Florence Stahl remembers the corner of Clay Avenue and Fifth Street from decades ago: a mess of an empty corner lot, a space of weeds and cement from a house that, once upon a time, stood there. It was a disheveled place where, years ago, memories had been made in a home that eventually was torn down in the 1960s, a place where nostalgia quickly turned to sadness: here was a lot where, long ago, people laughed and played and raised families.
But, in 1980, when Stahl moved her bridal shop from Fruitport to the pink Victorian at 464 W. Clay Ave., the lot next door was silent: no families gathered there; no memories were being made. So, Stahl—who, after the death of her husband, Ralph Bright, in 1979, inherited the pink mansion that had been in her spouse’s family for generations—began to make changes.
She started to mow the grass and trim the bushes. Once the city, which owned the lot, took over those duties, Stahl began to think further about the space’s future. Inspired by the historic homes surrounding the lot, she entertained the idea of starting a Victorian garden. But, as she became further entrenched in local history, Stahl came up with another idea: create a French garden that would honor Muskegon’s French heritage. French traders often traveled through the Muskegon area as early as the 1600s, and Jean Baptiste, a French Canadian fur trader, is believed to have established the first settler trading post on Muskegon Lake in 1812. In fact, a thriving French community is the reason Muskegon’s St. Jean Baptiste was built, and many of the city’s religious services were, once upon a time, held entirely in French.
And so, thanks to a partnership that included Stahl, the Lakeshore Garden Masters (previously the Muskegon chapter of Michigan State University’s Master Gardener program), the city, and local businesses, the Monet Garden of Muskegon was born in 2000. For the past 18 years, the corner has been a story not of vacant space, but of transformation, of volunteers pouring their all into the garden, of caring for the environment, of the difference this pocket-sized lot can make for an entire community.
“In the last 18 years, there have been thousands of people who have gone through that garden,” said Stahl, who sold the pink mansion at 464 W. Clay Ave. last year. It is now home to The Tish, a sustainable salon and spa.
“There’s people at the garden all the time,” Stahl continued. “Art teachers bring their classes there to draw. Hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts all tell their people to go see the Monet Garden. It’s so beautiful. I’m very proud of it.”
For close to two decades, the garden—which is free to the public and cared for entirely by volunteers from the Lakeshore Garden Masters—has been an urban oasis: a lush haven where all of the plantings and structures are meant to provide a miniature version of Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. Think: water lilies, roses, irises, asters, a blue bridge reminiscent of the one featured in Monet’s “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies,” and much more. (Quick story: two of the Muskegon members of the Master Gardener program traveled to the Monet Garden in France to study it in order to make the Clay Avenue site as authentic as possible. While doing so, they snagged a tiny chip of blue paint from the blue bridge, which Port City Paints was able to match exactly for the bridge in Muskegon’s garden.)
The beauty that has ensued has been more than embraced by the community. It is a place where monarch butterflies, bees and humans alike spend their time, where veterans come to rest, where people celebrate their marriages and high school seniors take portraits, where, almost any day of the week, you’ll see someone sitting on the bench, deep in thought, staring at the plants that are there almost year-round.
“One time, I was working at the garden and an older gentleman, a veteran, on an electric scooter came through the garden,” Lakeshore Garden Masters President Susan Thorpe said. “He said he comes as often as he can; it gets him out of the house. He said it’s one of the few places he can go to get his mind off his disability.”
And it’s not just community members who are drawn to the garden. Volunteers said they have met people from around the globe who come to visit the green space, which is located down the street from the Lakeshore Museum Center, the Scolnik House of the Depression Era, and Hackley Park.
“We have many people from other countries who come to visit,” Lakeshore Garden Masters Vice President Jean Baker said. “You don’t have to go to Giverny, France to see the Monet Garden. It’s a taste of that for people who can’t go to that garden.”
All of this work translates to an inviting, beautiful, and peaceful space that’s for everyone: anyone is welcome to come and spend time with the flowers, butterflies and bees. It gives anyone a chance to step away from the bustle of their everyday lives and spend time in nature—right in the middle of the city. But it’s about even more than a pretty space: it’s about the formation of community, about neighbors meeting neighbors in a place designed just for them. It’s about residents meeting citizens from far-flung countries, about people from very different places connecting in a garden in Muskegon. It’s about growing something: flowers, friendships, partnerships between volunteers, the city, and businesses.
