Garden Plans Help to Green Up East Macon Arts Village
By Traci Burns
Photography by Matt Odom
Like so many Macon happenings, this is a story of fortuitous connections: Jan Beeland, recently retired executive director of Macon Arts Alliance, was brainstorming ways to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her beloved Potpourri Garden Club.
She and several other club members caught a screening of “The Well-Placed Weed: The Bountiful Life of Ryan Gainey” at the 2018 Macon Film Festival. The award-winning documentary chronicles the life of eccentric master gardener Gainey, who earned superstar status around Atlanta for his brilliant designs and encyclopedic knowledge. Impressed, they thought bringing the film back for a showing at the Mill Hill Community Arts Center might be the perfect way to commemorate Potpourri’s golden anniversary.
Alex Smith, landscape architect and founder of Alex Smith Garden Design in Chamblee, is a native Maconite. He grew up down the street from Beeland, his mother is a garden club member and Gainey was his mentor, so Beeland thought he’d be the perfect choice to come down, introduce the movie and maybe talk some about his experiences. Smith took things a step further than expected when he asked, “Well, what about a garden at Mill Hill?”
East Macon’s Fort Hill is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city; it’s home to Fort Hawkins, the trading post where Macon originated. The Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park is located right down the street, and downtown Macon is just across the river, making this an integral part of Macon’s urban core.
Bibb Manufacturing Company originally built the Mill Hill Community Arts Center in 1920 as a housing and community center for its textile workers, but the area fell into blight after the factory closed its doors in the1970s.
Luckily, this important piece of our history was rescued from demolition and renovated by funds raised by Macon Arts Alliance. The building won a 2019 Excellence in Rehabilitation Award from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and is now the proud centerpiece of the burgeoning East Macon Arts Village.
Robert Beeland, Jan’s husband, served as architect for this project, and inApril the auditorium was christened Jan and Robert Beeland Mill Hill Community Arts Center Auditorium, in honor of the couple’s hard work and dedication to the arts.“
Jan and Robert are family friends of ours,”said Smith. “We share a love of gardening and landscape, and they’ve always been close to my parents. When I found out they were spearheading this, I was interested in seeing how I could give back to Macon regarding what I saw as avery benevolent project.”
While brainstorming his design, Smith considered many factors – the land, the site, the exposure to the elements and the existing architecture.
“This is a very classic, symmetrical building, and our design is a mirror image, bookended on both sides,” he said.“I kept in mind that it’s a public building and designed something beautiful but not too hard to take care of. Also, like most places in Macon, it’s a very hot site, so I incorporate specimen live oaks to frame the building beautifully and, over time, provide structure and shade.”
“I’m blown away by his conception of what could be,” Beeland said about the garden plans that Smith drafted and gifted.
The project is still in the planning stages now, but the finished product will feature a sculptural installation made up of flowers created for the macon Flower Project. This endeavor, funded by a Downtown Challenge Grant and helmed by Mill Hill artists-in-residence Jeni and Forrest Gard, features flowers made by Maconites who attended free ceramics classes offered at the Community Arts Center.The end result will be emblematic of the beauty and diversity of the people who populate Macon.
As this is a work in progress, details aren’t yet firmly rooted, but be on the lookout for future Mill Hill events dedicated to fundraising for the garden, and anyone who wishes to donate toward this beautification effort can do so via Macon Arts Alliance.