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People who lived near White Rock Lake were fed up.

The arboretum was supposed to be a nature sanctuary for all of Dallas, but instead, they argued it was environmentally insensitive, discriminatory against low-income residents, and a traffic and parking nightmare.

“There is a great deal of concern from many people who don’t want a botanic amusement park at one end of the lake,” said one resident of the Peninsula Neighborhood Association.

Botanic amusement park. Mini convention center. Little Disneyland. Six Flags Over White Rock. These were among the epithets the arboretum’s neighbors hurled at the gardens.

It’s a scene that hearkens back to 2012, when neighbors took the arboretum to task over its plan to turn a portion of White Rock Lake’s Winfrey Point into an overflow parking lot. The above scenario, however, actually happened three decades ago when the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society barely had begun to take root.

History tends to repeat itself, so perhaps these parallel circumstances shouldn’t come as any surprise. But it raises the question: What is it about the Dallas Arboretum that, even after all these years, continues to provoke the ire of a vocal group of neighbors?

Today the arboretum encompasses 66 acres on the southeast shore of White Rock Lake on property valued at $21.5 million. It boasts 35,000 members, and attendance in 2014 nearly reached one million visitors.

This year, it has a $20.5 million budget for its manicured grounds and event venues.  The gardens are expected to host nearly 300 weddings this year, many of them in the spring, when 500,000 tulips burst into color during the 31st annual Dallas Blooms festival. The eight-acre Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden will reopen during Blooms, and a recently opened 1,150-space parking garage directly opposite Garland Road is expected to accommodate the visitor uptick.

Accolades continue to roll in, with the arboretum landing on nearly every list of where to visit and what not to miss in Dallas. It draws visitors not just from around the country but the world, too.

So why can’t it seem to earn the respect of so many people right in its backyard?

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Dallas Arboretum: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The estate that became an arboretum

Halfway through a recent tour of the Dallas Arboretum’s DeGolyer home, a docent mentions that the estate was a bit worse for the wear when the city purchased it in 1976. After Nell DeGolyer’s death in 1972, she bequeathed the home to Southern Methodist University, which used the estate — the DeGolyers’ retirement home for 30-some-odd years — as an occasional event venue but little else. It needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintenance to return it to its former glory.

Everette DeGolyer was the epitome of a self-made man — he was born in a Kansas sod house, educated himself in geology and made millions as an oil tycoon. His fortune was amassed by the time he and Nell moved to Dallas in 1936. Their first address was a Park Cities mansion on Turtle Creek Boulevard before they purchased 44 acres on the banks of White Rock Lake and lived there from 1939 until their deaths.

The DeGolyers’ love of flora and arboreta was evident on their property. They hired Dallas landscape architect Arthur Berger to create their four-and-a-half-acre formal gardens, and the property included a magnolia allée, a wisteria arbor, a rose garden and more than 200 species of plants. Even their home’s name, “Rancho Encinal,” paid homage in Spanish to the live oak trees on the land.

“I think they would both be very pleased with how the house and grounds are used because they loved gardening,” the docent says.

The home, which looks today much as it did when the DeGolyers lived in it, reflects their love of travel, books and art. The DeGolyers not only were collectors but also benefactors, with Rancho Encinal often playing host to galas and cocktail parties benefitting the Dallas arts organizations.

A marker notes the home was listed on the National Historic Register in 1978 — a rarity in Dallas. Fewer than 30 homes have this honor, and less than 20 are protected by the City of Dallas’ landmark designation status, as the DeGolyer house is.

“It’s good that someone had the foresight,” the docent says, “otherwise this would probably be condos or apartments.”

See also: History of the Dallas Arboretum

One ‘plant man’s’ dogged vision

Before Nell DeGolyer died, both the City of Dallas and SMU jockeyed for the estate, according to Sid Stahl, a past president of the Dallas Park Board. The DeGolyers “had strong feelings” toward both the university and the city, and they figured out that SMU, if given the land, would likely sell because it wanted the cash, he says.

