Creating ‘Big Rock Garden Nursery’ and ‘Gardens of Art – Gallery of Fine Art for the Garden.’

On April 11, 1981, George and Mary Ann Drake opened their new business “Big Rock Garden Nursery” on a 2-1/2 acre parcel of wooded land next to their home on the top of the hill in the Silver Beach neighborhood of Bellingham, Washington.  The purpose was to provide an employment opportunity for brain-damaged, developmentally disabled, and mentally ill young persons in a supportive environment.  The Drakes decided to specialize in plants for the Asian garden and soon had over 400 varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas and over 100 named varieties of Japanese maples in the inventory along with other varieties of plants for sale.  As time went on many of these varieties were planted in the environment so buyers could see what a mature plant would look like.

George and Mary Ann liked art for the garden but found not a single fine art gallery in a lovely garden setting on the west coast of North America.   George decided to open an art gallery among the plants they were selling which he called “Gardens of Art – Fine Art for the Garden.”  Soon he had sculpture on consignment from artists all over the U.S.  As often as he could Drake packed the company truck with sculpture and drove to the Seattle Garden Show, the Horticultural Exhibit at the PNE building in Vancouver, BC, to the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, Washington, and to many other locations in Washington State and British Columbia promoting the sale of fine art for the garden.  At one of these exhibits in Vancouver, B.C, he met David Marshall, Georg Schmerholz, Geert Maas, Zelko Kjundzic, Lee Gass, and other BC sculptors.  The next year they were all showing their sculptures in Drake’s “Gardens of Art” in Bellingham.

One day the President/CEO of Caitac Corporation, a major clothing manufacturer in Japan, visited Drake at the nursery/art gallery.  He spotted one of David Marshall’s sculptures and asked about the artist.  Drake told him about David.  “How much?” he asked.  “$12,000” Drake replied.  He walked on.  “Is that one also by Marshall?” he asked as he pointed to “Transition”.  Drake responded “Yes.”  “How much?”  “$18,000.”  “I’ll take that one.” he said and continued walking casually through the garden/gallery as though he had just purchased a dozen eggs.  It was the largest sale of a work by David up to that time.  David was flabbergasted!

After 12 years of operation as a private nursery/art gallery, the City of Bellingham made an offer to the Drakes to purchase their land on the hilltop to create a city park which the Drakes accepted.  That last year of business the Drakes sold over a quarter of a million dollars of fine art for the home garden proving that there was a role for such a gallery.

Big Rock Garden Park

Background: Beginning in 1968 my wife, Mary Ann, and I began looking for property for building our future home. We ended up with about eleven acres on the skyline of the Silver Beach neighborhood at the north end of Lake Whatcom. We loved the woods and took measures to protect them, even to the point of filing for damages against the family of boys who cut a motorcycle trail through the woods. We placed the land in an “urban open space” tax classification to help us preserve it.

Building a nursery and art gallery: When David, our Down Syndrome son, was about to leave school we decided to start a “mom, pop, handicapped kid” nursery to provide employment for developmentally disabled, brain-damaged and mentally ill persons in our community. We called the nursery “Big Rock Garden Nursery.” We planted in the woods many of the varieties of plants we had for sale. Later, within the context of the nursery, we opened a sculpture gallery selling “fine art for the home garden”.

City asks to purchase open space: When the city created a special fund for the purchase of urban open space we informed the Park Department that the land we owned between the nursery and Silver Beach School was available if they wanted it. City Park Director Byron Elmendorf asked if he could have all our property appraised including the nursery/gallery. We agreed. Upon receiving the appraisal we agreed to sell the open space land for about 45 % of the appraised value. After we signed papers for that parcel of land Mary Ann thought we should also sell the nursery if the city wanted it. We did not promote the sale, merely indicated the property was available for purchase. We did not attend a single meeting or engage in any lobbying of the city council or the greenways committee to promote the purchase of the land.

The appraised value of the land is questioned: Pete Coy, Realtor, in a letter he gave to the Bellingham Herald, questioned the appraised value of the land and suggested it was way over-valued. When the Herald headlined the charges I called on Dick Beardsley, Editor of the Herald, to explain that Coy recently had sold a piece of land as a building site on which we had /iir building rights (to protect our view). Pete had once owned the land and has forgotten that the covenant prohibited any building on the land. When the buyer found he could not build on the lot he threatened to sue Pete who, in turn, tried to get us to give him the building rights. We refused. He thereupon rented an immense mobile home, painted a wooden rowboat a horrible iridescent pink color which he placed on top, and then parked the unit in such a way as to block our view of the lake. Threatened with court action he removed the boat and the next day the vehicle. Pete eventually had to purchase the building rights from us but with strict height restrictions on any dwelling to be built on the property. This cost him many thousands of dollars. Given this history of our relationship, I tried to convince Beardsley that Coy had an ax to grind with his charges.

