The Muscatine Art Cener is turning Japanese, again, as its Japanese-style garden has been revamped to the look and feel of the garden as it was in 1930, when Laura Musser McColm had it installed at her home at 1314 Mulberry Avenue.

A primary feature of the outdoor public spaces located at the Muscatine Art Center, the Japanese Garden went through a three-year rehabilitation process that was completed this fall, according to a center release Wednesday.

Since 2020, the project with a team of consultants and contractors has been funded by the national Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Program and a grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust. It has transformed the garden by bringing back historic features and improving accessibility.

The federal grant was for $122,402 and Carver Trust provided $100,000, covering nearly all of the project with some private donations covering the rest.

The project began with Associate Professor Heidi Hohmannn of the Landscape Architecture Department at Iowa State University examining archived materials held by the Muscatine Art Center and comparing these sources to existing conditions in the garden.

The resulting document, the Historic Landscape Preservation Plan, became the foundation for securing grant funds, developing scopes of work for contractors, and modifying the landscape to match the historic features as much as possible, the release said.

Visitors to the rehabilitated garden will note the quantity of the stone and rockwork, the absence of the large white pine trees and yews, the choice of new plants like sumac trees and flowering groundcovers, and the combination of a stepping stone path and an ADA-accessible pathway.

The repair of the water features and the installation of a new pumping system have brought life back into the garden with the sight and sound of moving water.

However, this feature will be winterized by early December and turned back on in spring 2024. During the warmer months, visitors will be able to enjoy the water feature on a daily basis.

After the completion of the study in 2020, Art Center staff transitioned to further research of the garden and similar gardens in the Midwest.

The 1908 Musser Mansion at 1314 Mulberry Ave., Muscatine, has been open to the public since 1965 as the Muscatine Art Center. 

Funded by a grant from Humanities Iowa, Beth Cody, author of Iowa Gardens of the Past, was contracted to conduct a thorough investigation into what could be known about the garden as well as trends starting in the 1800s around American interest in Japanese-design and specifically Japanese gardens.

Inspiration behind garden

Cody’s research resulted in the creation of a series of eight papers connected to the garden and the inspiration behind its creation as well as its endurance as the only remaining Japanese-style garden in Iowa to be installed prior to World War II. From these papers, the booklet, “The Making of a Japanese Garden in Iowa,” and the exhibition, “Captivated by Japan: Laura Musser McColm and Her Era,” were developed.

See the garden as it appeared in 1936.

The physical work in the garden began with an archaeological study conducted by Tallgrass Archaeology, with the report completed in June 2022. Staff continuously worked with the selected landscape firm, Aunt Rhodie’s, to prepare plans for the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to review. Following approval by SHPO, tree removal took place in early 2023.

Starting in April 2023, Aunt Rhodie’s turned the garden into a worksite.

Temporary fencing prevented visitors from entering the area where the landscape was deconstructed before rebuilding the rockwork, re-grading the landscape, repairing the ponds and streams, installing cheek walls alongside each of the three sets of steps, and completing other hardscaping features.

A view of the restored Japanese garden.

The excessively dry and hot weather over the summer of 2023 caused concerns for attempting to transplant living materials. While work on the physical site took a pause, staff, Aunt Rhodie’s, and consultant Hohmann continued to fine-tune plans and provide updates to SHPO.

Weather conditions improved in late August and into September, making it possible to plant new trees and install sod, shrubs, groundcovers, hedges, and flowering plants which are now well on their way to being established thanks to cooler temperatures and some rain in October.

“It has been a thrill to see the garden evolve over the past half year,” Muscatine Art Center director Melanie Alexander said Wednesday. “I am eager to see how the garden changes with the seasons and how the plants and trees mature to their full potential in the coming years and beyond.”

Born in 1877, Laura Musser was the youngest child of lumber baron and businessman, Peter Musser.

In 1930, when Laura Musser McColm had her Japanese-style garden installed at her home on Mulberry Avenue, it became an occasional gathering space for Laura’s clubs such as the Twentieth Century Club and the Muscatine Garden Club. After this rehabilitation project, the garden, in its function as a public space, is set to be a major contributor to place making in Muscatine and the location of many future events and programs.

More information about the Japanese Garden can be found on the Muscatine Art Center’s website HERE.