“They cut a deal,” Stahl says, that the property would be left to SMU, which would in turn sell it to the city.

“That way, SMU would end up with the money, and the City of Dallas would end up with the property,” Stahl says.

When the city had the land appraised, the report showed its value to be $2 million and suggested that the “highest and best use” for the house was to remain a three-acre estate mansion, and the “highest, best and most profitable” use of the remaining acreage would be a “subdivision development of luxury homesites.”

Instead, as the DeGolyers intended, the land was sold to the City of Dallas for $1.076 million.

A couple of mentions about a Dallas arboretum appear in news stories from the ’20s and ’40s, including a Dallas Arboretum Foundation chaired by none other than Everette DeGolyer. The facility itself didn’t materialize, however, until Ralph Pinkus arrived on the scene. He had spent several years leading the New York Botanic Garden and found it troubling that Dallas was the largest U.S. city with no special area for displaying trees and shrubs.

“I didn’t know what the hell an arboretum was. I couldn’t pronounce it; I couldn’t spell it.”

Pinkus, who founded North Haven Gardens, began recruiting support for an arboretum and botanic garden soon after he moved here in 1951, and he later was named the first president of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society.

Neil Sperry became a Dallas County horticulturist in 1970 and worked with Pinkus on the society board in its early days. Sperry, widely known as a local gardening guru, describes Pinkus as “the best plant man I have known in the state of Texas.”

“There are people who can give the lyrics of every 1950s song, and then there are people who know every plant they have ever come across, and Ralph Pinkus was one of those,” Sperry says.

Plant collecting and trialing was Pinkus’s passion, which is why he so desperately wanted to see an arboretum in Dallas. As reported in a 1974 Dallas Morning News article, Pinkus speaks before the Park Board and tells board members that with so many people moving to Dallas, it’s “vital that the city expand its outlook.”

Then he twists the knife a bit: “We don’t even have a botanical garden on the scale of the one in Fort Worth.”

Part of Pinkus’s challenge was educating Dallas residents, including the Park Board, about what an arboretum is and why the city needed one. He described it as “a teaching tool,” a collection of all sorts of plants that would be labeled so people could see how they fare in this particular climate any day of the year.

“Our conditions are different from each other part of the country, yet we have no testing ground currently,” Pinkus said in a 1976 Dallas Morning News article.

The society looked at various sites — the old Moss Farm estate in present-day Lake Highlands, Samuell Park along East Grand, and the Trinity River area, among others. But when the DeGolyer estate became an option, with its already established gardens and mature trees, the society seized on it.

Stahl called the land “a priceless treasure to share with many generations of Dallasites.” He appointed a citizens advisory committee to examine possible uses for the 44-acre estate; Pinkus was one of his appointees.

At that point, Stahl says, “I didn’t know what the hell an arboretum was. I couldn’t pronounce it; I couldn’t spell it.”

But he and the Park Board wanted the land to be “something special and unique that will be in keeping with the living of the DeGolyers, something that we don’t already have in our city.”

Stahl imagined that the society, with its roughly 200 members, could enter into a public-private partnership with the city to make this happen, similar to the way Old City Park, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Dallas Zoo operated.

Just a few months later, the committee recommended that “the long-range development of an arboretum would be an appropriate use” of the DeGolyer land, and the Park Board approved.

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The Texas Skywalk at the arboretum’s Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

A ‘world-class’ arboretum or a ‘botanic amusement park’?

Nothing much changed for a few years, except that the DeGolyer estate was now a city park open to all Dallasites.

In 1980, the society purchased the neighboring 22-acre Camp estate; as past arboretum chairman Brian Shivers tells it, that purchase was all due to the late Virginia Belcher, a Lakewood commercial real estate broker. She received a tip that the Camp estate land was about to be sold to a high-density condo developer and was told, “if you can come up with $550,000 in a hurry, they’ll sell it to you instead,” Shivers says. Another board member, Ralph Rogers, lent the money to clinch the deal.

