Bernheim was founded in 1929 by Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, a German immigrant and successful brewer whose whiskey distillery business established the I.W. Harper brand. He purchased the land in 1928 at $1 an acre because most of it had been stripped for mining iron ore. The Frederick Law Olmsted landscape architecture firm started work on designing the park in 1931 and it opened in 1950. Bernheim Forest was given to the people of Kentucky in trust and is the largest privately owned natural area in the state. Bernheim, his wife, daughter, and son-in-law are buried in the forest.
In 1988, at least one outside consulting firm was engaged and work on a new long-range plan for the forest was begun. One of the directives of the new strategic plan was to make the arboretum a primary focus. In addition, the forest decided to strengthen its research ties with institutions such as the University of Louisville. As a result, Bernheim Forest was renamed Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. However, most local visitors still refer to the property as "Bernheim Forest," and some of the signage located along surrounding roads still refer to the old name. In recent years, Bernheim has developed a strong volunteer program, added frequent public workshops and classes, and successfully hosts several large public events each year. These include the annual ColorFest in October, Bloomfest in May, CONNECT, an evening in August where art, science and nature converge in unexpected and funky ways, and a 5-mile (8 km) run/walk, held in October.
Generally speaking, the property is divided into two areas--the arboretum and the natural area. The arboretum features formal and informal plant collections and various modern facilities, including handicapped accessible restrooms. Other arboretum features include numerous walking paths; a visitors' center, cafe, and gift shop; education center; a newly renovated children's play area and an inter-generational shelter, The Grisby Shelter, and four lakes. The natural area contains most of Bernheim's hiking trails, and is primarily a beech-maple forest with access via paved roads. There are over 35 miles (56.3 km) of hiking trails and scenic fire-roads, including the 13.3 mile (21.4 km) Millennium Trail and the 3.2 mile (5.1 km) paved Hike-Bike Pike. One short trail, the aptly named Fire Tower Loop, leads to a metal observation tower that is often open to climb via stairs. There is also a canopy walk which extends off a cliff and places the viewer above the trees and sharing a wonderful vista. Hiking trails range in difficulty from "casual" short walks to strenuous jaunts designed for "the more serious hiker," per Bernheim's website. The Millennium Trail is by far the longest and most challenging; as a result Bernheim asks that hikers set out before certain times in the morning (the deadline varies by season), as well as register at the visitor's center prior to starting the hike. In 2005, a hiker died of a heat stroke while attempting to complete the Millennium Trail.
Bernheim is open daily from 7 a.m. until sunset, the exceptions being Christmas day (December 25) and New Year's Day (January 1). The visitor's center, gift shop, and art gallery are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Activities one can engage in at Bernheim include walking, running, hiking, picnicking, birdwatching, bicycling, plant identification, photography, fishing, and special events. Although overnight camping was once allowed in a designated campground, it is no longer permitted. Bernheim is dog friendly (dogs must remain on a leash at all times, and are prohibited in certain areas).
The education center offers programs for school and other groups (advanced reservations are required). In 2005, a new visitor's center was opened and is considered to be a revolutionary eco-friendly design. Designed by the architecture firm William McDonough + Partners, the center is constructed of recycled materials and has live plantings on the roof. The parking lot for the center was specifically located so that mushrooms could absorb contaminants that cars emit so they wouldn't affect the water streams nearby. Glass and garden spaces are integrated into the design scheme. The building was awarded the Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum rating.
Bernheim offers memberships that include free year-round admission, discounts on educational programs, in the shop and subscription to a quarterly newsletter. For non-members, admission is free on weekdays, but a fee is charged on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays ($5 for each passenger car, mini-van, or motorcycle; $10 for passenger vans and recreational vehicles; and $20 for buses).
Before his death, Bernheim laid out his goals for the forest in a letter to the trustees and directors of the I. W. Bernheim Foundation. That letter, dated August 30, 1939, set the following goals:
Bernheim was a true visionary, and he himself wrote that "nothing is static in this world." He understood the changing nature of the world, and the need for changing thought in the context of time. A wildlife museum such as was described by Bernheim did at once exist, but has been re-arranged in recent years to serve as an administrative/education center, and static wildlife exhibits have mostly been removed (in the forest's defense, many of the taxidermied exhibits were deteriorating). A large area of the Great Meadow contains native long grass and a very successful quail program has been established to repopulate the region with quail. There is an emission offset fee of $5.00 per car has been established on weekends, which some argue is contrary to the vision that "no distinction will be shown between rich or poor" and that the forest "will be kept for ever free." Bernheim remains accessible to all.
Bernheim had a vision that art can heighten and expand experiences in nature. There are fifteen sculptures located throughout the arboretum, an active Artist in Residence Program and a program called Sited@Bernheim, which supports site-specific installations and sculpture. The Artist in Residence program typically offers housing and a stipend to artists who work in ways that are in keeping with the aspects of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest's mission of "connecting people with nature." Artists interact with the public in workshops, demonstrations or other activities as well as sharing finished pieces found throughout the arboretum. Past artists have worked in photography, painting, sculpture, video, performance, and the written word. Temporary and permanent sculptures are located throughout the arboretum.
Bernheim wrote in his 1939 letter that "the grave has no voice." But, he went on to say "may I not express the hope and fervent prayer that my wishes outlined in its different sections be respected as much as humanly possible." In his 1929 autobiography, "The Closing Chapters of a Busy Life," Bernheim also wrote that "I am comforted in the firm belief that the good a man does lives after him."
