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Abilene's Adamson-Spalding Storybook Garden
Imagination Comes to Life



This sculpture garden in Abilene, Texas features scenes from Garth Williams' famous illustrations of many children's books. Five settings from his iconic illustrations are on display in the park; "Charlotte's Web," "Stuart Little," "The Three Little Pigs," "Goldilocks and The Three Bears," and the "Three Little Kittens."

In 2015, the Texas Legislature designated Abilene, Texas, as the Storybook Capital of Texas. In addition to this, the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature sits across the street from the Cultural Affairs Council, which is host to exhibitions of the original illustrations of storybooks, as well as arts activities for kids. These attributes made Abilene the perfect place for a storybook park. Lynn Barnett, the executive director of the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, and Pam Tippen, a volunteer board member, sat down with me, Mitchell Wright, to discuss their vision of a new ambitious sculpture garden for downtown Abilene.

The Adamson-Spalding Storybook Garden was inaugurated on June 8, 2017, with a ribbon cutting and synced with the official start to the Children's Arts and Literacy Festival. On this day, thousands of people eagerly waited for their first glimpse of the new garden.

As the landscape architect, my job was to create the garden space for these bronzes and associated settings. Being one of the most ambitious sculpture projects Abilene has ever seen, I was stimulated by the challenge. My idea for the project was that the city needed to create a space that is exciting and playful for kids. I wanted kids to walk through the park and have spaces be revealed, so that, looking across the garden, the sculptures are not all evident.


The Generation Tree was created in honor of the many generous donors and supporters. It symbolizes and celebrates the multiple generations of families that continue to care for the town of Abilene. As with all the tall structures found within the park, the Generation Tree is constructed out of rebar. To further pay homage to the kind supporters, the tree is also surrounded by 8 donor benches, which offer a comfortable and centralized place to sit down.


All of the bronze sculptures located throughout the park were taken specifically from illustrations created by Mr. Williams and had to go through the process of vetting and sanctioning by the estates and families of the illustration owners. In this photo, "Stuart Little" is seen rowing his boat in a rendition of the original cover image from 1945.

Rebar became the material of choice due to its cost and availability. My team and I designed and created 86 rebar trees that drew lines across the site then we strung in strands of light. Number 6 rebar was used to create the main structure, while number 3 and 4 rebar completed connections and ornaments, as well as being a line for the light strands to affix to.

The lights were a firefly or fairy type of light that was commercial grade with a long life expectancy and the ability to swap out small sections if needed for repairs over time. Supplementing these are spotlights that provided ample light to the pathway, washed tree canopies and sculpture sites. The beauty of this strategy, beyond stimulating the imagination, was that all lighting fixtures were overhead about 10 feet up from any bollards or ground-mounted fixtures.

In keeping with the highly organic form and imagination of the design, each of the light trees had two cross vine plants at the base to grow onto the steel structure over time. I anticipate that, over time, the cross vine will colonize the steel in the high sunlight areas and be less aggressive under the shade of the trees on site.

With so many shade trees that were planted back in the early 1970s, and large trees being somewhat of a precious commodity in West Texas, we made a concerted effort to protect them from damage during the construction. We solicited the volunteer guidance of two local arborists to refine the methodology for the trees.

First to be completed was mapping the branching patterns of the trees, with major canopy areas and limbs measured and mapped on the plan. This was needed to verify and adjust the path of the steel lighted trees that weave through the site and ensure minimal interference with the natural trees. Fencing was erected around the drip lines of all trees except where the pathways were to be excavated. Once the primary landscape contractor, Masterscapes, was hired, radial mulching around each tree was performed by air spading trenches, radiating around the perimeter of each tree and filled with rich organic compost. Tree trimming was necessary to keep young people from climbing into the trees where the branches were low and to help make way for the steel lighting trees to complete their route through the site.


"The idea of bollards and light standards just didn't seem to fit the highly convoluted space and the imaginative feel that I was trying to achieve. Through multiple brainstorming sessions and discussions, the idea of recreating the symbology of Charlotte weaving her web across the garden emerged as an idea for facilitating the lighting of the site." - Mitchell Wright, ASLA, ALCP, LEED AP


Artist Steve Neves led the sculpture creation. Mr. Neves is the professor of sculpture for Hardin Simmons University. His colleague Geoff Broderick, professor of sculpture at Abilene Christian University, had the foundry for casting the bronzes. Here, the Three Little Kittens get a scolding from their mother after losing their mittens. Now they are sad because they won't get any pie!

In total, we had to design and fabricate 16 sculptures for the backdrops, install 37 stone block benches with quotes engraved on each, construct about 8 donor recognition stones with bronze or laser cut steel plaques, design and manufacture 86 steel trees, pour concrete for tree piers, backdrops, sculptures and a stage. Lastly, install the site's electricity and irrigation. A massive undertaking that took 5 months to complete.

This project was a herculean effort. It was accomplished by a fantastic team of contractors and volunteers, performing hard work, coupled with a kind donation of services. Engineering, surveying, and contracting services were donated, the Dyess Air Force Base's "We Care Team" donated countless hours of technical and nontechnical work; retirees, professionals, high school kids, a university football team and many more came together to make this all work. The philanthropic community of Abilene also stepped up brightly with a phenomenal outpouring of financial support. The final budget tallied up to around $700,000.

In the end, Abilene joined together to create something really special. The park showcases wonderful sculptures that represent famous illustrations, in turn, celebrating a child's imagination.

Considerations: the Cultural Affairs Council, myself (Mitch Wright with Vista Planning & Design), the City Parks and Recreation Department, Dyess Air Force Base and private/public donors.

As seen in LASN magazine, April 2018.

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December 14, 2019, 7:53 am PDT

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