Restoring Hope

Hartman Rock Garden celebrates a historical piece of folk art and a struggling Midwestern city

Jun 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Springfield, a smaller city some 75 miles slightly northeast of Cincinnati, has lost plenty during the post-industrial era. So it’s important when it can reclaim, restore and celebrate something that once made it so special — an outdoor folk-art environment known as Hartman Rock Garden, created during the Great Depression. And the way it did so is a good lesson for much larger cities struggling with urban-preservation issues.

There will be an “open house” for the garden on July 23, although it’s already open every day dawn to dusk. Admission is free, and donations are accepted. “We’ve had people come from Germany, even,” says Ted Vander Roest, president of Friends of Hartman Rock Garden as well as executive director of the nonprofit Springfield Foundation. “It is a significant site for people interested in outdoor folk art and outdoor rock gardens.”

Much else great about Springfield’s past is gone. During the first years of the automobile, the city rivaled Detroit as a center for car manufacturers. The Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. was founded there. International Harvester had a big plant there. And its downtown was a lot denser and busier than now — so much so that in 1890 it built a massive three-story, 56,000-square-foot stone-and-brick Richardson Romanesque landmark to house city offices and a farmers’ market. (It now houses an excellent local-history museum.)

Yet the city, refusing defeatism, is developing an impressive track record for art/architecture preservation. In 2005, after a long fundraising campaign, a nonprofit foundation was able to restore and open to the public a 1908 Frank Lloyd Wright mansion known as the Westcott House. And last year Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation purchased and rehabilitated the endangered Hartman Rock Garden. A “grand reopening” was held last summer.

Like a blue-collar-Americana version of Antoni Gaudi, H.G. (Ben) Hartman created this fantastical place in the backyard of his modest home from 1932 until his death in 1944. It was the Great Depression, and, according to a story reported in the Springfield News-Sun, Hartman had lost his iron-molding job. So he decided to put his hands and time to good use, collecting some 250,000 individual stones and rocks from around the country to build his own dream world. It was like nothing else in the quiet southwest Springfield neighborhood, at 1905 Russell St.

His imaginatively landscaped, one-of-a-kind backyard has scale replicas of famous American buildings, as well as a castle with moat, houses, a cathedral and more. He populated his virtual village with smaller stone decorative objects, like a cactus, as well as 100 or so concrete figurines that comment on both the real-world culture of the time — Mae West, the Dionne Quintuplets, boxer Joe Lewis — and the animals, historical and religious subjects that charmed Hartman. (Those figurines are in storage until the July 23 open house.) He planted flowers amid his creations and even built a concrete “picket” fence around the yard to mark the garden’s boundaries.

It eventually became a tourist attraction within Springfield, and the family sold plants to visitors out of a backyard greenhouse. After he died, his family preserved it as best they could. But after his son died in 2007, the future of the property came into doubt while relatives worked to settle the estate. Nervousness about its future set in.

But so did the Kohler Foundation, which was contacted by a family member. Started by the family who founded the Kohler plumbing-related manufacturing company, it is independent of both that company and the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, known for its folk-art collection.

Since the 1970s, the foundation has preserved outdoor art sites in its home state, Wisconsin, plus one outside — the mysterious Chauvin Sculpture Garden deep in Louisiana’s Bayou country. After discussions, and aware of Hartman’s reputation in folk-art circles, the foundation bought it sight unseen.

“We would love to see every example preserved, but there are not enough resources to do that,” explains Terri Yoho, Kohler Foundation’s executive director. “But here the pieces fell into place. The art itself is interesting and exciting, it’s something a lot of people can relate to, it’s in an accessible place, the people who owned it were good stewards, and it’s just a treasure in Springfield.”

After buying the property — which also included the house and a vacant parcel across the street — the foundation assigned two conservators to Springfield to painstakingly work on restoration. They became celebrities in their own right.

“Springfield is economically challenged at this point, and this is in a modest neighborhood,” Yoho says. “But the people who live there have done so for generations, and they feel an ownership in what’s there. So the people would have our conservators over for dinner and bring treats.”

After finishing the work, Kohler turned stewardship over to three Springfield organizations — the art museum and two nonprofits, the Springfield and Turner foundations. They created the Friends umbrella group, and the two local foundations agreed to contribute $5,000 annually for upkeep. An artist-in-residence — currently photographer Rod Hatfield — lives in the old home and offers tours to visitors.

There are big plans for Hartman Rock Garden — for plantings that exactly re-create Hartman’s original landscaping, for monthly guided walking tours, printed guides, even outdoor broadcasts of Depression-era radio shows like Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” from 1938. Maybe even using the vacant grounds for a Folk Art Fair.

“We’re just the getting the word out. We’re just starting,” Vander Roest says.

THE HARTMAN ROCK GARDEN is located at 1905 Russell St. in Springfield, Ohio. For more information, call The Springfield Foundation at 937-324-8773 or visit