The DeGolyer and Camp houses were the only structures on the site for some time. It wasn’t until 1985 that the society hosted the first Dallas Blooms festival. Around the same time, the society began charging admission — $2 per adult and $1 per child. It also began soliciting annual memberships, which climbed from 764 in 1984 to more than 3,000 in 1987. The society had a $50 million master plan, and its goal was to raise $20 million over the next 10 to 15 years, with city officials pledging to kick in $30 million.

But at $2 a head for admission and $50 a pop for a family membership, it was slow going. The society’s real bread and butter was philanthropic fundraising spearheaded by the charismatic Rogers, who by then was board chairman.

To this day, the mention of Rogers engenders reverence among arboretum devotees and incites scorn from detractors. He was known as a visionary who wouldn’t take no for an answer, which worked to his advantage in both business and philanthropic pursuits. Rogers founded Texas Industries (now TXI) and turned it into a multi-million dollar company, and he also is credited with saving both local KERA Channel 13 and the entire Public Broadcasting System during his six-year PBS chairmanship in the ’70s.

“Let me remind you, we are not just in the plant business — we are in show business.”

No one disagrees that when Rogers took over as chairman of the arboretum society, he defined its trajectory. Shivers recalls a board meeting in those early days when the directors “got off on a esoteric rant” trying to determine: Was the property a botanical garden? An arboretum? Or what?

Rogers gave this admonition to the board: “Let me remind you, we are not just in the plant business — we are in show business.”

He was right, Shivers says. At the time, the property wasn’t much more than “a glorified dog park,” he says. The Camp estate was covered in bamboo that wound up taking years to unearth. The DeGolyers’ historic gardens were gorgeous, but they needed a lot of work — “expensive work,” Shivers says — that the city couldn’t afford. The city’s budget for the DeGolyer property when the society took over as manager in 1982 was “not enough to mow the grass,” Shivers says.

At the time, Shivers scrounged up enough money to conduct a public awareness survey “to see if anybody knew who we were,” he says. Of the people who said they knew of the arboretum, when asked where it was, most mentioned the garden center in Fair Park.

“They really didn’t know who we were, where we were, what we were,” Shivers says. “We settled on the idea that for this to be successful, we had to generate our own operating funds, and a display garden was what we needed to be. We weren’t going to survive as a research organization.

“We realized we needed to go on the expansion program that would build new gardens and draw new people out.”

Rogers started casting out nets to prominent Dallas donors. In 1985, he caught a big fish — businessman Ross Perot agreed to pledge $8 million to the cause. Perot’s gift hinged on several requirements, including that the city plant tens of thousands of blossoming trees along the lake’s shoreline. Perot’s gift doubled the other $8 million in donations and pledges Rogers had drummed up, leaving the society only $4 million short on its end of the bargain. It was full speed ahead to what Rogers described as a “world-class” venue “for the city of Dallas, for North Texas, for the world.”

Soon afterward, people who lived near the arboretum — who didn’t have millions of dollars to throw around, but whose tax dollars had helped purchase the land — began questioning the arboretum’s grand plans. A bond program proposed the same year as Perot’s $8 million pledge included almost $40 million for Dallas parks and recreation centers, $7.5 million of it for the arboretum.

Society members were caught off guard when their master plan, drafted by a “nationally prominent consulting firm,” came under fire from some of their neighbors. The mudslinging began, with opponents referring to the society’s “world-class” vision as a “botanic amusement park.”

“The facility we’re proposing would provide the missing piece for Dallas — a place of natural beauty that everyone is proud of and can go to enjoy nature,” society president Robert Tener protested in a 1988 Dallas Morning News Sunday magazine (Dallas Life) story “Feud among the Flowers” by Glenna Whitley.

