SUMMERVILLE — Changes and improvements made during recent years at Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden may pale in comparison to some of the work that is still on the drawing board.
“If the last time you were at Paradise Garden was maybe five years ago, you are in for a treat if you will come back,” said Eddie Elsberry, chairman of the Paradise Garden Foundation Board of Directors.
Finster, a preacher/bicycle repairman turned preacher/folk artist, created the garden over a series of years. He died in 2001. His artwork has graced the cover of REM record albums and can be seen in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
Paradise Garden Executive Director Jordan Poole said that plans are slowly coming together for a major restoration project at the iconic Finster’s World’s Folk Art Church.
“We’ve been planning exactly how we’re going to tackle getting into a multi-use space, a learning center that people can come to be able to hear lectures, have receptions and all sorts of other things,” Poole said. “The church itself was not constructed with traditional construction (materials). It’s something you have to scratch your head at a little bit.”
Steven Vias, Cloudland, a retired nuclear engineer, is one of the people on the team of thinkers trying to develop a strategy for the restoration.
Poole said the rehabilitation and restoration could cost upwards of a million dollars and the foundation has already started searching for grants to help make the project happen. “We need to have good solid plans on a building like that first,” Poole said. “It’s definitely going to be a difficult project.”
Poole said that the work will involve stabilizing the structure, the replacement of a lot of rotten materials bit by bit, along with a near complete restoration of the exterior, which has been damaged by time and water.
Two years ago, an old barn, or shed, was converted into a clean, new gallery to show off some of Finster’s art and collectibles. The newness of the renovations is barely noticeable as visitors drive up to the gardens, 200 N. Lewis St.
“The most significant piece that we have done in the gardens in the past year is actually uncover some of the mosaic walkway that had just been covered over by silt since the 90s,” Elsberry said.
Elsberry also said crews pulled some tin off one building to reveal some hand paintings that Finster had done which no one had been aware of.
Poole said he believes Finster could envision the improvements that have been taking place the last couple of year. “I think he thought ahead,” Poole said.
Preserving the core of Finster’s collections and work has remained at the heart of each step of the restoration and renovation work that has taken place since the Paradise Garden Foundation was created in 2013.
For the past two years, visitors to Paradise Garden could actually stay in the Artist Cottage.
“We are a little judicious about the guests. We screen them a little bit,” Poole said. A night at the cottage includes a key to the garden that allows access throughout the evening.
An interior designer friend of Poole’s in Atlanta called on some of her clients to help mix and match the decorations in the cottage. The cottage includes items from the film Parental Guidance with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler.
The cottage is a building that had been abandoned for many years. Half of the building was converted into office space for Poole and the foundation leaders.
Like so many landmarks, Poole is amazed at how many local people say they have never been to Paradise Garden.
The new winter hours are Thursday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The last tours will actually begin at 4 p.m. Beginning Jan. 1, Paradise Garden will be raising its rates. “To value yourself, you have to value your admission price, plus it helps to make sure we can always pay for the meticulous landscaping we have here at Paradise Garden,” Poole said.
The admission will be $15 and $10 for seniors age 55 and older. Students will be admitted for $5. The current price is $5, $3 and $2.