History of the Gardens

The Gardens as we know them today were part of the early pioneer settlement that was known as Lake Worth. Unlike most lakes this was saltwater, and was not a source of water but food. In 1875 Benjamin Lanehart was the first permanent resident of Lake Worth. Included in his homestead was the property now known as the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens.

Lanehart along with his cousin William built a saw palmetto cabin near Barcelona Road and began to plant pineapples and avocados. It is unknown if his home was directly on the property. By 1910 disease and competition from Cuba ruined the pineapple business early in the new century.

In the 1920s, Pittsburgh socialite Jay Phipps, the son of Andrew Carnegie’s partner in U.S. Steel, assembled old pineapple fields and other property to develop subdivisions under the historic name “El Cid”. The 253 Barcelona home, later purchased by Ralph Norton, was bult in 1925 and included a pine forest to its north.

The history of Ralph Norton is forever linked to the Gardens. An industrialist who headed the Acme Steel Company in Chicago, Mr. Norton retired in 1939 to make his permanent home in West Palm Beach, Florida. Upon moving South, the Nortons decided to share their art collection with the public. In 1940, the Norton Gallery and School of Art was built on property located between South Olive Avenue and South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. This site was linked to the early pioneers and today bears the name Pioneer Park, as it was the annual gathering place for the early Lake Worth Pioneers.

Mr. Norton commissioned Marion Sims Wyeth, to re-design his home and then later to design a building to house the collection. This building, The Norton Gallery and School of Art opened its doors to the public on February 8, 1941.

In 1942 Ann Weaver was engaged as the first sculpture instructor. Ann made her presence quickly known by being very serious about her craft and ran her classes as such. In Ralph, we think she found a great yet friendly antagonist, each coming to their views on art from very different directions. It made for good conversation at the Gallery, along with Robert Hunter, its early Director. The museum was very hands on and friendships were made. Elizabeth Norton, Francis Hunter and Ann Weaver all hailed from Alabama.

In 1947 Mrs. Elizabeth Calhoun Norton died after a long illness. In 1948 Ralph Norton asked the much younger Ann Weaver to be his wife, which began a three month courtship from New York to Chicago. They married in 1948. Soon a studio was built in the pine forest on the northwest corner of the property. Ann began her most prolific work to date, as the advantages of being Ralph’s wife provided the necessary funds and time to dedicate to her work. They were together only five years when Ralph died in 1953. After and because of Ralph’s death, Ann began her “life’s work” as we know it, the nine monumental sculptures, beginning with the work in Norwegian Granite in memory of her husband.

Ann once said that the monumental works had been in her mind since she was 18 years old but without a place or home for these ideas they would not have been realized. It is easy to imagine that her neighbors thought odd things were happening in the gardens. The placement of a “thing” in the pool, bringing large stone figures to reside in the gardens and then again, the odd, barely describable works in brick.

Sir Peter Smithers was an old friend, a winter resident and fixture for years in Palm Beach, and for the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, Sir Peter Smithers represents and is credited with the “Principles for the Gardens” that are the guidelines for the gardens today and into the future. These guidelines did not happen in a casual way but with urgent purpose.

Ann, whose death from Leukemia was close, needed to put one more piece in place – the implementation of her mission, which she herself helped craft: The last piece in Ann’s vision of her life’s work. While she was still able to walk in the gardens, she and Sir Peter resolved how the gardens might progress. Ann who was very aware that the garden could easily become something unlike her vision needed these assurances. An ardent environmentalist and devoted to providing a habitat for her birds and creatures, Ann must have felt the overwhelming need to assure that the future of her foundation would include her life long commitment to these principles.

Sir Peter Smithers, who is credited with designing four distinguished gardens, including Vico Morcote in Switzerland, which contains more than 10,000 species and varieties of plants, agreed to help, in particular to serve as its first “Garden Consultant”, a position of great honor and importance. Those first few years were very difficult for the Gardens, both a lack of funds and with well meaning – but misdirected plantings, Sir Peter had a very big challenge in honoring his commitment to his friend Ann and the Gardens.

In 1995 Sir Peter met a beautiful blonde, as he describes in his book, Adventures of a Gardener, Veronica Boswell Butler. There must have been a powerful connection between them – yes they were both English and avid gardeners, but there is a very strong spiritual nature about the Gardens, and Peter turned the care of this garden to Veronica and she served as the “Garden Consultant”.

Out of this succession came the “Gentlemen of the Garden”. Established by Jim Butler, Veronica’s husband, as a way of providing a little cash so that his wife could buy some plants. Over the years the Gentlemen of the Garden have raised funds in support of the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens as well as other not-for-profit organizations in Palm Beach County.

Gardens have a life cycle and in 2004 and 2005 they were severely tested. Hurricanes came through the gardens taking away many of its oldest trees: banyans, the mahogany, the loquat, the avocado, many oaks and pines. Longtime supporters were there to help pick up the pieces, branch by branch, dollar by dollar.

Today, the Gardens are a metaphor for the change that the hurricanes brought. With new open spaces other plants thrive and the garden started its second cycle.

2007 and 2008 brought droughts. Plants that were not drought resistant perished for lack of water. Over the last year with the help of foundation dollars additional irrigation was installed in the gardens. However the need for more drought resistant planting was addressed to reduce the dependence for water. The garden is watered by an old well and great care must be paid not to create salt intrusion in the water supply.

But it is because of the gardens, such as it was, that Ann was able to imagine its future, to put her spirit and ideas to work. There are so many contributing factors to her art that it is not possible to list them all but her long standing love of nature’s beauty contributed to the materials she chose, the organic way she saw them and her lasting request for principles to insure its future.

The Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens are a collaborative effort. In terms of its principles, the preservation and safeguards established and followed by its long term supporters, Board of Trustees, members, donors and volunteers. Its day to day operation is completely dependent on honoring those principles, embracing its mission and sharing the vision of artist Ann Norton.

Today the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens contain rare palms, cycads and native plants and is the largest collection north of Miami and still honors those principles drafted on a winter day in 1982.

Ann Weaver Norton died February 4, 1982. Her art has been seen by visitors world wide for over 50 years.

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