Chattooga County buys Finster's Paradise Garden

Chattooga County buys Finster's Paradise Garden

February 8th, 2012 by Tim Omarzu in News

Folk artist Howard Finster's World's Folk Art Church is shown in his Paradise Gardens in Pennville, Ga. The church, where he held hundreds of weddings and other events is now nearly beyond repair.

Folk artist Howard Finster's World's Folk Art Church...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Chattooga County's most famous site likely is Paradise Garden, a swampy, 4-acre maze of buildings, sculptures and displays near Summerville, Ga., created by the late folk artist Howard Finster.

Featuring found objects and recycled materials such as bottles, bathtubs and bicycle frames, the garden was the backdrop in the early 1980s when the indie-rock band R.E.M. filmed its video for "Radio Free Europe," the band's first single to hit the charts.

On Tuesday, Chattooga County officials announced they used $125,000 in grant money and donations to buy the site so it can be preserved and promoted.

"We hope to see it become more of a tourist attraction," said the county's sole commissioner, Jason Winters. "We're very excited about the possibilities."

He noted of the purchase, "No county funds have been used."

Until now, the garden has been open only intermittently for events such as an annual Finster Festival and on summer weekends.

Chattooga County officials have wanted to take ownership of the property for about a decade, Winters said. What finally made the purchase a reality was the county's successful application for a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal panel that assists Appalachian communities with economic development.

The federal grant required a local match of about $30,000, Winters said, and it took only a month for the county to raise that through letter writing and word of mouth.

"I believe there were close to 100 donors that gave from $5 to $5,000," he said. "We even had a donation from India."

The county will hold title to the property, but its operation and maintenance will be handled by the recently created Paradise Garden Foundation. The foundation, headed by Summerville native Jordan H. Poole, is working to restore the garden with the help of a historical preservation team that includes the architectural firm Lord, Aeck and Sargent in Atlanta and landscape architecture firm The Jaeger Co., which has a new Chattanooga office.

Finster, a Baptist minister born in 1916, named the canals he built to drain the garden after biblical rivers. The canals need attention, as do other features, such as a distinctive circular tower that Finster placed atop the low-pitched, gabled roof of an existing church on the site.

"[The garden] really is in a diminished condition from where it was in its heyday," said William Shealy, a landscape architect with The Jaeger Co.

Finster built with off-the-shelf materials, such as plywood. That could make restoration less expensive, because restorers are not "going to Rome to get brick," said preservation architect Jack Pyburn, a principal with Lord, Aeck and Sargent who's leading the historical preservation team.

Pyburn couldn't yet say how much restoration might cost. The county's ownership of the property should assist with further grant-seeking and fundraising, according to Winters.

Finster made thousands of paintings before he died in 2001 at 84, including art for the Talking Heads album "Little Creatures," which "Rolling Stone" magazine chose as album cover of the year in 1985.

Fame, however, didn't draw Finster away from lifelong residence in Chattooga County.

"First and foremost, he was a resident of Chattooga County, and he was very proud of that," Winters said.