Easy Does It in New Orleans
For the sake of art, gracious spaces under spreading oaks.
By Allen Freeman
Photo by David Spielman
Sydney Besthoff tells his story in a subdued version of his city's
jambalaya idiom, the argot used by affluent New Orleans natives
as they recount any event worth comment. Besthoff is the former
K&B drugstore king, whose donation of more than 40 contemporary
sculptures forms the core of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture
Garden. The garden opened in City Park in November 2003; Sawyer/Berson
Architecture and Landscape Architecture of New York City and Lee
Ledbetter Architects of New Orleans collaborated on the six-year
project for the New Orleans Museum of Art.
"I've told the story of how we got started collecting many times," Besthoff drawls pleasantly. "In the early seventies, we had been
looking a year for an office building for my company, and when this building came up for sale it was love at first sight." John Hancock
Life Insurance owned the downtown structure, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) for John Hancock in the early 1960s. "I negotiated
for it and made the arrangements, but nobody discussed the sculpture."
"The sculpture"a tall, fluted, granite column topped by an abstracted
crescent from which water flowed-was by Isamu Noguchi. SOM had commissioned
it for the building's plaza, but by the time the building was to be sold, the plaza had settled unevenly, the sculpture was off-kilter,
and the fountain wasn't working. During negotiations, Besthoff cast an appreciative eye on the Noguchi and said nothing about it.
"They had sent a young attorney from Boston to complete the paperwork,"
he continues. "And when it came time to sign on the dotted line and put up my money, I'm sitting there and thinking to myself, 'I
know this sculpture is worth something.' I had heard of Noguchi and particularly liked this one. But nobody said a word about it,
and of course it was part of the building, so they weren't going to remove it after the sale." As owner of the piece, Besthoff obtained
the original shop drawings and had it restored.
Soon, with advice from John Bullard, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, Besthoff and his wife, Walda, started acquiring other
contemporary pieces to keep the Noguchi company on the renamed K&B
Plaza. They bought a few nonfigurative pieces, notably an airy stainless
steel work by George Rickey, a very tall stainless steel tower by Kenneth Snelson, and a work of segmented marble cubes by Minoru
Niizuma. Most of their purchases, however, were figurative works, including a reclining Mother and Child by Henry Moore, a
George Segal, and a bronze of four standing male figures by Elizabeth Frink. In an interview published in the New Orleans Museum of Art's
quarterly, Walda Besthoff told William A. Fagaly, the museum's assistant director for art, that the collection "pretty much grew like Topsy."
"With every good reason," she said, "when we first started collecting, we were not sure of ourselves, so we bought names. We bought things
that we thought were fairly classic, and as time went on, we became more aware of who was producing what, and we let our own tastes
govern what we were buying."
The idea for the sculpture garden grew out of a series of conversations
between the Besthoffs and Bullard, who had long dreamed of adding
a sculpture garden to the museum he has directed since 1973. The
project started to become a reality when the Besthoffs agreed to
donate works of art to the museum and the City Park board of commissioners
approved a nearly seven-acre bite out of the park's 1,500 acres.
It's an irregularly shaped parcel ideally situated between the museum
and the New Orleans Botanical Garden. A leg of City Park's system
of lagoons bisected the landa plusbut, unfortunately,
track for the park's miniature scenic train also ran through it.
There was a stand of 200-year-old live oaks at one end and an unattended
camellia garden under tall pines at the other.
Today, because the mature live oaks and pines were saved, it is hard to imagine the amount of work that went into the creation of
the sculpture garden. For that, credit goes to the team headed by architect Lee Ledbetter and his collaborator, landscape architect
Brian Sawyer. At the main entrance, rest rooms, a security office, and docent facilities are tucked into two matching pavilions (a
gate will be installed between them). Ledbetter faced the pavilions in a limestone-finished cast stone matching that on the museum and
shaped them cruciform in plan, which helps to minimize their bulk. Just inside the entrance, instead of the mature camelliasplaced
there decades ago by a group called the Men's Camellia Cluba lawn spreads under the towering pines. This forecourt leads into a romantic
arrangement of paved paths curving around the lagoon and deeply shaded islands of green dominated by expansive live oaks draped
in Spanish moss. As the sun shifts, garden rooms become illuminated and pull you from here to there.
As you wander through the Besthoff Sculpture Garden for the first time, it's hard to envision its plan and nearly impossible to gauge
its boundaries and extent. Instead, the landscape gradually unfolds before you, much like New Orleans itself, where you are pretty sure
to lose any sense of the compass. The illusion that all this just naturally happened, that the landscape is unplanned, allows you
to more easily immerse yourself in the art. It's a case of nature protecting, even nurturing, whatever works of men and women happen
to be placed here. This is a lovely place for looking at pieces of sculpture.
