Ancient oak anchors gorgeous gardens
When the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens opened in 1958, there was a huge reason "and Gardens" was included in the bequeath that created the cultural institution.
In the 1930s, Mrs. Waldo Cummer secured the Olmsted Brothers landscape architectural firm to balance the existing greenspaces that graced a newly reorganized property.
The Olmsted brothers were sons and proteges of an illustrious father, Frederick Law Olmsted. It was Mr. Olmsted who designed Central Park in New York City and the grand green expanse at the Chicago Exposition of 1893, the precursor to Chicago's 23 miles of uninterrupted lakefront.
The Olmsted design joined previous gardening projects that were completed earlier in the century — an Italianate garden, which is considered the jewel of the 1.5 acres, and one with an English theme.
The first Cummers settled in Jacksonville about 1902. The gardens flourished in the Florida air and sun along the banks of the St. Johns River in what is now the historic Riverside section. Recently, the Olmsted Garden was given a well-earned facelift.
The renovation of this historic garden, which never before had been open to the public, nearly doubles the museum's Riverfront footage and provides another platform to discuss art, design, history and environmental conservation through the use of landscape.
Yet, as the museum complex matured, expanded and built anew, one live oak tree in the upper area of the original property continues to lure hundreds of thousands to take a look at it. It is lovingly called the Cummer oak.
In the garden
The Cummer oak is a live oak, native to the southern United States and featuring heavy, spreading limbs. The undulating nature of the limbs provides a home for Spanish moss. In the spring, the tree sheds its leaves and begins new growth. For this tree, the new growth has been going on for centuries.
The Cummer oak is arguably 200 years old, which means it was a centenarian when the first Cummers relocated from Michigan to watch over their Florida cypress lumber businesses. The tree was possibly 100 years old when Henry Ford designed the Model T, perhaps a sapling when the victory at the Battle of New Orleans ended the War of 1812.
Today, the Cummer oak is 80-plus feet high with a spread of 150 feet — a football field is 160 feet wide. Its trunk boasts a 21-foot circumference. Carefully placed supports help to keep the arms of the glorious tree from resting on the ground and to keep their weight pulling away from the tree's trunk.
Arborists say the oak is adequately sheltered from tropical winds and care has been taken with new additions to the museum — all were built on stilts so not to disturb the root system. Plus, the tree has plenty of water and attention guaranteed by a trust fund established for its care. Its only true threat is old age.
Throughout the year, the gardens brim with rare horticultural specimens nestled under a canopy of mature live oaks. In addition to the lush beds, features such as reflecting pools, fountains, arbors, antique ornaments and sculptures help create a very special outdoor space that complements the museum's collections.
In 2010, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Inside the museum
There are hundreds of thousands of reasons to go inside the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, too, as the collection ranges from 2100 B.C. to the 21st century. Nearly 110,000 people go each year to see the works of American artists, the likes of Frieseke, Singer-Sargent and Gilbert Stuart, and Europeans, too, such as Pissarro. There are sculptures from Rodin to Savage and Meissen porcelain.
The Cummer has gathered a rare and most valuable collection of more than 700 pieces of Early Meissen porcelain, which was developed in Europe, circa 1708.
Three years ago, a question arose about two items in the collection that the museum took to heart — and as a call to action. Exhaustive findings determined that the pieces were illegally seized by the Nazis from the Gustav Von Klemperer estate, the owner of the finest Meissen collection ever assembled.
The Cummer returned the two items to the family only to have the Von Klemperer heirs agree to lend the pieces back for one year so the story of their past may be shared with the world.
These pieces have provided the museum with a platform to discuss Nazi art looting that systematically pillaged cultural property and artworks throughout continental Europe. Lectures, part of the daily scheduling of educational programming at the Cummer, usually address the finer points of art and collecting. Sometimes, the gatherings are in the galleries, other times in meeting spaces and, if you are lucky to be at the museum on a perfect Florida day, outdoors in one of the gardens.