Opponents weren’t swayed. They began urging defeat of the bond program’s entire $40 million in parks funds to block the arboretum’s city cash flow. They also suggested the arboretum’s $7.5 million be voted on individually. The city council refused, however, deciding Dallas citizens weren’t familiar enough with the arboretum for it to stand on its own at the ballot box.

Ultimately, the bond proposition passed.

Residents lost that fight, but it turned out the battle wasn’t over. It raged on until a city council vote stopped the society in its tracks.

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Michael Jung sports his “Yapping Dog Club” T-shirt from 1987, which he wore to the 2012 Winfrey Point protests. : Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The 1987 ‘Battle of the Arboretum’

The puzzle, both then and now, is what is so odious about botanical gardens?

The problem, both then and now, is not only what but who. As residents around the lake caught wind of the giant flower garden about to be constructed in their backyard, they grew increasingly concerned that the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society was more society than botanical.

The master plan was the kicker.

The arboretum so long championed by Pinkus — one that would be a “teaching tool” and “testing ground” — had morphed under Rogers’ leadership beyond plants and trees to include a sculpted-hedge maze, a six-story conservatory, a festival marketplace, privately owned restaurants, an auditorium, an outdoor amphitheater, dormitories for research students and an observation tower with views of the grounds and the downtown skyline.

“They stay on their side of the fence, and we stay on our side of the fence.”

This was no ode to nature, residents argued. It infuriated them that the plan had received the Park Board’s stamp of approval without input from neighbors. When they voiced their fears and frustrations with Rogers, Tener and the rest of the society, they felt no one listened or cared.

So they turned to the city council for an audience.

In May 1987, Tener approached the city with a request to use $100,000 of the $7.5 million in bond funds to renovate the DeGolyer estate’s garage into a gift shop. Asking for a fraction of the funds taxpayers had already granted to a master plan-approved project was not a controversial request, or so the society thought. It wasn’t expecting a dozen people from six different neighborhoods to voice their dissension at the microphone, and it certainly wasn’t expecting the council to vote 6-5 in favor of residents.

It was a pivotal moment in the relationship between the arboretum and its neighbors. Suddenly, the society was no longer beholden only to the donors forking over their millions, but also to neighbors holding no more stake in the arboretum than any other Dallas taxpayer.

Craig Holcomb, the East Dallas councilman at the time, convened a task force with neighborhood and arboretum representatives to hash out some sort of truce. The group included Michael Jung, who was then vice president of the Dallas Homeowners League and lived near White Rock Lake. Jung believed the arboretum was in cahoots with Perot to take over the lake’s shoreline.

The thrust of the task force’s resolution, he says, was that the arboretum could develop the Camp and DeGolyer estates the way they wanted, subject to city review and approval, “but they had to keep their hands off White Rock Lake Park.”

In other words, Jung says, “they stay on their side of the fence, and we stay on our side of the fence.”

Decades later, Jung says people are still miffed at him for signing off on such an agreement. The arboretum “proceeded to develop in a very, very highly cultivated way,” he says, much to the chagrin of many environmentalists and recreationalists who live around the lake.

Even with this agreement, though, the society remained in a precarious situation. It had spent $550,000 to purchase the Camp estate, and an agreement with the city required the society to deed over the estate. The city would own all 66 acres, and the society would manage it. But the 6-5 vote and task force discussions opened the board of directors’ eyes to the fact that they were at the whim of city politicians, and a single election could change everything. They needed a planned development district to safeguard their plans.

So the society launched a zoning process that required dozens of public meetings. Some turned into emotional confrontations, with neighbors accusing the society of “withholding information,” “having a secret agenda to take over the entire White Rock Lake Park,” and “being used by ‘North Dallas’ interests to manage a private country club,” the 1988 Morning News story reports.

At one point, Rogers reportedly referred to opponents as a “pack of yapping dogs.” Residents literally wore that moniker proudly when a Little Forest Hills resident made T-shirts emblazoned with “Yapping Dog Club.”

