You’ll remember that we visited Linmar Gardens, the home of my Uncle Bob and his partner Hal, in Galena, Illinois in June. Bob and his twin sister, my Aunt Mary, were marking their 80th birthday. While their birthday celebration was the main occasion, we were treated to a detailed tour of the gardens with Uncle Bob as our guide.
Bob narrates a tour in just the fashion I like – by painting a verbal landscape which complements the sights, sounds, and fragrances of your visit. I’m happy that I will be returning to Galena to work with Bob on an exciting project soon, as I couldn’t possibly begin to remember all the interesting things we learned during our walkabout. Here’s an attempt:
The garden evolved out of Hal’s artistic vision more than 30 years ago. Hal had been in the advertising business for 25 years, living and working in the world depicted in Mad Men. While working his way to Executive Art Director for Leo Burnett in Chicago, Hal, who had been formally trained at the Chicago Art Institute, painted on nights and weekends. It wasn’t enough, and he left advertising to pursue his art full time.
Hal believes, “there is a spiritual and mystic side to man that is being neglected in our so-called advanced world. It’s a world that has alienated us from our fellow man, from our environment, and our God.” It’s not hard to see how Linmar came to be.
Hal fell in love with Galena, the pretty little town with big history. Galena is a river town whose heyday was in the mid-19th century. Galena also claims Ulysses S. Grant as a favorite son, along with 8 other Civil War generals.
The property Hal purchased in the middle of Galena (up the hill to the left of the church spire in this photo) contained a historic residence, built of brick as most of Galena’s buildings are. Hal started by fixing up the house, which took several years. It’s now a welcoming home, filled with art and artifacts, which we detailed here.
The rest of the property was a 3-1/2 acre trash pit. Previously, there had been small lead mining and stone quarry operations on it. Mostly though, residents of the finer homes on Prospect Street, like this one, had been used to dumping their garbage and discards down the hill at street’s end for years.
Galena High School (now converted to residential lofts) is also just up the street, which abruptly stops at the edge of one of the many bluffs that comprise Galena. It is easy to see how the house and grounds could have been overlooked and neglected over the years, tucked away from everyday life which occurred above and below.
There’s a small sign, easy to miss, and a steep driveway that hugs the side of the hill where Prospect Street ends. It is in this way you descend into the secret, enchanted world that is now Linmar Gardens.
You emerge from the driveway’s canopy of trees into a transformative peace designed from Hal’s intention. This is a hint of what is to come. Let’s take a walk through the experience that Hal has created.
Everywhere you turn, there is extraordinary detail. The garden is comprised of innumerable plants, trees and shrubs. The selections give a nod to the historical significance of the site with vintage roses and traditional cultivars such as these. As well, Hal tempts nature by incorporating more fragile plants and trees, which are moved to shelter for the winter months, and then returned to their place once winter has passed.
In the presence of such grace, it is easy to forget the scale of Hal’s undertaking. Only as we walk through each new outdoor room beyond the last do we begin to understand the massive amount of work this effort truly was.
Hal is Norwegian, a species especially prone to understatement. As Minnesotans surrounded by hardy, no-nonsense Scandinavians who wouldn’t dream of resorting to hyperbole or any other manifestation of personality excess, we understand this. (We made him laugh with the one about the Norwegian who loved his wife so much he almost told her.)
It’s no surprise that Hal is self-deprecating in his description of how the garden came to evolve: “I started out the back door and it just went from there.”
Indeed, sir! Tons of garbage and trash hauled away, to be replaced with tons of soil, gravel, iron fencing and rock to build walls, pathways, fountains, fencing, fountains, ponds, terraces and innumerable “rooms.”
While we consider Hal’s paintings to be masterpieces in their own right, the garden appears to have arisen from the hand of the Master Himself, with Hal’s able assist. We don’t think Hal would object to this characterization.
Hal’s artistic statement is, in part: My quest is to find spirituality and meaning in life. A search for spiritual truth that goes beyond all understanding is the focus of my painting. The result is a work in progress that just continues with no answers, only more questions.
A garden is definitely a work in progress that can lead one down a spiritual path. Along the way, there are many realizations, from those pertaining to interconnection between living things to the peace which passeth all understanding. The acts associated with preparing, tilling, planting, nurturing, delighting, and returning the gift to the soil represent the finest metaphor, resplendent in ultimate simplicity.
Throughout Linmar, the visitor walks within this metaphor. As one whose earliest memories include this act of faith, I am spellbound by its manifestation. The reminders are everywhere. Most obvious is the garden of the four seasons, which one overlooks in passing. The effect is a paean to life’s graduation – spring, summer, fall and winter – beautifully depicted in sensory fashion.
Linmar’s showstopper is the sunken garden, devised out of the ruins of the foundation of the Union Baptist Church. Union Baptist was the first African American church in the region. The context is stunning. Hal’s spiritual tribute to the building which once stood here has a higher degree of sanctity, evoked by the reflecting pool in a nod to the baptismal font.
In the sunken garden the visitor descends into a greater place of spiritual reflection and repose. Peace and quietness of spirit bathe the soul in this space. The remarkable effect is one of cleansing and mental purification.
Hal says, “I think we make art so that words aren’t the only means to connect with one another.”
In these gardens, Hal has enabled a vivid connection with not only each other, but with a higher power. Surely this must be what God, through Hal’s creative interpretation, must envision for us, his creatures here on earth.
If you would like to learn more about Linmar Gardens, visit on the web here. If you plan a trip to Galena, make sure you visit. Twice daily tours led by my Uncle Bob are available in season, and special events such as weddings, parties, and picnics are welcomed.
Columns, Hal and Sunken Garden 2 – Linmar Gardens
All others – Peter Wuebker