Andrew Chakalis, project coordinator for the Cleveland Cultural Gardens and Greek Cultural Garden delegate, discusses the restoration of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. He discusses how and why gardens are being restored, future plans for the gardens, and the city's involvement with the gardens as a whole. Other topics include how he got involved with the gardens, landscape within the Greek Cultural Garden, and community involvement in the gardens.

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Chakalis, Andrew (interviewee)


Cleveland Cultural Gardens series 1



Document Type

Oral History


34 minutes


Transcription sponsored by DeChant Art Consulting & Titans of Space

Interviewer [00:00:03] These are the high quality ones you gotta use for this. Would you mind? Just 10 or 15 minutes. Can you start off?

Andrew Chakalis [00:00:16] Andy Chikalis. I’m the project coordinator for the renovation and replanting of the Greek Cultural Garden here in Cleveland, Ohio. I'm a representative of the Hellenic Preservation Society, which was the, or is the lead organization in taking on the renovation and replanting project for this garden. The organization, along with the Cultural Garden Federation of Cleveland, were the two partnering organizations to lead this project. The Hellenic Preservation Society looked at this as a potential project, saying that their mission is to preserve the Greek culture of northeastern Ohio. So this certainly fell underneath the umbrella of their mission statement. There was a form vote by the board of trustees and members to take this initiative on. We wanted to do it correctly from a preservation and conservation standpoint. So what we would do would have a long lifespan for the garden and for the benefit of all people, this particular garden site. We approached the garden restoration and renovation project as if we were taking on a fine work of art, either painting, sculpture, that have it. And so we did a very, very thorough analysis of the garden, its infrastructure, its plant life condition. We sought out the original, as many original drawings and terrain drawings as possible through archives of the city of Cleveland. We entertained to do this properly, we would need someone professional to come aboard and help us through this. And we sought the services of Jim McKnight, a landscape architect. And Jim, I think, has done a stellar job with being very sensitive to the original planting scheme, but also very aware of the conditions that we face, in a contemporary sense, of maintaining plant life, so forth. So a complete survey was done not only from Jim, but also, let's say, from an engineering standpoint of the stonework that was in terrible shape. The west slope of this garden, there were staircases that descend down to the Martin Luther King Boulevard that were completely covered over with dirt, and grass was growing over them. And that was a pleasant surprise as we began to unearth the garden, that those elements suddenly appeared.

Interviewer [00:03:17] You had no idea those were there before.