The Herald Response: Dick Beardsley contested that the earlier interaction with Coy was irrelevant to the issue at hand. “This is a case of conflict of interest, with a former City Councilman selling his property to the city at an inflated value.” I asked where was the conflict of interest since I was not promoting the sale of the land, merely letting the city know they could have it at a price about half of the appraised value if they wanted it and was no longer on the City Council. “Then it is an issue of ‘appearance of fairness’” stated Beardsley. “How so?” I asked. “Ex-City Councilman getting favorable treatment” he responded. I pointed out that my wife and I had nothing to do with the appraisal and were willing to sell the land for much less than the appraised value. “How is that unfair?” I asked. It seems Beardsley accepted Coy’s charges and the Drakes were deemed guilty of allowing their land to be purchased by the city.

Realtors get involved: At this point, Micky Ghio, a close friend of Pete, hired an appraiser from Bellevue to do another appraisal of the land. This second appraiser filed a significantly lower value which was given large headlines in the Bellingham Herald. Park Director Elmendorf pointed out to the Herald that Ghio’s appraiser admitted he never even visited the property he was appraising and compared it with a property that was blocks distant from sewer, water, and paved road while Drake’s property already had sewer and water hooked up and much of it fronted a paved road. He also pointed out that the appraiser was not registered in the State of Washington to do such appraisals and mainly was experienced in appraising property for gas stations. The Herald ignored this information and did not publish any of it.

The reporter covering this major scandal for the Herald was informed that within two weeks of the sale of the first parcel of land to the city an agreement was made with the Bellingham School District for a water line to be run across it to service the new Silver Beach School saving the school district $74,000. She never reported this fact.

City Council orders a second appraisal: The city council then ordered an appraisal by an appraiser located in Everett so as to ensure no conflict of interest with local realtors, etc. So what does he do? He hired a local engineering firm that makes its living off local developers and realtors to do a design for the Drake property to generate an estimate for the cost of development of the land and then from that deduces the value of the undeveloped land. The local engineer designed the plat for the Drake land in such a way that the Drakes would have to pay the full cost for bringing all utilities and a road to a ten-acre parcel that Pete Coy had been trying to sell for years with no takers as the access costs were too high. Under that design, Drake would have to absorb all those access costs. With this design, the final appraised value of the Drake land was, less than the city had already agreed to pay.

Herald bias again: In a major article on the front page of the Herald the lower value of the City Council ordered appraisal was given headlines. What the Herald did not report was the statement “ which, even with the Drakes having to provide full city improvements to the land Coy was representing, the appraiser clearly pointed out the city still got its money’s worth. Not printing this statement in the Herald article clearly indicated that the Herald was not interested in objective reporting but had their own agenda of bashing the local government.

What was the public response? The Drakes were subjected to verbal abuse, critical and sometimes nasty letters to the Herald. On one occasion George had someone yelling at him who then spat at him for “ripping off the city”. The power of the press can have some very nasty consequences.

What was Drake’s response? The original goal of the Drakes in purchasing the land was to preserve the v^)ods. That goal was now met as a covenant placed on the property when/for the city/prohibits cutting down any tree over six inches in diameter. The later goal of providing an opportunity for developmentally disabled, brain-damaged and mentally ill persons to work in horticulture in a supportive environment ended with the sale of the nursery property to the city. To remedy this George and Mary Ann Drake decided to donate the entire amount of the sale price of the former nursery, now Big Rock Garden Park, plus part of the interest, to the Whatcom Community Foundation to be used in promoting the use of the park by that population. This amounted to a commitment to donate $300,000 dollars to fund these programs over a 30 year period.

Big Rock Garden Park has now become an internationally known sculpture garden featuring exhibits of sculpture by some of the finest sculptors in the Pacific Northwest and from several other countries. The opening of the annual exhibit, held on Mothers’ Day each year, regularly draws over a thousand persons. The permanent collection now numbers 27 works with a goal of 100 in ten years. This year 76 sculptures were on exhibit in the park by artists from Canada, Mexico, Hungary, New Zealand, Poland and Venezuela as well as from local artists. A number of the sculptures are used to honor local heroes whose names are placed on the base of the sculpture or near it. The park features many varieties of Japanese Maples, many varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas, and lots of other plants that make it an absolutely marvelous park. It is not a playground.

Pets are not allowed, on leash or off. Parents are asked to have children stay on paths and not run. The park is a serene setting for contemplation, reflection, and enjoyment of the beauty of nature. A covenant placed on the property by the Drakes reads “No amplified sound is permitted. Birds have the right to be heard.” Come, enjoy, it’s your park, your treasure.