By the time it was over, the arboretum threw out plans for the observatory tower, dormitories and festival marketplace, and scaled back the rest of the building-heavy vision. Sculpture gardens gave way to more natural gardens, and mature trees were preserved. The concrete amphitheater became a natural concert bowl. The ostentatious master plan of 1984 was scrapped for a more sensitive master plan in 1987.

In her article, Whitley described it this way: “The 1987 Battle of the Arboretum, in future years, may be marked as the fight that gave New Dallas politics ascendance over the Old Dallas method of getting things done. Consultation, conciliation and compromise ousted lunch-with-the-mayor-at-the-City-Club deal making. For better or worse, the arboretum tussle proved that the days of big dreamers with good intentions and big bucks deciding what is best for the city are over.”

Robert Hoffman, who during the scuffle had replaced Rogers as society chairman, promised: “We’re not going to have this kind of intense public debate again. And we’ve made a commitment to have communications with neighborhood leaders on a quarterly basis — not an arboretum-bashing forum, but a constructive forum.”

The battle was over. It had ended in a ceasefire. For roughly 25 years afterward, all was relatively quiet on the eastern front of White Rock Lake.

Then, the peace was shattered.

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A sign propped on a blanket during the 2012 Winfrey Point protests expressed environmentalists’ sentiments: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Plans to ‘pave paradise and put up a parking lot’

Chihuly was the biggest thing ever to happen to the arboretum. World-renowned blown-glass artist Dale Chihuly began creating sculptures for botanical settings in 2001, mostly in conservatories. The arboretum became the second all-outdoor host to Chihuly’s work, and the success of the first exhibit in Atlanta almost guaranteed massive crowds the arboretum had yet to experience — so large, in fact, that arboretum officials worried on-site parking and its overflow lot wouldn’t be enough.

As a solution, the arboretum asked the Park Board to use Winfrey Point, northwest of the arboretum in White Rock Lake Park, as a temporary overflow lot during the exhibit.

White Rock Lake residents were not consulted — neither the nearby neighborhood associations nor the White Rock Lake Task Force, a group of stakeholders. Jung chairs the task force, and “our first notice of the proposal for the arboretum to park at Winfrey Point came when it was presented to the task force a week after the Park Board had already approved the contract,” he says.

Soon after this news broke, White Rock Lake activists Hal and Ted Barker began uncovering documents, even drawings, that suggested the Dallas Park Department and the arboretum were planning to turn part of Winfrey Point into a parking lot the arboretum would construct and manage, and the city could use when weekend crowds and events overran the meager parking available at the lake.

The 25-year ceasefire suddenly ended. The arboretum had seemingly stepped outside the fence — with the blessing of the city —and it sparked an all-out revolt.

Residents and environmentalists descended on Winfrey Point with picket signs. Schoolchildren were summoned to comb the grasses for birds’ nests. Even East Dallas Councilman Sheffie Kadane donned a “Save Winfrey Point” T-shirt.

Jung, a self-described conservative Republican, dug through his closet, pulled out his yapping dog T-shirt from ’87 and wore it to his first-ever protest.

The arboretum, which had been slapped with a lawsuit to block the plans, remained mum for three days at its lawyers’ insistence, then released a list of myths and facts regarding Winfrey Point and the parking lot plans.

It was too late. Protestors singing Joni Mitchell’s environmental anthem “Big Yellow Taxi” drowned out everything else. Plans for both temporary and permanent parking on Winfrey Point were dead. Protesters were elated: David had beaten Goliath.

The two sides still disagree on some of the finer points — environmentalists insist Winfrey Point is pristine Blackland prairie; the arboretum sees it as a field overgrown with invasive species. Detractors believe the arboretum intended to smother Winfrey Point in concrete; the arboretum defends its vision as “minimally invasive” parking on a small, obscure part of the field, and native plants and interpretive trails on the rest of the land.

