By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Starting next Wednesday, May 16, visitors to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) who enter from Washington Avenue will be greeted by a new $28 million visitor center that includes interactive multi-media exhibits about the BBG’s attractions, a room for orienting tour groups, an event space, a new garden store and more.
The building of the 20,000-square-foot center was prompted, at least in part, by the BBG’s skyrocketing number of visitors. BBG President Scot Medbury said the garden's yearly attendance has grown in the past 10 years from about 650,000 to 735,000.
Previously, visitors entering from Washington Avenue were greeted only by a turnstile and a sentry gate, and had to go to the nearly 100-year-old administration building for any type of assistance.
Among the new building’s most striking features are its plant-covered green roof — one of several “green” features that are aimed toward earning Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification — and its glass walls. What look like small round plaques in the path surrounding the building are in fact geothermal wells, and the building is heated by radiant heat, meaning that heat enters through the floor and travels upward.
Inside, exhibits lining the walls invite visitors to “find the shrine” in the Japanese garden, learn more about water power and smell leaves from various trees.
In addition to the garden store, more space directly outside the building will host “street sales” of home and garden plants. The green roof hosts more than 40,000 plants, and nearly 60,000 more plants have been installed around the center, including cherry, magnolia and tupelo trees, as well as a variety of water-growing plants that will be featured in three rain gardens.
Marion Weiss of the husband-and-wife architectural team Weiss and Manfredi, which designed the structure, said the center was designed to fit into the Garden’s existing pattern of paths. “Our first project was the Women’s Memorial at Arlington Cemetery, so most of our projects have been a combination of architecture and landscaping,” she said.
“When we were having interviews for architects,” said Medbury, “by chance, they were the first ones there in the morning, and we were very impressed.” Weiss and Manfredi managed to convince Medbury to change the original intended location, which would have been closer to the cherry esplanade but further from the street.
The visitor center, said a BBG spokeswoman, is just one feature of the garden’s evolving $100 million Campaign for the Next Century renewal effort. The Eastern Parkway entrance that opened in 2005 was part of this campaign, she said, as is the ongoing expansion of the Native Flora Garden.
Asked about visitors to the botanic garden, she said about half are from the New York area, and the rest are from other parts of the country and abroad. In particular, the Japanese Garden attracts many Japanese tourists, especially around the time of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival (Sakura Matsuri). As far as local visitors are concerned, the garden attracts many members of both the nearby Hasidic and Caribbean communities.
In addition to the Japanese Garden, other popular attractions include the Herb Garden, the Children’s Garden (the first in the country, established in 1914), the Shakespeare Garden and the Celebrity Path, which is actually maintained by the Borough President’s Office.
Established in 1985 and updated every year, the Celebrity Path contains the names of more than 150 famous Brooklynites, from Jackie Gleason to Barbra Streisand to Walt Whitman to Judge Judy. “I’ve seen many visitors looking at it, and saying, 'Hey! I didn’t know that person came from Brooklyn,’” said the spokeswoman.
Ground was broken for the visitor center in 2010.