Art & Sculpture



Academic Essays



Cultural Gardens in Historical Context

Katie Anderson

Wiley Middle School

8th Grade American History Teacher


Teachers’ background ESSAY:

The following essay will be divided into four sections of scholarship:  the history of the gardens in general, the history of the country of Lithuania, the design and lifespan of the Lithuanian garden, and the history of the African-American garden.  All information can be referenced in the bibliography section at the end of the lesson.

The History of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens

The Cultural Gardens is among the best hidden secrets of Cleveland.  The gardens have a rich history beginning with the creation of Rockefeller Park in 1893.  The park was turned into a place for civic progress in 1916, when an area was dedicated as the Shakespeare Garden.  In 1926, the Cleveland Cultural Garden League was created with the purpose of making the gardens a place for “peace, tolerance, and friendly intercourse.”  “The Cleveland Cultural Gardens is a collection of formal spaces featuring mixed artworks (mostly sculpture), landscape architecture, and organic arrangements” (Tebeau, p. 1).  The gardens consist of over 20 independent, smaller gardens built by various ethnic groups in Cleveland.  Although much of the funding for the gardens came from the WPA, individual groups and foreign nations also contributed.  Several gardens have been added over the years.

            An interesting addition to the garden occurred in 1939 with the “Crypt of Nations.”  Soil from all over the world was poured into a crypt to symbolize the coming together of many ethnic groups here in America.  This attempt at a multi-cultural melting pot is a bit confusing as it contradicts the overall message of the gardens as a place to honor differences.

            The gardens did see its fair share of conflicts.  Throughout much of its history, vandalism has played a role.  Usually, the vandalism occurred as a part of ethnic or racial quarrels between groups.  Statues disappeared, plants were uprooted, and paint was sprayed.  We will discuss the racial issues of the 1960’s in greater detail in the African-American section below.

A Brief History of the Country of Lithuania and Lithuanians in Cleveland

Lithuania is a county whose borders have frequently and dramatically changed.  The Lithuanians are a branch of Indo-European peoples who are distinct from any of the peoples of its surrounding countries.  The language shows a similarity to Sanskrit and skulls recently unearthed in the region show that the Lithuanians were there centuries before any of their Slavic or Germanic neighbors.  They were a Pagan group and were actually the last in Europe to convert to Christianity.

            In 1569, Lithuania merged with Poland and at the end of the eighteenth century, it came under the rule of Russia.  The whole Lithuanian culture virtually disappeared.  Somehow, even though the press was silenced and the language outlawed, they retained their pure language and remembered the ancient legal codes.  Most of the country converted to Roman Catholicism in the 16th century and have since then remained consistently Catholic.  The Soviet Union’s domination ended in the 1990’s and Lithuania now stands as an independent nation.

            The earliest known Lithuanian immigrants to the U.S. came in the late 18th century to fight for American’s independence and to buy land in America.  After 1868, Lithuanians migrated in great numbers to the U.S., particularly to the coal regions of Pennsylvania.  Since Lithuanians were classified as “Poles” or “Russians” prior to 1899, it is hard to pinpoint exact numbers of Lithuanian immigrants.

            The earliest known Lithuanian settler to Cleveland came in 1871.  Many came to escape military service in the Russian army from 1904-1915.  Most of the men that came over were skilled mechanics.  Many of the Lithuanians also established themselves as astute businessmen.  By 1910, when only 1,000 Lithuanians lived in Cleveland, “about 50 business establishments—many of them taverns that also served as informal community centers—boasted Lithuanian ownership” (Ruksenas, p. 3).  One author commented, “Cohesiveness, thrift, diligence, and recognition of educational values were evident traits noted by observers of the Lithuanian immigrants” (Ruksenas, p.1). 

            During the second wave of immigrants from Lithuanian, after WWII, many of the refugees believed that they would return to Lithuania after their country was freed from Russian domination.  Due to this notion, many immigrants tried to create environments and organizations that were self-contained.  They did not want to integrate with their American neighbors.  The organizations, churches, and various societies created during this time were numerous and effective.  As time passed, Lithuanians engaged more and more in the political and social arenas of Cleveland.  According the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History,

Cleveland’s Lithuanian community is recognized as one of the most active and productive in terms of organizational activity, community consciousness, political and civic involvement in the general affairs of Greater Cleveland, literary activity and the arts, and folk art ensembles, and is the home community of many of numerous persons prominent in various fields among Lithuanians worldwide.

The History of the Lithuanian Garden

            The Lithuanian Garden was dedicated on June 11, 1933.  The first monument was a bust of Dr. Jonas Basanavicius who was considered the patriarch of the nation.  He was a medical doctor and a scholar who collected and canonized much of the history and culture of the country.  The dedication speaker was B.K. Balutis, the Minister of Lithuania to the U.S.  At this ceremony, the plans for the rest of the garden were unveiled.  The bust was a gift from the government of Lithuania.  The rest of the garden was dedicated in a ceremony on October 11, 1936.

