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Sculpture garden a hidden gem

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Story and photos

by Nancy A. Herrick

From the giant four-sided clock tower casting its shadow on Interstate 94 to the basketball and hockey arena occupying its own block downtown, the Bradley family name is well known in Milwaukee.

As founders of Allen-Bradley Corp., brothers Lynde and Harry Bradley epitomized the entrepreneurial spirit and were major players in Milwaukee’s industrial past.

But nestled away behind a stockade fence about 10 miles north of Milwaukee, the Lynden Sculpture Garden is a much quieter example of the Bradley family’s impact. There, in the suburb of River Hills, more than 50 remarkable sculptures dot the 40 rolling acres that make up one of the area’s newest cultural destinations.

Open to the public since 2010, the sculpture garden is the former estate of Harry and Peg Bradley, who were married in 1926 and moved to the country setting. They called their estate Lynden.

Harry Bradley died in 1965 and Peg Bradley died in 1978. Their daughter, philanthropist Jane Bradley Pettit, passed away in 2001. The Bradley Family Foundation, run by the Bradleys’ grandchildren, decided in 2009 to open the unusual outdoor museum to the public.

“We’ve only been open three years, so we still are adapting, defining ourselves and trying new things,” said Peggy Morris, executive director of the Lynden Sculpture Garden. “We’re carving out our niche at the intersection of art and nature, and that’s what sets us apart.”

Even without the sculptures the property would be worth a visit. The acreage originally was flat farmland, but after purchasing the property the Bradleys initiated a stunning transformation. They hired a Chicago landscape firm to create an English country park, based on Harry Bradley’s memories of a park in Kansas City where he swam and played when he was young.

The 13 original trees on the property were joined by almost 4,000 more. Formal and informal gardens were added, as were hills, valleys and small lakes. A rustic bridge designed by Harry Bradley stretches across one of them.

As the landscape matured, 50-plus artists’ works of varying shapes, sizes and even colors were added. The result is a snapshot of international outdoor sculpture of the 1960s and ’70s.

“Peg and Harry Bradley had an interest in collecting art specifically to be donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and it can be found there in the Bradley Wing,” said Morris. “But Mrs. Bradley had a special interest in outdoor sculpture for their own property and began collecting in 1962 until her death.

“She had very eclectic tastes and was not at all afraid of very contemporary art. Perhaps that was because of her involvement with fashion.”

Peg Bradley had her own women’s clothing store and was associated with Zita, the longtime women’s fashion boutique in Milwaukee.

Now people of all ages come to enjoy the sculpture collection.

On one breezy summer day, Francie Shea of Whitefish Bay strolled the grounds for the first time.

“I’ve driven past this property for years and always wondered what was behind the fence,” she said. “This seemed a perfect day to do that. And I’m in awe of what I see.”

Middle school students attending a daylong art workshop took their lunch break in the shade of a huge oak tree and spent some time exploring before class resumed.

“The turtles are out,” shouted one of them to his approaching friend. Indeed, almost a dozen were sunning themselves on the lily pads in plain view from the wooden bridge.

Not far away, Diane Andrews studied the huge cube-shaped steel sculpture by Antoni Milkowski while her 3-year-old granddaughter ran around. “On a day like this when I’m baby-sitting, we both get to do what we want,” she said, laughing.

Morris is aware that the Lynden Sculpture Garden can be different things to different people. Long respected in the Milwaukee arts community, she is the co-founder of Dance Works, the former director of development and community programming for the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and also runs the Mary Nohl fellowship program for artists. She has a doctorate in 18th century social history and formerly taught at UWM.

“Life goes through many peculiar twists and turns, and I’ve always gone off exploring different directions,” said Morris, who became executive director of the garden when she was in her mid-50s.

So, too, does the sculpture garden. It offers concerts, dance performances, summer camps, adult workshops, artist-in-residence programs, yoga, tai chi and a speakers series.

The garden has wide appeal, she said, but there are three main audiences.

“We draw many out-of-towners seeking cultural attractions, many of whom are from out of the country,” she explained. “We attract families who often buy annual memberships so that they can come here year-round. And we appeal to lots of people who are in their ‘prime’ and have the time to visit, walk around and take a class or two — something they might not have had time to do when they were younger and working.”

She said word of mouth is growing and she is seeing steadily increasing interest and growth.

“We want to make this a very lively venue,” she said. “It’s an amazing resource and I am so glad people are finding out about it and embracing what we have here.”