Changing Skyline: Not only is the garden a homegrown Camden gem, it's significant architecture. The state is unaware of that.

Posted: February 02, 2013

There isn't much of Camden on the Camden waterfront, but what little there is can reliably be found at the Camden Children's Garden.

Amid the lineup of high-priced venues that now front the Delaware, the horticulture-themed playground stands out as a lone homegrown attraction. Camden residents built it. Camden residents use it. Camden teenagers learn work skills there. Designed by the noted architect Steve Izenour, the city landmark celebrates South Jersey in all its wondrous variety: The billboard-style, corrugated-steel entrance gate is a whimsical love note to the region's truck gardens, seaside kitsch, and roadside signs.

But if the Christie administration gets its way, that remaining scrap of authentic Camden will be bulldozed from sight. The nonprofit Children's Garden is being evicted, so that the valuable waterfront property can be freed up for what a state treasury department official describes as an "economic development initiative."

What that initiative is precisely, no one in Christie's administration will say right now. Treasury spokesman William Quinn has refused to elaborate, but the plan already bears the hallmarks of a government-sanctioned land grab. The presumed beneficiary is the corporate Goliath that runs the Adventure Aquarium next door, says garden director Mike Devlin.

The saga of the Children's Garden could be the story of Camden in microcosm. While the state has poured millions into the private waterfront aquarium - at least $43 million since 2005 - the educational nonprofit has struggled to keep its Izenour-designed entrance gate open.

The aquarium, built by the state in 1992, and the garden were once partners that shared ticketing operations. Visitors to both attractions entered through the Izenour gate. But after the aquarium was privatized in 2002, the new operators created an entrance that bypassed the garden, cutting off a sizable portion of its revenue. Then, in 2010 Gov. Christie eliminated its state funding.

Partly as a result of the lost revenue, many of the original garden exhibits that Izenour created, like the wacky treehouse and checkerboard picnic area, are starting to show their age. Izenour, who coauthored the 1972 landmark treatise Learning From Las Vegas with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, favored the cheap and accessible in architecture over the high-end stuff. Of course, it's the garden that is now being blamed for the effects of years of disinvestment.

In a Jan. 14 ultimatum from the state, Devlin was told to remove all "property" from the garden's four-acre site by March 31. If he agrees to the state's terms, the letter continued, the garden will be allowed to continue operating, though on a limited scale, pushed back from the water to the area where its greenhouses now stand - a plot of land amounting to less than a single acre.

It's not much of a deal, and Devlin says the garden may challenge the eviction in court. A Children's Garden without children's attractions just isn't the same draw. Beyond that, removing the "property" would mean tearing up Izenour's entire design.

The ensemble, which he created with Timothy P. Kearney while working at Venturi Scott Brown & Associates, may be one of the fullest expressions of the firm's populist aesthetic. Even more than VSBA's namesakes, Izenour fell in love with America's exuberant jumble of roadside architecture - the cartoon colors, the come-hither signage, the oversized depiction of everyday objects - during the writing of Learning From Las Vegas.

He incorporated some of those elements when he designed the treehouse exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo in the mid-'80s, but it was the garden commission in New Jersey that gave him the perfect platform for his highly graphic vernacular style. Izenour packed the garden with Alice-in-Wonderland shifts in scale, like giant teacups, that kids loved. As it turned out, notes VSBA's Daniel McCoubrey, the project was Izenour's last major undertaking. He died in 2001.

Quinn, the state spokesman, was surprised to be told in an interview that the Children's Garden is a significant work of architecture as well as an important Camden institution.

Such ignorance about New Jersey's cultural legacy is troubling. Only last August, the treasury department, which oversees the state's real estate holdings, announced its intention to raze a Trenton plaza designed by the award-winning sculptor Athena Tacha. In that case, too, the agency was unaware of the project's rich backstory. The plaza was saved only after Christie personally intervened.

It should be pointed out that the importance of the Children's Garden goes beyond Izenour's imaginative contributions. The idea for an educational garden for children was conceived in the late 1990s by the Camden City Garden Club, founded by Devlin and his wife, Valerie Frick. After the club surprised everyone by taking a first prize at the Philadelphia Flower Show, Devlin and Frick were able to raise $8 million to open the garden in 1999.

Over the years, city residents enriched the attraction by building their own exhibits. Many displays started out as designs for the Flower Show. The best were accorded a permanent home in the garden, a source of pride for the Camden residents who built them.

A few years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles Youth Partnership helped build one of the garden's most popular attractions, the Butterfly House. You can visit the Facebook page "Save Camden Childen's Garden" to read the testimonials from teenagers whose lives were turned around by the experience of digging in soil and working with plants.

For years, state officials have claimed that developing Camden's waterfront was the key to reviving the beleaguered city. More and more, though, the development has come to seem like an end in itself.

Our waterfronts are public places that exist for more than business undertakings. Surely there is room on the Delaware for a small civic enterprise like the Children's Garden to put down roots.


Contact Inga Saffron at isaffron@phillynews.com, 215-854-2213 or on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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