Life, liberty and the pursuit of grant money: Thomas Jefferson Gardens scores
By ANDREW MCGINN
The hope is that once the building at the center of the Thomas Jefferson Gardens finally opens to visitors, memories of the in-fighting that plagued the project will fade.
That would naturally be the most Jeffersonian thing that could happen.
After all, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 is today remembered only for doubling the size of the United States.
Come to find out, Jefferson’s envoy to France, James Monroe, was actually only authorized to purchase the city of New Orleans.
He instead bought 827,000 square miles of land, leading to cries by Jefferson’s political foes that the purchase was unconstitutional.
Tom Polking, the 6-foot-3 Jefferson attorney who shares a birthday, a height and a vocation with the town’s namesake, is confident his building will similarly wind up on the right side of history.
“We need the restroom facilities. We need an indoor area,” said Polking, chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Gardens board.
The garden last week was notified it will receive a special, three-year grant worth $150,000 from the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp. to immediately finish the building, according to Polking.
The structure has been in limbo since February, when a plan by the Greene County Chamber of Commerce to operate the building as a welcome center fell apart amid a battle with the city of Jefferson over hotel/motel tax revenue.
The gardens board had planned to rent the building to the Chamber for $1 a year with the understanding the Chamber would renovate it outside and in, Polking said.
For that, the Chamber would have needed a sizeable cut of the city’s hotel/motel tax money.
Suddenly, it was like resurrecting the blood feud between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
“I frankly felt very bad,” Polking said. “I know all those people. They’re all good people. All those people want to make Jefferson and Greene County better.”
The gardens board ended up being handed back a half-finished building.
“I’ve seen a lot of divorces,” Polking observed. “Sometimes, partnerships don’t work.”
The Thomas Jefferson Gardens will instead go it alone, finishing the building with a twofold purpose — to tell the story of our nation’s third president and to serve as a Greene County welcome center.
“We want the brochures. We want everything in a central location,” Polking said.
A $10,000 Vision Iowa grant was recently used to close a window and gut the interior, he said.
“We’re doing it up right,” he said.
The garden also will assume the Chamber’s $63,000 debt from early remodeling efforts, Polking said.
The Thomas Jefferson Gardens could get up to $20,000 annually in hotel/motel tax to operate the building, which he calls “tourists paying for a tourist destination.”
“Everybody wants to see it completed,” Polking said.
He envisions a space for weddings or for people to renew vows.
“Half the weddings in America today are non-church,” he said. “We think it’s a perfect spot for that.”
What started everything in motion five years ago was a wish by retired Ames attorney Wallace Teagarden to finance a bronze statue in his native Greene County of Thomas Jefferson.
He found in Polking, 69, a fellow admirer of the Founding Father who just happens to have a penchant for talking about Jefferson’s life in period dress.
Together, they conceived a garden setting for the statue of Jefferson in downtown Jefferson — all they had to do was raze three buildings and turn a concrete lot into a botanical garden.
Nearly $600,000 and 250 dump trucks of black dirt later, “It’s bigger than we thought,” Polking said of the project.
Once complete, according to Polking, the building at the center of it all will feature a map of the Louisiana Purchase and the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, both possibly cast in bronze.
The site aims to evoke a sort of miniature Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home famed for its flower gardens, orchards and vegetable garden.
The site already features a specially made replica of a moldboard plow Jefferson designed.
A “prairie garden” features flora that likely would have been encountered by Lewis and Clark during their expedition of the Louisiana Territory — an expedition commissioned by Jefferson.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Polking said of the site.
A new addition at the site is a set of playable contrabass chimes donated by Jim and Jacque Andrew and family.
It soon will be joined by another outdoor instrument — an 18-note resonating xylophone.
Thomas Jefferson loved music, Polking said, and the xylophone will be a gift of Dean and Lois McAtee in honor of her parents, Gwen Alcorn and Henry Knigge, brother Jim Knigge and sister Linda Knigge.
Indeed, it’s now hard to believe a gas station once sat on the site.
“I never thought we could make it so pretty,” Polking said.