Look at a map of Dayton’s Fairlane neighborhood, and you’d think the names of the avenues were inspired by something like the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois — they’re what some of the roadways are called here.
At the intersection of Kentucky and West Virginia Avenues, you’ll find a place that must have resembled the Olympics, when upwards of 600,000 people arrived each year to see 25 acres of gardens that are said to have rivaled Central Park, the New York City creation of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, in their magnificence. Resortgoers at the turn of the 20th century apparently flocked to Dayton to visit the Grotto Gardens. That’s what I learned when I happened upon the website for this National Historic Landmark.
The story begins in 1865, when Abraham Lincoln made National Asylums for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers official. Two years later, a National Soldiers Home for disabled Civil War veterans opened in Dayton.
They moved on to laying brick walkways, creating a 35-foot fountain in the middle of a pond, and building a boathouse that also sheltered swans. They brought in alligators, together with a miniature version of a battleship, and placed them in the pond. They also established an aviary and a deer park there.
They constructed a conservatory for displaying rare plants and palm trees. In a greenhouse, they raised thousands of plants and sold them at a healthy profit.
The Veterans Administration took over the facility in the 1930s, but funding and maintenance cutbacks caused the Dayton Grotto Gardens to suffer. By 1960, the structures needed repair and the landscape was overrun with honeysuckle, wild grapevines and poison ivy, so thriving that the invasive plants were said to be as big as baseball bats.
In 2012, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and The American Veterans Heritage Center rescued the garden and began restoring it, with help from The Ohio State University Extension’s Greater Montgomery County Master Gardener Volunteers. They began making repairs and installed new flower beds, creating memorial gardens named for people important to the history of the garden. For example, florist-turned-resident veteran Frank Mundt, who began installing the plants in the former quarry site, hnis memorialized in a patriotic-themed garden. One perennial garden recalls Major Charles Beck, who oversaw the gardens from 1875 to 1906; another featuring native perennials attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds honors Dr. Clarke McDermont, the Soldiers Home’s first surgeon. A calming healing garden commemorates the contributions of Emma Miller, the “Little Mother of the Soldiers” who was transferred to the Soldiers Home in 1867 to care for her charges. Another unique planting recalling the Purple Heart Medal recognizes the efforts of Joseph Guy LaPointe, a Dayton-area recipient of both that medal and the Medal of Honor for his heroic efforts during the Vietnam War.
Japanese willows, irises, hostas, ferns, bog plants and a weeping bald cypress were planted to frame the grottos. Evergreens, sedums, dwarf pink snowberries and spring bulbs provide for a colorful and interesting year-round display.
The Dayton Grotto Gardens are open during regular business daylight hours. You can also support the restoration efforts under way at the garden by purchasing limited-edition prints, posters and notecards of garden-inspired paintings created by botanical artist Diane Harm.