            The garden is built in the shape of a lyre, the ancient musical instrument.  The lyre was chosen because it is “emblematic of the Lithuanian love for music, which, through centuries of national oppression, the Lithuanian people expressed their moods of sorrow and joy (Mihal). 

            There are three distinct areas of the garden that represent three stages in the history of the country. The first of the three areas was a fountain honoring the Pagan history of Lithuania.  A famous Lithuanian legend inspired the building of the fountain.  A woman named Biruta was a vestal virgin to the Goddess Praurime.  She was just about to become a priestess when Kestutis, the son of Gediminas, met her and fell in love with her.  Their son was Vytautas the Great, who in 1410 defeated the Crusaders at Gruenwald.  This fountain is a tribute not only to Biruta, but to feminine virtues as well.  Another Pagan influence in the garden can be seen in the zig-zag movements of the stairs throughout the garden which symbolize lightening.  This honors the God of Thunder, Perkunas.

            The second of these areas was the “Pillars of Gediminas.”  This symbolized how the Grand Duke Gediminas unified three different tribes in the fourteenth century making a large and cohesive Lithuania.  Three pillars, representing the three tribes, were built in Vilnius by Gediminas.  A reproduction of the pillars was built in the Cleveland garden. (For photo, see Power Point presentation.)

            The final of the three areas is the rebirth of the nation after World War One.  This is where the bust of Dr. Basanavicius (mentioned above) resides.  The busts added later were Dr. Vincas Kudirka, a poet, and Maciulis Maironis, a poet and priest. 

            Other symbols include two oak trees that represent the Lithuanian Alliance of America and the Lithuanian Roman Catholic Alliance of America.  A linden tree was planted by Anna Kaskas, who was a famous singer in the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The History of the African-American Garden (or lack thereof!)

            There was a very visible group of residents in Cleveland who were not offered a garden, the African-American community.  Councilman Leo A. Jackson proposed a “Negro Cultural Garden” in 1962.  The City Council voted it down because a high-rise apartment building was proposed for the same land.  In 1968, the Councilman proposed a memorial of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The mayor at the time, Celebreeze, supported the idea.  Although Liberty Street was renamed “Martin Luther King Blvd.,” there was still no African-American Garden.

            As racial tensions in Cleveland increased during the 1960’s between blacks and whites, the gardens became a canvas for hatred.  In the fall of 1966, a Ku Klux Klan rally was held in the gardens.  In September of that same year, 24 monuments were defaced with words such as “black power” and “get whitey.”  George Washington and Abraham Lincoln statues were defaced as well.  An interesting note to this issue was the enormous amount of press coverage after these actions.  The shocking part of this story is that on two occasions that previous summer anti-African-American slogans and swastikas were painted on park buildings and benches, yet there was no coverage of those incidents. 

The first sign of anything African-American in the gardens was in 1970. In the American Garden, a bust of Booker T. Washington was erected with the following quote:  “I resolve that I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” 

            Finally, in 1977, an African-American Garden was dedicated.  It consisted of four acres of land which would only have one statue at first, that of John P. Green, the founder of Labor Day.  Markers were placed in the areas that would honor Garrett A. Morgan, inventor of the gas mask and traffic light, and Bishop Richard Allen, a colonial hero.  Other markers would indicate future statues of Jesse Owens, June Hunter, and Langston Hughes.  The dedication occurred on Oct. 23, 1977. 

            It is now 2005 and no progress has been made in the African-American Garden, other than a sign placed there this summer that describes the proposal of the garden.  (See photo in presentation.)



Andrzejewski, Tom.  “Black pride, stick-to-itness keep Glenville coast golden.”  The Plain Dealer, July 10, 1985.

Bodnar, John.  The Transplanted. Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1985.

Cadzow, John F. “Lithuanian Americans and Their Community of Cleveland.”  Cleveland Ethnic Heritage Studies. Cleveland:  Cleveland State University, 1978.

Dolgan, Robert.  “One world:  Afro-American, Indian cultural gardens hailed.”  The Plain Dealer, July 19, 1976.

Drexler, Madeline.  “Pride and Prejudice.”  The Plain Dealer Magazine.  August 11, 1985.

Goldberg, David J.  Discontented America.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Hammack, David, et al.  Identity, Conflict, and Cooperation.  Cleveland:  Western

Reserve Historical Society, 2002.

Mihal, John.  “Lithuanians’ Garden Tells History of Nation.”  The Plain Dealer.  Sept 14, 1937.

Loveland, Roelif.  “Just Plain Soil Welds People of 28 Nations.”  The Plain Dealer.  July 31, 1939.

Ruksenas, Algis.  “Lithuanians.”  The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

Tebeau, Mark.  “Sculpted Places:  Identity, Community, and the Cleveland Cultural Gardens.”  Cleveland State University, 2005.

Unknown. “Cultural Gardens Vandals Hit” The Plain Dealer, Sept 9, 1966.