All the principals in the garden's creationthe Besthoffs, Bullard, Ledbetter, and Sawyerdescribe the process as a sometimes difficult
but ultimately satisfying labor of love. The museum selected architect Ledbetter first, and he in turn proposed a dozen landscape architectsboth
big name and not so famousto work as his collaborator. The museum's
sculpture garden committee settled on Sawyer, Bullard says, because of his experience as a staff member of the Central Park Conservancy,
his work with Ledbetter when both were employed in the New York office of architect Robert A. M. Stern, and the appeal of employing
a bright, young architect/landscape architect teamboth Ledbetter and Sawyer were in their 30s when the project began. Ledbetter believes
Sawyer's work on Central Park's bridges and on its mature plants helped his cause with the committee. But Ledbetter had a personal
reason as well: "I knew Brian and I could disagree, and it wouldn't be the end of the world. That's important when you go into a project
"As soon as I started walking the site with Brian," Ledbetter continues, "I began to look at it in a new way. He pointed out natural precincts
suggested by the trees, places that later became even more defined as galleries. The precincts informed where the paths eventually
would go and also placement of the ground cover and shrubsthe framing
devices for the sculpture." City Park administrators quite willingly allowed the rerouting of the miniature scenic train around the garden,
a move that really relieved Ledbetter, who says that if the track had remained as it was, "the garden would be a totally different
place today." Sawyer agrees.
"I always envisioned this as a late-nineteenth-century garden," Sawyer says about his approach to the garden's overall design. "To
begin with, that's what City Park is, and to my mind it is the only style that this little bit of landscape lends itself to. We had
a sort of dead topography where everything sloped one way or another, with no real rolling aspect to it. So we worked to get a more three-dimensional
quality with some elevated areas while maintaining accessibility [for people with disabilities.] We were able to do that and still
work with the existing elevation of the trees."
The lagoon, as the garden's baseline, was recontoured and enlarged
into two basins. The garden's three new pedestrian bridges had to
be high enough to clear paddleboats, and the approach paths had
to tie seamlessly to the bridges. From there, the land had to be
made to flow naturally. The landscape design team achieved many
of the grade increases with a lightweight structural soil composed
of shale, which permitted up to three feet of surface elevation
while allowing water and air to penetrate to established roots.
In addition, miles of drainage and irrigation pipe and electrical
conduits, necessary to undergird the garden, form a substructure
that had to be snaked through the site without severing tree roots.
In places where workers could not bury new pipes and conduits under
walkways, they temporarily washed away or blew away soil using a
patented device called the Air-Spade, and they then threaded lines
through and under root systems. Most rainwater is diverted into
the lagoon, but the designers also employed area drains and French
drainssystems of below-grade gravel trenches and perforated pipes.
Piecing all this together was "a wonderful puzzle," Sawyer says.
"Quite a headache, but in the end it proved fascinating." It all
paid off for Sydney Besthoff, who says the garden's best feature
is "the integration of the landscape and the old trees with the
lagoon and the walksthe ambience achieved in the landscape."
When visiting the garden just before it opened, I was delighted
by the quality of Sawyer's landscapes and the experience of walking
through them and by the design and scale of Ledbetter's bridges,
pavilions, exedra, and fences. I found, however, that the color
of the walkway pavers occasionally distracted my attention from
the works of art. In a budget crunch, concrete sets, too light in
hue, as it happens, were substituted for the originally specified
granite sets, which would have been less conspicuous and would have
also expressed a more appropriate permanence. Fortunately, thanks
to New Orleans's humid, warm climate, which quickly lays a patina
on anything left out in the weather, the pavers will darken as they
Originally the designers were asked to create space for 45 sculptures,
but the sculpture garden opened with 50 and does not seem crowded.
Ledbetter and Sawyer indicated locations on the site plan without
specifying which piece would go where and later worked with Bullard,
Fagaly, and the Besthoffsparticularly Sydney, Ledbetter saysto
place the pieces. Four works are especially at home: Kenneth Snelson's
45-foot-high Virlane Tower seems content to reside on a pedestal
in the lagoon; George Segal's painted bronze, Three People and
Four Park Benches, is just right for this park; and, every arachnophobe's
nightmare, the ten-and-a-half-foot-tall bronze Spider, by
Louise Bourgeois, gives the impression of having dropped out of
a spreading oak. The fourth, Necklaces, by Jean-Michel Othoniel,
dangles from an oak like a string of Mardi Gras glass beads gone
astray. These four, especially, animate their settings and engage
"As in all collections, there are highs and some lows, and we will,
over the years, we hope, weed out the lows and replace them with
better pieces," Sydney Besthoff says candidly about the sculptures
he and Walda have collected. Some will argue that the pièce de résistance
is the Noguchi that launched the collection nearly 30 years ago.
When asked if the Noguchi might ever find its way from the K&B Plaza,
where it still resides, to the sculpture garden, Besthoff replies
thoughtfully, "I think it will, in due course."
Landscape architect: Sawyer/Berson Architecture and Landscape
Architecture: J. Brian Sawyer, Tim Orlando, Justin Fulweiler, Tricia
Alvez, Andrea Flamenco, Sarah Porter, Anthony Polito, Carmen Gonzales.
Architect: Lee Ledbetter Architects: Lee H. Ledbetter, Richard
G. Fullerton, Karri Maggio, Nichole Chauvin, Caroline Kwong. Lighting
designer: Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design. Civil
S.M.E.P. engineers: Burk-Kleinpeter and Huseman Wang Consulting
Engineers. Geotechnical engineer: Gore Engineering. Consulting
arborist: Bayou Tree Service. Landscape contractor: Oasis
Horticultural Services. Electrical contractor: Frischhertz Electric.
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