Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Forbidden Gardens

Forbidden Gardens, an outdoor museum of Chinese history located off I-10 in a western suburb of Houston, officially closed this week to make way for the Grand Parkway's expansion. Listed by Time magazine as one of the 50 top U.S. roadside attractions, the Forbidden Gardens was built by Hong Kong real estate mogul Ira Poon to “help promote knowledge of ancient Chinese history and culture,” according to the museum’s literature.

Forbidden Gardens takes its name from two of its major features: a 1:20 scale model of the Forbidden City with hundreds of palace buildings and figurines under a 40,000-square-foot pavilion, and the landscaped grounds that surround the exhibits. Perhaps most impressive is the Terracotta Army, 6,000 one-third scale replicas of the famous sculptures guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huang in Xian. (The replicas at the Forbidden Gardens were handmade in Xian using molds that were later destroyed.)

Additional exhibits at the $40 million privately funded museum include a detailed panorama of a scholarly retreat called Lodge of the Calming of the Heart; an indoor model of Suzhou, known as the Venice of China; and rooms displaying historical architecture and weapons. All of the models and exhibits were built in China and then assembled in Houston by model-makers who were flown into the city to complete the project, including painting all the details and applying gold leaf to many of the pieces.

Here are excerpts from a Wall Street Journal article with more information about the owner and his vision:
Forbidden Gardens' owner, Ira Poon, has tended to shy away from the spotlight. Little is known about him, and his lawyer says he doesn't want to talk to the press. A local weekly reported in 1995 that Mr. Poon was a U.S. citizen who made his money dealing in Seattle and Hong Kong real estate. 
The attraction's website says Mr. Poon opened the park here in 1996, in an isolated spot 30 miles west of downtown Houston, in rice fields that reminded him of China and were close to the city's large Asian community. 
His visits to the property were rare. Kim Stevens, a staffer for eight years, says she has met him once, and he was rather quiet. 
"He came, he looked, he left," she said. 
But the site now lies amid one of America's fastest growing suburbs and in the path of the planned expansion of a four-lane highway loop called the Grand Parkway. 
"Forbidden Gardens was constructed to be away from the hustle and bustle," Mr. Montague said. His client "was never in this for a profit. He was in it to offer something back to the community."
The WSJ adds that, in "one of America's oddest liquidation sales," everything is being sold, "from the delicately handcrafted pavilions...to the majestic cherry trees adorning the entrance" and even "the goldfish that inhabit its man-made lake."

Despite the bizarreness of Mr. Poon's project—I remember visiting Forbidden Gardens on a field trip in elementary school and being struck by the incongruity of the museum site—it saddens me to hear that it is closing down. Despite being off the beaten path, Forbidden Gardens was one of the random icons that represent the "anything is possible" attitude of the city.
Forbidden Gardens is already being mourned by fans of Houston's zany monuments, which include a house made out of beer cans and an amusement park dedicated to oranges. "It's one of my favorite attractions in Texas," says Wesley Treat, co-author of Weird Texas, a compendium of the Lone Star State's oddball pilgrimage sites. "Forbidden Gardens is really one of a kind."