In the weeks preceding the April 1 grand opening of the Missouri Botanical Garden's new Doris I. Schnuck Children's Garden, staffers at the institution say they received a fact sheet outlining how they should respond when asked about the installation.
Noticeably absent, they say, was an answer to the most frequently asked question of all. "People want to know one thing, and one thing only," grouses a longtime horticulturist with the garden. "What the fuck is that? It's an eyesore!"
Designed to look like a nineteenth-century Missouri village complete with rough-sawn cedar stockades, a steamboat, a general store, a tree fort, a cemetery and sundry old-time bric-a-brac the project is billed by MoBot as "St. Louis' newest major family attraction."
Critics have another name for the frontier-themed Children's Garden: "Silver Dollar Shitty."
"The thing looks like a cheap amusement park," says Steve Duffy, a dues-paying MoBot member who's been quick to voice objection to the children's area. "It's completely out of place. Most of the garden has a Victorian theme. I don't know what this is. Kitschy? Historical?"
Garden caretakers say Duffy's view is shared by many employees at the botanical garden, who, they say, risk losing their jobs if they speak out publicly. Workers claim that last year the garden sacked a horticulturist after he aired complaints about the project.
"He said [garden founder] Henry Shaw was speaking to him from the grave," recalls a gardener who asked not to be named in this story. "He told them Shaw would never approve of the thing. It's an insult to the sensibilities of the members. Ninety-nine percent of employees would tell you that."
Several staffers say the Children's Garden only adds to a list of questionable new exhibits at MoBot, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Last fall the botanical garden installed a statue of famed peanut researcher George Washington Carver. Posed with an outstretched arm, the statue immediately drew comparisons to a lawn jockey.
"No one wants to talk about it," says another staffer. "It's embarrassing."
MoBot director Peter Raven dismisses the notion that garden employees haven't taken to the kids' zone.
"Of course that's not true," writes Raven in an e-mail. "Staff reaction has been overwhelmingly positive."
Raven adds that the attraction's quaint, antique theme suits the botanical garden just fine.
"The clear connection between human history and natural history, illustrated so well in this new garden, clearly does fit in with the overall, varied design of the garden, adding to the depth of experience of some of our most important visitors young children," the director writes.
Insiders aren't the only ones who've taken notice of the $8 million Children's Garden, which rises up on a two-acre plot directly behind MoBot's Climatron. Last week the St. Louis chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) talked about the attraction when a concerned member brought it to the attention of the executive committee.
In recent years, ASLA has taken a stance on a variety of public projects, including objecting to placing protective bollards on the Arch grounds. This time around, ASLA reserves comment.
"We decided it's an issue best left to the members of the garden and its directors," says Patrick Wortzer, president of the local ASLA. "That said, I would encourage the membership of the garden to voice their opinion in favor or protest."
Katie Belisle-Iffrig, manager of the Children's Garden, says she's surprised by the negative reaction. "The first thing I'd say is that we're not entirely finished, so it's a bit premature to comment."
Belisle-Iffrig maintains that the attraction, which will be open daily beginning May 1, furthers the educational mission of the botanical garden by exposing children to botany at an early age.
"We want a place where kids can have a hands-on learning experience," she says. Additional features of the Children's Garden include a climbing rock, a rope bridge, a cave full of subterranean flora and a jail where youngsters can "lock up" invasive plants. Ninety percent of the flora to be planted in the garden will be native to Missouri, Belisle-Iffrig says.
"Play is important for a child's cognitive and social development," she adds. "The kids may be having fun, but they're also learning."
Detractors say the children's education comes at a risk of bodily harm. One staffer says several children hurt themselves the first weekend the new attraction opened. What's more, the garden lies directly under a grove of Osage orange trees, which each autumn drop hundreds of heavy, softball-size fruits.
"I got hit by one of them and was laid up for days," comments a staff gardener.
Belisle-Iffrig concedes that a few kids received minor injuries mostly splinters, and a smashed finger when a tyke got his hand caught in the jail door. This summer the garden plans to install protective netting under the trees to prevent children from being injured by falling fruit.
The Children's Garden project was conceived by MoBot directors some eight years ago, and construction began last year as the organization wrapped up a wildly successful capital campaign, exceeding its $71 million goal by $4 million. Leading the contributors for the Children's Garden was the Schnuck family, owners of the grocery-store chain that bears the family name. With the addition of the kids' area, MoBot joins a growing number of botanical gardens across the nation catering to families and children. Last year the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago saw its membership spike 26 percent thanks in part to its new $10.5 million children's garden.
"Sure we want to increase membership," says Belisle-Iffrig. "Part of keeping the garden a vital part of the community is catering to new demographics."
Critics, though, see the youth area as just another way to increase admission fees. Last year the garden received one-fourth of its $34 million in operating revenue from tax support, with remaining funds coming from sources such as admissions, memberships and bequests. While kids under the age of thirteen earn free entry to the general garden, admission to the children's section costs them $3. (Adults can enter the children's garden gratis.)
"Kids love that they need a ticket to enter," says Belisle-Iffrig. "It makes them the center of attention."
Even more rewarding, adds Belisle-Iffrig, is the impact the children's garden has on older visitors. "The coolest thing is watching parents and grandparents participate with their children. With obesity on the rise, and kids constantly plugged into the TV, it's great to see people enjoying an outdoor activity."
Disgruntled MoBot member Steve Duffy has a suggestion for one game the kiddies might enjoy playing inside the compound.
"The thing looks like Fort Apache. Why not have the kids dress like Indians and burn the thing to the ground?" he jokes. "That would be an improvement."