Some neighbors argue the arboretum wants to act unilaterally with no regard for neighbors; the arboretum maintains that hundreds of people in the surrounding neighborhoods are arboretum volunteers and hundreds more are members, and the vocal minority doesn’t speak for the whole.

Skeptics accuse the arboretum of trying to conceal its plans; the arboretum says that concepts are not plans, and any changes to the planned development district will always require public input and city approval.

The underlying issue, though, is no different than it was in the ’80s — White Rock Lake.

The tensions and suspicions that simmered under the surface for 25 years were dredged up, and a new generation of lake lovers found themselves facing off against the arboretum.

“Inside the fence, you’ve got this highly cultivated illustration of humans’ manipulation of nature, still controversial to some,” Jung says. “Outside, the park is preserved in more or less its natural state with a pretty strong consensus behind that approach, and now come to find out the inside-the-fence people want to put a large additional chunk outside of the fence, inside the fence. You could see where that would inflame some passions.”

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The 2012 Chihuly exhibit was a coup for Dallas Arboretum president and CEO Mary Brinegar: Photo by Ben Torres

‘It was just a drawing’

Mary Brinegar, the arboretum’s president and CEO for the past 19 years, wasn’t formally involved with the arboretum in 1987 when the first battle broke out, but she knows the history.

Brinegar, much like former board chairman Ralph Rogers, can be a polarizing figure. People seem to either adore or abhor her, depending on their views of the arboretum, because she is the driving force for what it has become.

And what the arboretum is not, Brinegar says, is a land grabber.

“We’re not into eminent domain. We’re not into taking anything,” she says of the Winfrey Point parking issue.

“We were in the early stages of ‘what if?’ To even have it be a consideration, there had to be a drawing, but it was just a drawing, and it was just the beginning of an idea.

“We’re not into eminent domain. We’re not into taking anything. We were in the early stages of ‘what if?’ ”

“The fear that some people had is we would go forward with it without them having a chance to say anything about it,” she says. “It was never the intent. We were so far away from ever seeing it fly.”

The arboretum does nothing in a hurry, Brinegar says, because it wants to do everything with the utmost quality. The most recent example is the children’s garden, which took 17 years from the time it was dreamed up to the day it opened. Everything starts with plans and studies, Brinegar says, and “then you go back and say, ‘Now, how do you feel about it?’ ” Winfrey Point would have been no different.

“We’re sensitive to how people feel about the lake,” Brinegar says, “but we are not here to try to take over anything unless people want us to help.”

The arboretum thought it could improve Winfrey Point, just as it has spent the last three decades trying to improve everything in its care, Brinegar says. Protestors, however, believed neither Winfrey Point nor the rest of White Rock Lake Park needed improving. They seem to find the notion of “improving” nature insulting.

“If you read the press coverage from 2012, there’s a lot derisive statements by arboretum people, the theme of which is, ‘Our opponents don’t know what they’re talking about, and it’s really none of their business,’ ” Jung says.

“It’s an undercurrent of, ‘How dare you interfere with what we want to do? Don’t you know who we are?’ ”

See also: Angela Hunt examines why the Dallas Arboretum lacks trail access.

A crowd gathers for the grand opening of the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden in 2013, constructed with $63 million in funds raised mostly via private and corporate donations, the largest of which came from the Meyers family: Photo by Brandy Barham

A crowd gathers for the grand opening of the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden in 2013, constructed with $63 million in funds raised mostly via private and corporate donations, the largest of which came from the Meyers family: Photo by Brandy Barham

‘Much more’ than a garden

Current arboretum board chairman Bill Graue likes to point out that the arboretum has been the top Dallas attraction on customer review website tripadvisor.com for five years running. He pulls out his phone during the interview just to double check.

“No. 1 out of 110 Dallas attractions,” he confirms.