The property includes a 240-acre (0.97 km²) arboretum containing over 1,900 labeled species and cultivars of trees, shrubs, and other plants. The arboretum includes over 185 cultivars of American holly species. Other major collections include maples, crab apples, conifers (including dwarf conifers), oaks, buckeyes, ginkgoes, ornamental pears, and dogwoods. Specific attractions within the arboretum include the sun and shade trail, quiet garden, and garden pavilion. The original design for the arboretum was adopted in 1935, and has continued to be refined and improved over the years. In 1994, legislation was passed designating Bernheim as Kentucky's official arboretum. As is the case in most arboreta, the collection of leaves or clippings is not permitted.
The arboretum's holly collection is among the best in North America. It is officially named the Buddy Hubbuch Holly Collection, after Clarence E. "Buddy" Hubbuch, Jr. (deceased as of 2000), Bernheim's first horticulture director who oversaw the planting of the collection over his 33-year tenure (1962 to 1995). It contains more than 700 specimens representing more than 350 individual species and cultivars from all across the northern hemisphere. These include 176 American Holly (Ilex opaca) cultivars, 44 selections of Japanese Holly (I. crenata), more than 50 cultivars of deciduous hollies (I. decidua, I. verticillata, I. serrata, and hybrids), and 19 cultivars of Inkberry (I. glabra) along with many unique hybrids.
The design of the landscape and buildings at Bernheim, as well as the sculpture and art found throughout the arboretum, enhance our relationship with the natural environment and inspires the exploration of our deep connection with nature.
The world-renowned firm of Fredrick Law Olmstead was selected and commissioned in 1931 to design the arboretum. In accordance with the firm's recommendations; roadways, paths and natural areas were created, trees were planted, and farmland was restored to meadows, lawns and forest. Lakes, rivers and ponds were developed to provide "an enlivening effect." In 1950 Bernheim Forest was opened to the public. Continuous efforts are made to enhance the arboretum, the gardens and the natural areas by Bernheim's professional horticulture and natural areas departments.
In the mid-1960s, the gardens surrounding the Garden Pavilion and adjacent Quiet Garden were developed by landscape architecture firm Miller, Wihry and Brooks of Louisville. The gardens surrounding the Garden Pavilion were inspired by the cross-section of a clematis stem. The gardens were recently updated to reflect current Bernheim Select (TM) perennials as well as old garden favorites and include examples of cutting, shade and butterfly gardens.
Originally built as the Nature Center and completed in 1962, this multi-functional building is sited on the old Jones Farm property. Silos from the original farm still stand near by. Today it houses administrative offices and remains a well-used venue for educational and cultural displays, events and includes a wild life viewing room. It is open year-round. The adjunct gardens include shade and sun gardens and the Kingfisher Pond.
Designed by the Louisville firm of Nevin and Morgan in 1961, the Garden Pavilion is a six-sided redwood structure located on Lake Nevin and reflects a mid-century modern style. It is surrounded by a vine-covered pergola, which cools the building in the summer. The building is the center of the clematis stem shaped configuration. The Garden Pavilion is available year-round for weddings, meetings and gatherings.
The Research Center opened in 2004, providing office space and research facilities for horticulture and forest management and meeting space for scientific research. Global Change, bird migration, insects, amphibians, small mammals, and grassland grazing as well as stream restoration are currently being studied. The cultivation of selected perennial and tree species take place in greenhouses within the complex.
The environmentally friendly and sustainably designed, innovative and award-winning Visitor Center opened to the public in 2005. Designed by William McDonough + Partners of Charlottesville, Virginia and Barnett and Bagley Architects of Lexington, it was conceived as a "building like a tree" with pergolas, arbors and living roof, along with other design feature that reflect the ecology of Kentucky, created to connect to its sense of place. It has received numerous awards including the Platinum level of the LEED certification program.
Located in the Children's Play Garden, five structures support large, living green roof boxes while providing seating, shelter and shade. Their contemporary design incorporates columns made from recycled trees found within the forest.
Bernheim Fire Lookout was constructed in 1929 by the Kentucky Division of Forestry. It is a 48' tall Aemotor tower with a 7'x7' metal cab. The lookout was regularly staffed until 1980. In 1986 it was used to monitor a wild fire. It was designated as a historical lookout on April 22, 1998 by the National Historical Lookout Register. Restoration and management is now handled by the Bernheim Foundation with help from the local community and the University of Kentucky.
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The Art in Nature program provides a vital platform for artistic experimentation and curious exploration that becomes a part of the entire ecosystem of Bernheim and inspires our deep connections with nature, often providing a visitor with a sense of discovery. Its programs include the Artist in Residence Program, Sited @ Bernheim, Local Use by Local Artists and CONNECT. In addition, the following sculptures have been donated to Bernheim throughout its history:
1998 Artist-in-Residence, Karl Ciesluk, created numerous works of art throughout Bernheim. The pieces are scattered throughout the forest and arboretum to become delights of discovery as you explore Bernheim. Each piece is composed of tiny-mirrored squares, creating a glittering effect and reflection of its surrounding.
With a $500,000 grant for stream restoration from the U.S. EPA, the University of Louisville Stream Institute bulldozed the 4,000 feet (1,200 m) riparian corridor of Wilson Creek in order to return a meandering course to the channel which had been straightened in the past to allow for farming. Native trees and wildflowers were planted, and fish populations increased. In 2011 beavers returned and their dams have removed sediment, adding clarity to the streamwater. Also their ponds have attracted birds, amphibians,reptiles, raccoon, and river otters.
The buildings of architect William McDonough serve man and nature alike.