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Building for the future

Visitor center helps arboretum inspire a new generation of Minnesotans

By Brian Bellmont

From M, summer 2005

With its spectacular new Oswald Visitor Center overlooking thousands of flowers and trees, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is celebrating a season of renewal. After two years of construction and more than 10 years of planning, the new structure--with its impressive architecture, enhanced visitor resources, and expanded gift shop, gallery, and restaurant--has sparked a revitalized future for the nationally recognized institution.

Named for Charles Oswald, a longtime Arboretum foundation trustee who donated $13.5 million dollars of the building's $20-million construction and $4-million endowment, the Visitor Center serves as a formal entry to the Arboretum and an information hub for the more than 250,000 people who visit each year. The new facility also allows the Arboretum to more aggressively pursue its mission to educate, inspire, and reach out to families across the state. More than 53,000 children a year take part in the Arboretum's acclaimed educational programs, including school field trips, a thriving urban gardening program, and the popular Plantmobile.

"The Arboretum is just a very dramatic manifestation of the spirit of the state," Oswald says. "It's a beautiful place, it's fresh air, it's well maintained, it's educational. It's always interesting. It's just a delightful place to be." Oswald made the gift--the single largest donation in the Arboretum's history and one of the largest to the University overall--to honor his late wife, Sally Pegues Oswald, who died in 1996.

"She loved the Arboretum. I know she would have loved going out there today as much as I do," Oswald says. "It was she who introduced me to it, and I wanted to do something in her memory." The Oswalds would often pack their six children into the family station wagon and spend a day picnicking and spending time together amid the Arboretum's people and plants.

To celebrate the opening of the newly completed Visitor Center, more than 36,000 tulips and other bulbs are scheduled to bloom in early May, surrounding the new structure in a brilliant display that was inspired by the Netherlands' Keukenhof Gardens.

Spring and summer at the Arboretum deliver a spectacular splash of color, but it's the science behind the flowers that has driven the institution's longevity. The Arboretum is part of the Department of Horticultural Science in the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences. Its Horticultural Research Center (HRC) has been part of the state's agricultural history for nearly 100 years, generating more than 80 plant introductions, from disease-resistant azaleas and dogwoods to the cold-hardy Frontenac wine grape to its most famous apple introductions, the Haralson and the Honeycrisp.

To further the Arboretum's mission to educate and inspire, the next several months will revolve around the hands-on "Wild About Birds" exhibition, a tribute to the world of birds, their habits, and habitats. The Arboretum grounds will be atwitter with interactive learning exhibits like giant, kid-sized nests; a 40-foot wicker bird; and opportunities to watch our feathered friends eat, fly, and interact with plants.

One of the few buildings in the University of Minnesota system to be fully funded with private donations, the Oswald Visitor Center stands as the centerpiece of the 21st-century Arboretum. It's already helping the institution take some major steps to inspire a new generation of visitors.

"Supporters like Charles Oswald and the thousands of other people who have made private donations to the Arboretum can make an incredible impact on an institution like ours," says Arboretum director Peter Olin. "The Oswald Visitor Center will be a testament to that fact for many years to come."

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