How great is it to have an imagination? I have been on a bit of an art environment tour this summer, and each place has its ups, downs, quirks, and fascinating aspects. The Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, has been maintained better than most museums across the country. On the other hand, the Jubilee Rock Garden near Brimfield, Illinois is on private property and while still beautiful, it is falling into disrepair.
Luckily, John Christensen’s Rock Garden in Albert Lea, Minnesota, is somewhere in between. Thanks again to the invaluable resource that is SPACES. I hopped into my car, not knowing what to expect on my two-hour drive North. Would it be completely overgrown with vegetation? Would it be surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards? Would it be completely picked up and gone to be cleaned in a better more remote location? Look, two hours is a long time to convince yourself of almost anything.
Alas, I was delighted when I finally arrived after knocking on numerous doors, upsetting a few dogs, and hanging around long enough for someone from the Kohler Foundation to show up and permit me to look around. What once had to have been one of the more magnificent art environments in the Midwest is still an incredible journey and experience, as long as you have a bit of imagination.
The Itasca Rock Garden — it sits on the former Itasca Village that graced the land from 1855-1890 — or Christensen Rock Garden if you prefer — it was built by John Christensen — is a sprawling environment. Home to numerous dwellings, the remnants of ponds, a cave or two, sundial, archways, and walkways with countless structures built between 1925 and 1938. What started as a place to store vegetables soon became a fantasy wonderland full of lush greenery and would eventually be home to numerous weddings and school photos.
It is very easy to see the similarities to the aforementioned Grotto of Redemption. Of course, with your imagination, you can see the big similarity of them being pristine but other than that Albert Lea is only one hundred miles Northeast of West Bend, and John Christensen started building his rock garden ten years after Father Dobberstein. The rocks and stones, the structures and overwhelming in the best possible way feeling you get standing in front of them both takes you back to a different time. A time when instead of sitting on social media all day, you just went out and built yourself an art environment out of rocks that glaciers from millions of years left lying around.
With the help and thanks to the Kohler Foundation, John Christensen’s rock garden will once again return to its original glory, and if you want, I guess you could get married there. Or go for a pleasant stroll and take a few photos for social media.
Learn a little more about the Kohler Foundation’s mission:
Kohler Foundation learned of the existence of the Itasca Rock Garden in Albert Lea, MN in Fall of 2019. John Christensen built the 14,000 square foot rock garden filled with castles, ponds, bridges, and grottos over the span of a decade or so beginning in 1925. From 1954 to 1985 it was owned and cared for by the Johnson family, and it was through descendants of the Johnsons that we learned of the site. During this period of time the Johnson family owned the property, the site hosted weddings, graduations, parties, and was often the site of family gatherings and photo shoots. The site fell into disrepair during the next phase of ownership, ultimately going into foreclosure.
The garden is currently overgrown but the “bones” of the rock garden are still there, and the beauty is obvious under the foliage. The pieces are large scale, beautifully crafted, and worthy of preservation. The home is in serious disrepair, but contains amazing artwork in the basement, in fact, one of the more important pieces is built into the basement. The house, as the rock garden, is quite sound from a structural perspective.
The restoration of the home and conservation of the rock garden will take place over a two year period. International Artifacts will over see the conservation of the artwork and a local contractor is working on the home. Once complete, the site and home will be gifted to the Freeborn Historical Society in Albert Lea, MN in 2021.via Kohler Foundation
View more photos here.