheduled tours, and some classes. It's meant for staff, especially Morris' seven section heads, the professional horticulturists Meyer calls "the heart and soul of what the arboretum is."

"For the first time, we have a facility to match them," he says.

The section heads supervise different parts of the arboretum, such as the rose garden, English park, azalea meadow - or 67-acre Bloomfield Farm, which is Louise D. Clarke's responsibility.

One day last week, she checked on the plants atop the new six-bay garage, a full-sun, heat-happy mix of Russian sage, lavender, monarda, agave, yucca, thyme, ornamental grasses, yarrow, butterfly weed, and sedum.

Nestled in eight inches of gravelly growing medium, they struggled to get established in a brutal Philadelphia summer. But Clarke is hopeful.

"We finished the roof in April, and by May we had nesting killdeer," a kind of plover, she says, as assorted insects, bees, and butterflies crawl over the low-lying plants. They're arranged spectrum-like - dark blues and purples at one end, reds, yellows, and oranges in the middle, silvers and whites at the other end.

Clarke's office formerly was one of six jammed into a 20-by-20-foot space, euphemistically dubbed "the studio," in a tiny building on the arboretum side. Today, in the new hort center, she enjoys her own 10-by-12-foot nook with ergonomically friendly furniture and a huge window overlooking trees, lawn, and busy bird feeders.

"It's like night and day. Unbelievable," she says.

Meyer speaks with similar enthusiasm. "It's a delight," he says, comparing the new building to a sustainability exhibit in the museum that is the arboretum. The Morris collection comprises more than 14,000 plants and trees from North America and around the world, many of them unusual or rare.

"This whole thing is an exhibit," Meyer says, gesturing toward the complex, which was designed by Overland Partners of San Antonio, Texas, and Muscoe Martin of m2 Architecture and Andropogon Associates, both of Philadelphia.

Besides the green roofs, the hort center features solar water heaters for showers and hand-washing stations; photovoltaic panels for electricity; a ground-source heat pump for heating and air-conditioning; and an extensive storm-water collection system, using above- and underground cisterns, to provide water for toilets and irrigation.

The complex also makes maximum use of natural light and local materials, such as Wissahickon schist and Pennsylvania bluestone, as well as recycled concrete and wood from the site. Morris is aiming for a platinum LEED certification, the highest rating offered by the U.S. Green Building Council.

There were a few bumps in the road.

Underground limestone formations thwarted initial attempts to drill the geothermal wells, according to Robert Anderson, Morris' director of physical facilities, who managed the hort center project.

Mushroom compost used on the larger green roof was full of weed seeds, which brought forth a carpet of crabgrass for Clarke to untangle. And a large meadow of native grasses and wildflowers around the complex failed to thrive.

The meadow is being replanted, and if all goes well this time it will need mowing only twice a year. "That's a lot less than lawn, a lot less use of fossil fuels," says Anderson, who links the meadow to the property's farming past.

Bloomfield was a working farm when the Morrises bought it in 1913, two years before John died, to someday become a teaching facility to go with the grand botanical garden they envisioned. In the short term, the farm - on the Springfield Township, Montgomery County, side of Northwestern Avenue - would supply food for their household across the street, on the city side.

The Morris mansion, called Compton, was demolished in 1968.

In 1932, after Lydia died, the Morris farm and gardens became part of the University of Pennsylvania. Crops were plowed under as part of the property's transformation into an academic arboretum.

Food production picked up again with World War II-era victory gardens, and today the farm hosts 108 community gardeners, research plots, and the arboretum's composting operations.

Since 1978, when Morris adopted a master plan, most improvement projects were directed to the arboretum side, to make it easier for visitors to navigate and engage. They included a new entrance and driveway, a network of pathways, new parking lot and visitors center, and handicapped access.

"As recently as the early 1990s," Meyer says, "we didn't even have a system of connecting paths. Remember, this was a garden built for one man and his sister."

It is enjoyed by many today. Thanks in no small measure to its Tree Adventure and Garden Railway exhibits, Morris had a record 128,000 visitors over the last year, a 30 percent increase over the year before. The same is true for household memberships.

Something else has gone up, too: the estimated cost of a public education building next to the new hort center. Two years ago, the tab was put at $17 million; today, it's closer to $20 million.

The new education center will accommodate 200 people for lectures and seminars and include three smaller classrooms, one for children. Morris' current lecture space fits a maximum of 67 students, and large arboretum-sponsored symposiums are held at nearby universities.

Meyer, Morris' director since 1991 and horticulture director for more than a dozen years before that, says he'll be fund-raising in earnest, again, as the economy improves.

Meanwhile, $800,000 worth of renovations will soon begin on yet another building, known as the mechanics' bay, in the middle of the new hort complex. This is where mechanics fix lawnmowers and trucks.

Built in 1982 of cinder block and clapboard, it looks like a poor relation of the hort center, which is covered in sleek sheet steel. Even Meyer describes it as "crummy."

Soon it will have a new facade, some interior remodeling, and a roof to match the new buildings around it. "The look will be very different," he says.


 

Read garden writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/gardening


Dedication

Morris Arboretum's new

$13 million Horticulture Center at Bloomfield Farm, across Northwestern Avenue from

the public garden, will be dedicated at 11 a.m. Tuesday. The public is welcome.

University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann is scheduled to speak at the ceremony, along with philanthropist Dorrance Hamilton, a major donor to the Horticulture Center.

Although some classes are already being offered at the new center, generally it will not be open to the public. Free tours can be requested by calling the arboretum at 215-247-5777, Ext. 157. Information: www.morrisarboretum.org


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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