We HEART Kohler!

Hartman Historical Rock Garden—H. G. “Ben” Hartman

1905 Russell Avenue at McCain

Springfield, OH

Built: 1932-1939

McGinn: Hartman Rock Garden to crumble no more

The local folk-art landmark will be completely restored by a Wisconsin foundation

By Andrew McGinn 

Staff Writer

Updated 8:40 PM Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Kohler Co. has donated more than 8,000 of its sinks, faucets and toilets to “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

Now get ready for “Extreme Makeover: Weird Rock Garden Edition.”

In what might seem like a totally unforeseen move — not unlike Ty Pennington and his gang unveiling a new tract house for a family beset by tragedy — the Kohler Foundation of Wisconsin has purchased the crumbling Hartman Rock Garden and will be restoring it to its prime.

“If it doesn’t look like it did in its prime,” explained Terri Yoho, the foundation’s executive director, “then we’re not doing our job well.”

While related to, but technically separate from, the plumbing fixture company, the Kohler Foundation specializes in just this sort of thing — that is, saving 3-D environments created by self-taught artists.

Hey, somebody’s gotta do it.

“It’s not what the majority of people would consider a valid art form,” said Mark Chepp, director emeritus of the Springfield Museum of Art and a longtime champion of the city’s own 3-D art environment. “It’s like a giant hobby.”

For the late H.G. Hartman, it certainly was a way to pass the time.

An iron worker who found himself without a job during the Depression, he set out to turn his Russell Avenue yard into a grotto as filtered through the 20th century.

But whether he knew it or not, other people in other parts of the country were doing the same thing, drawing equally from religion, history and popular culture, and then casting those visions in stone.

You might have grown up here and never once seen, or even heard of, this concrete wonderland nestled in the far southwest corner of town.

If you want to see it, take South Yellow Springs Street to McCain Avenue and drive until you see the yellow house.

The one with the giant stone castle in the yard.

Then again, you might have lived here all your life and never knew there was a Frank Lloyd Wright house, either, but the Westcott House and the Hartman Rock Garden are unique to Springfield, according to Chepp.

And, really, as cities become more and more homogenized — admit it, Bechtle Avenue could be anywhere — these two attractions alone give this place a smidgen of personality.

While a restored rock garden probably won’t be quite the draw of a Wright house, it was, however, something of a destination in its glory days.

“Tour buses used to come here to visit the Hartman Rock Garden,” Chepp said.

The rock garden had lots of rocks, yes, but by all accounts it also was a remarkable garden, brimming with all sorts of rare flora.

For Chepp, restoring the rock garden became a priority not long after arriving from Wisconsin in 1991, but priorities being what they are, the Wright house won out.

“I hated to see it fall apart,” he said, “but as it was going into deep decline was about the time Westcott came available.”

Chepp tried urging local preservationists to step in and at least put the rock garden on an annual list of endangered historic sites.

“I’ve given up on those guys over time,” he said. “Preservationists are usually very selective preservationists.”

The fate of the Hartman Rock Garden was even seriously called into question when its caretaker — Hartman’s son — died in 2007.

Enter the Kohler Foundation, which bought the property sight unseen.

In folk/outsider art circles, the Hartman Rock Garden is a well-known environment.

“From the visuals we’ve seen,” Yoho said, “we just felt it had great merit.”

Work on the Hartman site will begin in May.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Yoho said, “but all manageable.”

She envisions the attached house being used by a caretaker or artist-in-residence.

It all sounds too good to be true — which, of course, it might be.

“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” Chepp said.

For each of its projects, the foundation buys the property, restores the art and then gifts it back to a local nonprofit.

But with money as tight as it is, who’s going to care for a rock garden off the beaten path? The Springfield Museum of Art?

The museum is facing a $380,000 budget shortfall.

Yoho is optimistic, citing the popularity in Phillips, Wis., of the similar Wisconsin Concrete Park.

“We may be giving them something that can expand their draw,” she said.

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0352 or amcginn@coxohio.com.