Tom Eblen: Mathews Garden, a 'living botany lab,' threatened by UK's growth

Herald-Leader Columnist,Tom EblenFebruary 11, 2014 

Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky doesn't look like much in its winter dormancy, covered with snow.

James Krupa, a biology professor, says UK administrators have long complained that the garden doesn't look like much any time of the year. But that's not the point.

The century-old garden might be the most biologically diverse half-acre in Kentucky, Krupa said, with about 350 species of mostly native plants and trees. The garden provides a unique classroom, allowing students to see and compare many unusual plants that rarely grow together.

But like some of its plant species, Mathews Garden is endangered. A proposed renovation of UK's College of Law building would destroy this garden, plus two adjoining houses, built in 1900 and 1920.

When the $65 million law school renovation was announced in 2012, administrators said the project would claim both houses and the garden. Krupa said he was told recently that the garden is doomed.

But UK spokesman Jay Blanton said no decision about the fate of the garden or houses has been made and won't be made until after state and private funding are secured for the much-needed renovation. "Those decisions would be part of the design process," he said.

Last month, when the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation released its annual list of Central Kentucky's most-endangered historic places, every one was owned by UK. Mathews Garden and the two houses were on the list for the second straight year. The group also complained that UK had demolished a circa-1800 house at Spindletop Farm without notice or warning.

UK trustees have approved plans to demolish several buildings designed between the 1940s and the 1960s by noted architect Ernst Johnson, and a circa-1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for new dormitories to be built and leased by a private contractor.

Architects have complained about the loss of the "architecturally significant" buildings, and the poor design and construction quality of the new dormitories.

Clarence Mathews, a UK professor of botany and horticulture, created the garden in his backyard after he built a frame house at the edge of campus in 1900. Mathews' daughter, Ruth, transferred the property to UK in 1968 but continued to live there. She died in 1986.

The Mathews house and the Ligon house next door have been used for UK offices. But the Mathews house is now vacant and showing signs of exterior decay from lack of maintenance.

Krupa said he volunteered to restore the garden in 2000. He said he began by removing 20 truckloads of honeysuckle and other invasive species.

Over the years, Krupa said, he has spent countless hours and more than $41,000 in UK funding and his own money improving and maintaining the garden, which he said is used by classes with 1,500 students each year. He has added plants, trails, benches and plant-identification markers.

Krupa said the garden is a living botany textbook, with every Kentucky variety of dogwood, azalea, hydrangea and viburnum, and many other plants. It has dozens of native wildflowers and several rare trees, including roundleaf birch, Georgia oak and striped maple.

The garden has a rare reproducing American elm tree. More than 75 percent of the once-ubiquitous American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease in the mid-20th century. Krupa said this might be the last one on campus.

"It's really amazing that so many species are here in this one place," Krupa said.

But Blanton said: "The question now is should a facility of dense undergrowth be in the center of campus or more appropriately relocated to a research tract on farms owned by the university?"

Krupa said the garden could not be moved successfully. "Half of the biological diversity is in the soil," he said.

Rather than expand sideways and take the garden and old houses, Krupa suggests that the law school expand back, which would displace a parking lot and a small, nondescript 1950s building.

"Administrators have always called this a weed patch," Krupa said of Mathews Garden. "But it's only a weed patch if you're ignorant. I'm up against ignorance, arrogance and a lot of faculty that are afraid to take on the administration."

For an institution of higher learning that trains many of Kentucky's architects and historic-preservation specialists, UK administrators are showing little regard for either discipline. Let's hope they don't flunk botany, too.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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