Andrew Chakalis [00:03:18] On the drawings they were to be there, but we really didn't see them. The city lawn mowers were actually running over the staircases and mowing lawn. So it just kind of speaks for how long they were basically neglected or just attempted to. So those were pleasant surprises. So as we did the preliminary surveys, we realized to what degree the infrastructure, stonework, the fountain, all the elements. There was an original irrigation system on the site, all the gardens at that one time. It was a type that you see many years ago, where someone walked around with a bucket with these little sprinkling heads and pop them in, and then when they were done running, we take them out and so forth. We did a thorough examination of that irrigation system, and we found out that it was completely non functional. So that brought to the table not only with the planting and the other infrastructure, we would have to look at the cost of putting in an irrigation system. That was not when we first took on the project, but we added that to the benchmark conditions. So back in last year, we gave this garden back its rededication of its renovation replanting in 1996 to coincide with the city's bicentennial. The work started about three years prior to that, which encompassed, first of all, the commitment, the analysis, and then rudimentary beginnings of some type of work. So volunteers that were committed to the project came out and we thought maybe one day of cleanup would do it. We realized after 800 bags of debris from the central court alone, we had a long way to go. But in our preliminary work sessions, the garden actually unfolded. Its character, its grandeur, the potential was being seen by individuals working at the garden on a weekly basis. Mind you, all of this was all volunteer. We received a stipend first from the holding trust, which we used as seed money to assist us in our fundraising to bring in the necessary dollars. So we use that as the catalyst to communicate within our community and other communities that there was an organization that was willing to put further stipend, and we certainly matched that beyond. We used those dollars primarily for some stonework and some basically, we pressure washed the entire structure down to basically earth, as I mentioned, to the staircases and so forth on the west slope and the upper walkways, which also have been covered over. We documented all of this before we started e work photographically, and we have a permanent record with the project in our archives of the Hellenic Preservation Society. The work itself continued into the bicentennial up until the bicentennial, which at that time, we had. We were the host garden, the one world day in 1996, and we, at that time, turned over the garden to the city officials at a ceremony that was held here in that afternoon. Much activity, Greek dancers, other nationality dancers. It was a very, very festive day. We had Lolly the Trolley, a local trolley firm, bring in people from various points of departure within the Greek community. And we also made those trolleys available to whomever would like to come in to experience that day. So it was a very festive and, I think, worthy of a job well done. We continue to maintain the garden on an annual basis. We knew that this is a commitment long term, it's not short term. We originally knew that we were the first to come in and try to run a hellenic garden in the corridor. We wanted to believe that if we would demonstrate as a community, that other communities would follow. And that has happened. And we're very pleased that it's just neighbors helping neighbors. We've seen activity in the Slovenian garden, the Italian garden, the Hebrew garden, in various gardens along the corridor. So we're very pleased to see that initial idea with us coming forth little by little, that's becoming a reality. And we also have ceremonies for the rededication. We mentioned to city officials that we want to not only see the existing gardens brought up to a world class standard, but also have other gardens become part of this necklace. And we're strongly advocating for other communities to take a position in this corridor that is to demonstrate world peace. And we've seen, let's say we've been active with the Indian community, the Scottish community. We know the African American community is moving forward. So in some way, those are positive signs to see this corridor reflect the city as it is in the two thousands. The current gardens that are going through renovation and much attention now are of an earlier time. But it is significant to the immigration movement into Cleveland. And it's nice to know that our generation, or my generation, is giving respect to the past generation who were instrumental in actually the ideas, fundraising, and making these become a reality for all people to enjoy. So we're just taking the baton and running with it for a while, and we hope to pass it on the landscape plan that is in front of us, on the ease of is the plan that is. Without the plan, I think we would have failed in the goals of the project. The plan has glued us together to stay the course, to measure our accomplishments with the replanting with the infrastructure. Without the plan, I think we would have wandered into some accomplishment, but not total. So I would advocate strongly. Our experience proves that the plan is the document that holds us together. There have been slight modifications in plan selection here and there, but those have been practical issues, availability. But overall, the document, it was the compass that was steering the ship for us. So we all felt comfortable after approving the plan. And you should know that the plan was reviewed by a number of individuals, both from a horticultural standpoint, engineering standpoint, and also from various city official standpoint. So the document really has glued us all together from various organizations, from various expertise areas, to assure us that we are on the right course. And the plan once again reflects the historic significance of the garden, and it does not modify or change any of the original design features of the garden. So it's pretty comprehensive. And I once again have to thank Jim McKnight, the landscape architect, who really brought the sensitivity and the expertise to the table to give us the plan to help us realize our intention of renovating and planting this garden in Cleveland, Ohio.

Interviewer [00:12:31] Is the city planning of any assistance too?

Andrew Chakalis [00:12:32] Yes, absolutely. We wanted to approach this in a partnership. And I will say that we knew that we had limitations, the city, but we also had strengths. And we wanted to demonstrate to the city, through the presentation of a plan to the mayor at that time, our seriousness and the degree of expertise that we wanted to bring to the table. The city, in fact, did a great deal whenever possible, all of the various departments that we called upon for assistance at various times. We found that there was a tremendous response in various, either departmental heads or individuals working in the field, sensing what we were trying to do here. And I think there was a general applause. So there was not a lack of enthusiasm in them to step to the plate to do whatever was necessary, whether it be electrical hookup or water, from the water department, parks and recreation. Mind you, their tasks are enormous and we are just a small aggregate to the overall picture. But like I say, we knew that there was need for partnership. So the Hellenic Preservation Society took the lead. The Garden Federation was instrumental in being the caretaker of these gardens for many, many years. So the partnership with the City of Cleveland, the Garden Federation of Cleveland, the Hellenic Preservation Society, the Holden Trust foundation, who also spearheaded some of the earlier plans for the entire parkway. So I say that there will have to be, in the future, continued cooperation and resources from private, public sector to foster these gardens to their future. I do not, perhaps the players and so forth and names will change, but overall, I see and our organization sees that it's going to be a due effort from various groups or organizations in fostering, we want to awaken to the Clevelanders and beyond the wealth and resource that is here in these landmarks. And we're hoping that our efforts will put forth a long term enjoyment for people to come and visit these gardens.

Interviewer [00:15:32] How long have you yourself been involved with the gardens?

Andrew Chakalis [00:15:33] Basically, I became involved. There was a gentleman by the name of Pete Catavolos, who was the garden delegate through the Cultural Garden Federation for a number of years. I spoke with Pete Catavolos pertaining to the, the organization of the local preservation society, saying that that would be perhaps a project that would be worthy for them to consider. So I have been involved with the project since, I think, 1993. So I continue to serve in the capacity of doing whatever we can. Rake leaves, trim fertilizer. There's a host of volunteers, but all of our membership in the Hellenic Preservation Society are endorsing and supporting this project. It's just not the alarm. I just happen to have a very good comfort level with, and mind you, when we took this over, we thought that a few weekends would do it. Well, hardly the case. It's taken a great deal more, but I think the rewards are being seen right in front of us now. With some of the plant life maturing, the gardens are now kept far better than what they were when we started. So overall, there's a lot of pluses. We've seen wedding ceremonies taking place here when we started this project. I don't think that anyone would want to have a wedding in the site that we had first looked at. So those are healthy signs. We just have to advocate more support, more broad based. We'd like to see more activity take place in the gardens. It's a public space. I compare this to Central park in New York City.

