Swiftly and silently, the powers that be decided to close one of the greatest horticultural displays in the United States. Sibley Center is no more. Callaway Gardens has shifted priorities from horticulture and floral beauty to resort and golf. That is the way with wonderful gardens. They simply cannot last during prolonged recessions. I am so happy I was able to spend a lot of time there when my children were young, so they could see ornamental horticulture done on a grand scale.
Sibley opened in 1984 as part of an expansion inside Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, GA. It was designed by Robert E. Marvin and Associates to be a showcase of energy-efficient blending of indoors and out, with folding walls that could be open during warm weather and could close to protect vegetation from extreme cold.
The conservatory acted like a giant cold frame with supplemental heating provided by a special, radiant system and cooling provided through shade, ventilation, a mist system, and a two-story waterfall.
The original plantings featured azaleas, ferns, and camellias mixed in with tropical plants, but that was all replaced with a huge rock wall of succulents later. I suppose they thought desert plants would take less maintenance. Maybe the special misting systems became dysfunctional as they aged. I only remember the misting happening the first year Sibley was open, and the folding doors didn’t work for very long, either.
A few years after opening, a grand perennial bed was created along one side of a winding walkway along the perimeter of the outdoor garden.
That year was the best! Each season was celebrated with a new, breathtaking display. Spring and summer had two separate, colorful floral bed designs.
In the fall, waterfalls of pendulous yellow Chrysanthemums hung from the railings and were reflected in the large pond that wound in and out of the building’s structure. Each Chrysanthemum “fountain” required months of careful pinching to create.
The focal point of the traditional greenhouse area was a circular fountain, and a huge chandelier hung above it. It was decorated with additional pots of pendulous Chrysanthemums or other types of seasonal, knockout color.
During the winter holidays, violin and harp players performed in the conservatory around a huge tree made of Poinsettias.
The booming economy slowed considerably in the late eighties, and Sibley began to show the wear and tear of less-than-sterling maintenance. The tranquil sculpture Garden area had a serene marble sculpture originally, but was reworked into a ho-hum sitting area surrounded by evergreens. Then it was closed off from the tour paths.
Instead of in-house floral displays, Callaway brought in cartoonish topiaries from traveling exhibits – Big Bugs, Football Team Sculptures, Alice in Wonderland figures.
The perennial beds started looking neglected. The grass on the conservatory lawn grew bare. The succulents seemed to be the only vegetation that improved at Sibley with time.
I was there one week, and the next week, was sadly reading it had been closed. There was little notice for the public. A brief protest with a petition was signed by a lot of locals. Then the parking areas were taped off and the doors locked for good. I am happy to have experienced seeing this brilliant horticultural star streak across the sky for a brief moment before it disappeared.
Landscape professionals learn, with experience, that beautiful outdoor spaces don’t last forever. Just like people, they often have a brief moment of greatness and eventually succumb to wear and tear. Beauty is not eternal, but enrichment for the soul can last through time.
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