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Happy 25th Anniversary Oakhurst!

Happy 25th Anniversary, Oakhurst

“Oakhurst itself is the exhibit. Oakhurst itself is the work of art,” said Frank Bracken at the Ball family opening of Oakhurst. “It is the literature, it is the musical composition. Oakhurst is what we come to experience, what we come to see and what we come to learn from. It is an interactive place. It’s a place in which we can … interact with nature. And that’s really what Oakhurst is all about.”
After more than five years of planning, renovation, and rehabilitation, the home and gardens of George and Frances Woodworth Ball and their daughter Elisabeth “Betty” were alive again. On Saturday, May 27, 1995, the doors of the house and the gates to the gardens were thrown open, and the public was invited in. The first stop was the Visitor Center, the former home of Lucius and Sarah Rogers Ball and their daughter Helen. There, guests visited the exhibit “Minnetrista: Bend in the River,” an exploration of how the Ball family built their homes and developed the land along the White River. Before venturing into the gardens, visitors watched “The Wonderment of Oakhurst Gardens,” a slide show featuring photos taken by Betty Ball. Tours of the house, gardens, and reproductions of Betty’s dollhouse and cabin were available.

Betty, born in 1897, lived her entire life at Oakhurst. After her death in 1982, the house stood empty, and the gardens were untended but not forgotten. By the late 1980s, several people including Frank Ball and Nick Clark, President and CEO of Minnetrista Cultural Center, were exploring the idea of creating an environmental education center at Oakhurst. Clark noted that Betty, “… spent her whole life studying nature, the environment and ecology. The grounds of Oakhurst were her outdoor laboratory. Now, we want to pass on her knowledge to others.”

Landscape architect Phil Tevis was brought on as project manager in 1989, and the work began. The first several months of the project were spent poking and prodding in the garden with sticks and shovels looking for whatever plants might remain. After that, invasive plants were removed, and hardscape features were uncovered. Concurrently, a mission statement, goals, and objectives for the project were established, and a development committee was formed.

The committee included Ball family members; representatives of the George and Frances Ball Foundation and Ball Brothers Foundation; architects; and representatives of Minnetrista. Meetings were always held on site, because, as Tevis noted, “The people that were going to show up in this mess of a place were the people who were able to devote time to the project…. There was a five year commitment being made, and they had to start out with devoted people.”
While the committee planned, Tevis and his crew continued to work on several projects, including scouring the archives for photos and documents relating to the gardens, house, and family. Architect Jim Gooden was brought into the project to do a feasibility study for the house that was built in 1895. Should it be torn down? Mothballed? Preserved? Ultimately, of course, the decision was made to save the house and to interpret it at the “height of occupancy,” the 1930s. With that decision made, renovation work on the house began. New footers were poured in the basement, the tar roof was removed and replaced by shingles, the front porch was rebuilt, layers of paint were removed from the exterior – the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, work continued in the garden, including adding paths decorated with mosaics, and building the cabin, dollhouse, and a tool shed.

At the same time, a crew of workers, including electricians, painters, plasterers, mechanical contractors, and many others worked inside the house. Lead paint had to be removed, walls repaired, and old varnish removed from woodwork. All of the hardwood floors were refinished. Finally, the interior was decorated with a combination of Ball family furniture and decorative arts and other period pieces.
For those who worked on the project, it became a very personal experience. Phil Tevis noted “the extraordinary Esprit de Corps – everyone, bar none who has worked on this project whether they are temporary people or not, have had a sense of ownership and an enormous sense of pride in the project.” And Frances Petty Sargent, a member of the development committee, said, “Every time I walk into the house, I feel like it’s alive…. This has been one of the most thrilling and exciting things I’ve ever been involved in.”
Today, as Oakhurst celebrates its 25th anniversary, and the house its 125th anniversary, the home and gardens are still a vibrant, welcoming reminder of the life led by George, Frances, and Betty.