Cast iron collection (from the 19th c.)
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The campus was built around the center of the mid-19th-century gardens of the Acklen family. The gardens were placed in front of the Italian villa-style mansion (built in 1853) and went down to the 105-foot-tall water tower. The original 180-acre estate included an English-style deer park, a 200-foot-long greenhouse, an art gallery, a bowling alley, a two-story stone bear house, a zoo, an aviary, a water tower, an ice house, a Gothic-styled carriage house, and the necessary outbuildings. The central architectural feature of the gardens was the cast iron gazebos, or summerhouses, and the fountain. All of the five gazebos remain, as does the marble fountain and eight pieces of original cast iron statuary. A number of the marble statues that were used on the grounds are now displayed in buildings on campus. Soon to be reinstalled is the cast and wrought iron aviary.
Three styles of gazebos were used on the original estate. The first was installed ca. 1853 and is attributed to Janes, Beebe & Co., New York. Two other pairs of gazebos were installed around 1866. The marble fountain was installed ca. 1853 and is still in use. The other pieces of cast iron, which remain on the grounds, include a pair of sleeping lions based on the work of the famous Swedish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1768/70-1844). There is also a pair of sitting lions, a greyhound, a life-size deer, an urn with relief of George Washington, and a life-size lying dog. In storage is a hitching boy by Wood & Perot, Philadelphia; a twig bench; and a standing Newfoundland dog. These original pieces are supplemented by cast iron reproductions of missing pieces.
Work has been done on the "morning glory" gazebos, and they are in excellent condition. While work has been done on the center gazebo, more needs to be done. The pair of gazebos in front of the mansion needs minor work. The remainder of the cast statuary remaining on grounds is in excellent condition.
Together these pieces represent possibly the largest collection of 19th-century cast iron in a public space. The "morning glory" gazebos display the height of cast iron design in mid-19th-century America and pushed the technical limitations of the material to its limits. This collection represents a period important in the development of landscape design in America, promoted by A. J. Downing, for which there are few documented examples. This garden was one of the South's most elaborate attempts at a European design documented before the Civil War.