In recent years, “we really have vaulted into the group of premiere gardens in the nation,” one of only 14 in the “large garden” category, defined by a budget greater than $10 million. Officials from those 14 gardens recently convened at the arboretum and were given tours, one of which was led by Shivers. The president of another garden who was part of his tour later told Brinegar she would never let her board chairman lead garden tours because he didn’t have the competence to do so.

“A lot of people use the words ‘world class’ too quickly,” Brinegar says, “but we’re really working at that level.”

But that’s just the culture of the Dallas Arboretum, Shivers says. The directors know the gardens inside and out. They wear their nametags when they visit, answering tourists’ questions and picking up trash.

“You will not see litter because somebody with a nametag is going to spot it and jump on it,” Shivers says.

Compared to the nation’s other top gardens, the arboretum provides considerably more educational experiences for children, Graue says, and has much lower operating costs per visitor, even though it receives only a small fraction of what other gardens receive in taxpayer support — last year, Dallas contributed roughly $270,000 to the arboretum’s $18 million budget.

The city loves to praise the arboretum as its most successful public-private partnership, Shivers says, and he likes to needle, “Yeah, ’cause you don’t give us any money, and we give you all this.”

The arboretum staff and directors built their garden empire from the ground up. They see themselves as a flourishing nonprofit rather than a run-of-the-mill city park. They don’t understand why a beautiful landscape that receives international acclaim elicits complaints from its closest neighbors. Some directors attribute it to the not-in-my-backyard factor, or the fact that anything as prominent as the arboretum will have detractors.

They’re missing the point, Jung says.

Residents who take issue with the arboretum “want it to stay within its bounds — that’s the big one — and to a smaller degree, they want it to be a different kind of arboretum than it is,” Jung says.

The arboretum isn’t a nature organization, Jung says; it’s an arts organization. He gives the analogy of attending a concert at a symphony hall versus sitting outside and listening to birds sing.

“What does the symphony do? Humans manipulate musical instruments to create a performance. What does the art museum do? It displays objects where humans have manipulated canvas or stone to create a performance,” Jung says.

“I think the arboretum is a society devoted to the human manipulation of nature.”

Before it was the Dallas Arboretum, the land was simply a city park. And not just any park but dozens of acres along the shore of White Rock Lake, long treasured as the city’s jewel. Dallasites could enjoy a picnic, toss a Frisbee, play catch and enjoy the view. Today, residents need to fork over $15 for admission and $15 for parking to visit arboretum land they technically own.

Perhaps the city’s contribution to the arboretum wouldn’t be so meager, Jung says, if it were a nature preserve or another not-so-highly cultivated place “where you weren’t constantly switching flowers out of flowerbeds and pitching tents for a festival and buying insurance for the Chihuly glass.”

Ultimately, the conflict lies with two groups of people whose perspective depends on whether they’re sitting inside or outside the fence. The grass is greener, the tulips or wildflowers prettier, on their respective sides. It’s been that way for 30 years.

Brinegar knows she has some enemies around the lake. She makes no excuses, however, for what the arboretum has become. It was the city’s intent to have a “world-class” arboretum and botanical garden, and that’s exactly what she believes that she and others have built.

“There were people at that time who didn’t want us to be here. Life was great before it became this,” Brinegar says. “They have the right to that opinion. Some have changed that opinion because they didn’t know what we would be.”

Nevertheless, she says, “here we are, and our role in stewardship is to do the best job we possibly can to make it worthy of the city’s name, to gain national attention for our city, and to be the best of the best.

“A lot of people use the words ‘world class’ too quickly,” Brinegar says, “but we’re really working at that level.”

Shivers says people have started asking what the board will do when Brinegar eventually retires (no retirement is planned at this time, Brinegar says). Will the board hire someone from another garden?

Maybe, Shivers says.

“But we’ll probably be just as likely to hire someone from Disney or something like that — someone who knows how to run a public attraction.

“Because while we are a garden, we’re much more than that.”

See also: Ralph Rogers and Mary Brinegar, the arboretum’s moneymakers


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