Deep roots in the community

Cleveland Botanical Garden's Rich Heritage started with a collection of horticulture books and a small boathouse in 1930

Today, Cleveland Botanical Garden serves as a national leader in the sustainability movement and as an exciting destination for Northeast Ohio families, garden lovers, fun-seekers and more. Surely, the women behind the Garden's launch in 1930 couldn't have imagined it would grow so much and touch so many people's lives.

The story of the Garden starts in 1916 when Eleanor Squire donated her collection of 250 horticultural books to the Garden Club of Greater Cleveland, which housed the books at the Museum of Art.

On January 24, 1930, six members of the Garden Club decided the small library deserved a dedicated home; and they conceived a plan to transform an empty, brick boathouse along Wade Lagoon into a garden center that would house the collection of horticultural books and serve as a place for people to learn about plants and gardening. In doing so, those members — Mrs. Thomas P. Howell, Mrs. William G. Mather, Mrs. Walter C. White, Mrs. Charles A. Otis, Mrs. John Sherwin and Mrs. Windsor T. White — essentially planted the seeds for what would become today's Cleveland Botanical Garden.

The Early Years

Original LibraryOn December 4, 1930, The Cleveland Garden Center opened its doors to the public, becoming the first civic garden center in the United States. The purpose of the new Garden Center was “to promote such knowledge and love of gardening as will result in a more beautiful community.”  

In the beginning, free admission, gardening exhibits and lectures were offered to the public. After two years, more Cleveland-area garden clubs were asked to participate in educational programs; and The Cleveland Garden Center was reorganized as The Garden Center of Greater Cleveland in 1933, offering individual memberships and affiliations with other local garden clubs. In 1937, The Garden Center of Greater Cleveland was incorporated as a non-profit organization.

A renovation in 1939 tripled the building's size; and, in 1940, the West Side Branch of The Garden Center opened in the old Cudell House at 10013 Detroit Ave. in Cleveland. 

During World War II, The Garden Center provided funds for mobile canteens and the British War Relief, maintained Victory Gardens and delivered flowers to veterans at local hospitals and infirmaries. 

Through the late 1940s and 1950s, The Garden Center grew its endowment and membership and became increasingly involved with the Greater Cleveland community. The Children’s Garden Program, which originally started in 1936, continued to recognize students and their horticultural efforts; a landscape-design award program launched in 1947 to recognize local companies with beautiful grounds; and the Delia White Vail Medal for Outstanding Horticultural Achievement was awarded for the first time in 1958 to Paul R. Young for his work with school children through the Cleveland Children’s Garden Program.  

A New Home

In 1959, a flash flood along East Boulevard prompted leaders of The Garden Center to consider finding a new location with more space and higher ground. A new GardenA new site for The Garden Center was found just to the north on land that previously had housed the Cleveland Zoo from 1889 to 1907. The old monkey house stood where today's herb garden is, and the bear pit once was found in what is now the Japanese Garden.  Ground breaking at 11030 East Boulevard started in October 1964; and, after 14 months and a $1.8 million fundraising effort, The Garden Center of Greater Cleveland opened at its new location on January 12, 1966.

New LibraryThe Herb Garden of the Western Reserve Herb Society became the first garden space to be developed, with its dedication on September 5, 1969. More followed: the Mary Ann Sears Swetland Rose Garden in November 1971, the Nona Whitney Evans Reading Garden in May 1973, the Japanese Garden in May 1975, the Woodland Garden in 1989 and Hershey Children’s Garden in 1999. Today, 10 acres of outdoor gardens delight guests throughout the year.

In addition to offering unforgettable experiences with plants, the Garden of today commits itself to enriching people's lives and educating them about the importance of plants to people and the natural world. This educational focus has been present from the beginning and has strengthened over time.

Hershey Children's GardenWith the opening of the new Garden Center in 1966, a teacher was hired to teach classes about plants and science to students three days a week. C.W. Eliot Paine became director of The Garden Center on September 1, 1970, and he continued to expand the educational offerings of The Garden Center with a varied curriculum of courses, clinics and workshops. 

In the beginning of 1994, The Garden Center of Greater Cleveland changed its name to Cleveland Botanical Garden. 

That same year, Brian Holley became director of the Garden and started developing a more sophisticated educational program that would better serve local youth while also raising awareness of and support for the Garden from the Greater Cleveland community.

The results of this effort would be a year-round conservatory that showcases exotic plants while also promoting stewardship of natural resources and support for conservation efforts. The renewed focus on enriching Garden guests also led to the creation of Hershey Children’s Garden — the first of its kind in the country — and a community outreach program aimed at teaching inner-city teenagers about gardening. Originally dubbed "The Learning Garden" in 1996 and headquartered at a yellow-frame century home on Cleveland’s East Side, this work-study program would be named Green Corps and expand to include five learning farms throughout the city. Hundreds of teens have learned invaluable life skills, business lessons and the essentials of urban-farming and gardening from Green Corps.

The Garden of the 21st Century

Costa Rica BiomeIn an effort to reach more people with its educational offerings and passion for plants, the Garden became a destination attraction in July 2003 with the heralded opening of the Eleanor Armstrong Smith Glasshouse. This 18,000-square-foot glass conservatory became the first of its kind, focusing on the flora and fauna of two distinct biomes — the spiny desert of Madagascar and the tropical rainforest of Costa Rica.

Designed by Graham Gund Architects, the Glasshouse came to be through a successful $50 million capital campaign and endowment drive that also led to more enhancements: expansion of the Garden to 10 acres, creation of three more gardens, substantial growth of plant collections and addition of underground parking, atrium, expanded gift shop, café and climate-controlled environment for the library’s rare-book collection.

In 2007, Natalie Ronayne became executive director of the Garden and quickly established her commitment to strengthening the Green Corps urban-farming program for teens and enhancing community-outreach efforts through additional educational programs and an applied-research program.

Green CorpsIn 2011, Ronayne, the Garden staff and Board of Directors implemented a "Vision for Our Vibrant Future" to guide enhancements to the Garden that would ensure its long-term success and ability to serve even more people. The vision called for the 2012 renovation of the Garden's original 1966 wing, including addition of a new library and rare-book space and multi-purpose hall, as well as additional upgrades and additions to the gardens.

Today's Cleveland Botanical Garden is an ever-changing urban escape where you find enrichment and inspiration through fabulous gardens, an exotic Glasshouse and enriching events. The Garden makes its community greener and healthier by growing young lives and restoring land throughout the city.

In 2014, an agreement was signed integrating the Cleveland Botanical Garden with The Holden Arboretum, creating the 13th largest public garden in the United States.