This has not gone unnoticed by those outside of the city, and Monet Garden of Muskegon recently landed a Keep Michigan Beautiful Award, which is given to programs that substantially contribute to environmental improvement, cleanup, beautification, site restoration, and historical preservation throughout the state. Lakeshore Garden Masters members will travel to Frankenmuth this month to receive the award.
“It’s quite an honor to be included in the group of people who get these awards,” Thorpe said. “We’ve been an integral part of the positive movement in Muskegon.”
As 20th anniversary approaches, a fundraising goal for the Monet Garden of Muskegon
The Monet Garden of Muskegon’s 20th birthday is just around the corner—and the space, while still beautiful, is starting to show its age. To fund the renovation work that’s needed there, the Lakeshore Garden Masters kicked off a fundraising campaign a couple months ago. The Monet Garden has a fund at the Muskegon Community Foundation, into which donations can be made, but that money helps the group with its yearly garden costs, including public programming at the space, and is not enough to pay for the restorations.
The group aims to raise $20,000 by 2020 to celebrate the 20th anniversary; already, they have received $9,000 in donations.
“Local businesses and individuals have been really generous with us,” Thorpe said.
To see details on how to support the garden, please go to the end of the article.
Some renovation work has already begun, and this week concrete is being poured to create sidewalks in order to make the garden accessible to people with disabilities. Additionally, the city removed trees that grew too large for the space.
“They did that at no cost,” Thorpe said. “[Muskegon City Manager] Frank Peterson and the city have been really helpful.”
Once the group reaches its $20,000 goal, further work will include pond renovations, refurbishing the bridge, adding tulips, replacing the main garden sign, and restructuring and recementing the stones that line the outer edge of the pond. Among the numerous local businesses that have partnered with the garden over the years is Weesies Brothers, which is helping the Lakeshore Garden Masters with replantings at the garden.
The volunteers behind the Monet Garden: Lakeshore Garden Masters
Previously an extension of MSU’s Master Gardener program, an adult horticulture education and volunteer leader training program, the Lakeshore Garden Masters became its current organization around 2008 due to budget cutbacks that prompted MSU to pull its master gardener program from Muskegon and Ottawa Counties.
Once renamed and restructured, the Lakeshore Garden Masters no longer required members to be certified as master gardeners and aimed to bring together those passionate for spending some time with the soil—novices and experts alike.
“You can just be someone who loves to dig in the dirt,” Thorpe said.
“Or wants to learn more about gardening,” Baker added.
Currently, the organization has about 35 members—and they’re looking for new additions.
“We’ve aged in place, and we’re looking for younger members to carry this on,” Thorpe said.
In addition to caring for the Monet Garden, the group offers a wide range of programming from March through October each year. This past year, for example, the organization connected members with area experts on topics such as vegetable and fruit gardening, roses, home food preservation, and more.
Planning for the future: A downtown garden tour
In addition to the Monet Garden, there are a number of green spaces throughout Muskegon’s downtown—and Stahl, Thorpe and Baker are hoping a walking tour of the city’s lush spots will happen in the not-too-distant future. Other downtown gardens include the Shakespeare Garden at Hackley Library, a memorial garden at Temple B’Nai Israel, and the Heritage Memorial Garden.
“A really fun thing would be to have a number of gardens as part of a walking tour,” said Stahl, who has planted gardens throughout the downtown. “There could be a number of gardens involved, and a tour guide that you could pick up at the Chamber or Convention Bureau and then, at your own leisure, you could walk along and see the gardens. The brochure could tell you about the gardens. I think that would be a very worthwhile tourist attraction.”
Such a tour would showcase some of the best of Muskegon: a world in which people take the time to grow something, to care for the earth and for their neighbors.
“I’ve always wanted to make Muskegon a better place in some small way that I could do,” Stahl said. “That’s what all of us do downtown—try to improve it and have something we’re really proud of.”
To donate to the Monet Garden of Muskegon, you can:
- Go to the Lakeshore Garden Masters’ Go Fund Me page (click here).
- Make an online, tax-deductible donation on the Muskegon Community Foundation’s website (click here).
- Mail a tax-deductible check to: Muskegon Community Foundation/Monet Garden Fund, 425 W. Western Avenue, Muskegon, MI 49440.
Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Photos by Anna Gustafson, unless otherwise noted. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.