Intervewer [00:17:42] Any plans for that right now? Any rough ideas?

Andrew Chakalis [00:17:43] Well, there are many ideas brewing and it's interesting from various vantage points. There should be concerts, there should be maybe folk festivals, there could be poetry readings. There are many, many educational. There's value to the local educational work, community schools to anchor in and take a foothold into this corridor. From a horticultural, from a science standpoint, the Doan Brook initiative may unfold some possibilities. I'm very pleased to see Cleveland State put forth the initiative and interest from a historical standpoint, to document and record this legacy that is part of the Cultural Gardens. So, yes, I hear, and there's rumor, but the organization involved have to put that up as a priority, and I think that will happen. I think University Circle should play a more important role in the activity. Reach into the Cultural Gardens. I'm optimistic with the general public to benefit, let alone the bike path that has been placed down the corridor, that has introduced many people to become aware of the Cultural Garden. So those are side effects. How educational programs can be anchored into the ongoing activities on a seasonal basis is to be developed, but where we're ready to put forth our energies in that direction.

Interviewer [00:19:43] When I walked in, I heard you explaining a little bit about the design of the garden. Can you?

Andrew Chakalis [00:19:51] Oh, sure. The garden itself. We're standing at the entry of the Greek. The garden is the Greek garden is a part of its upper garden. It flanks from East Boulevard on the east side all the way to the west side. It is the only garden that has a sunken garden feature of all gardens. And the sunken area is reflected. It is to symbolize the shape of the Greek cross by the staircases that move from right to left and also descend into the central court. The two columns that are on the left at the entrance of where we stand, doric columns that are represented from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The wall that we see beyond the fountain is also to symbolize the wall from the Acropolis in the Parthenon. There are four niches on the two on either side of the wall. And there are inscribed names of philosophers, mathematicians, that are going all the way up to, let's say, El Greco, who is Greek painter who lived in Spain, and he's the last on the lower right hand niche. So it goes historically in time sequence, from Aristotle and so forth. So once again, reflecting back at the history and the elements of Greek civilization, Greek culture has contributed to the western civilization. The niche [inaudible] is a void space. And our research tells us that there was to be a relief sculpture in that niche. We do believe that there was a sculptor in Cleveland that presented sketches and so forth, but it was never realized, I believe, because of the Depression or because of lack of funding at that time. The fountain that is in the central court is also significant. It's not a fountain that, let's say, you would see in the Italian garden or Lithuanian garden. This fountain is to suggest another subtlety that the original landscape architecture architect implied into the overall design. On the opposite side of the wall, there is a bench, and on either side there are to be, we are to replace two urns. And those urns were to be in, let's say, a philosophical reality, the urns were to be taken, go up to the fountain, and you dip the urn, fill it with water, and then you would go and water the plant life that is in the garden. And in Greece, that is a courtyard aspect in architecture, residential, and sometimes in commercial architecture. But the fountain is used only as a watering source for the plants within the garden. It is not to be a dramatic cascade or waterfall and so forth that one would expect. So, once again, it's the new plant from the two urns, the watering urns come up, dip, and then to be taken to be feeding the plant life in the garden. So there's a lot of symbolism. The staircases that descend on either the south and north side of the garden, which we call the west slope, that is also, in a way, if you're coming up off of Martin Luther King Boulevard and coming up the staircases, it's as if you were in Athens, Greece, and if you were going up to the Acropolis and seeing that historic site. So once again, the architect incorporated that descending, ascending staircases to the wall and the upper level very deliberately. But the landscape terrain from the upper garden to the lower garden provided that architectural landscape detail. So there's many aspects of historic references that the Greek garden has. But if you see all the other gardens, there is symbolism. That's a carryover from, let's say, other societies histories and so forth. So those are predominantly a couple of the features that are here in the Greek garden. Some of the plant life early on was some of the plant life that we've incorporated has a reference to, let's say, a mediterranean or a, how would I put it? Even some of the plant life, whether it be herbs, whether it be Russian sage, there are elements that we incorporate to experience this particular landscape project. And we will designate, for example, the daffodils have to be trimmed down after their bloom in the springtime. So we designate that particular area. So those benchmarks are just for our own internal communication. And when we've shared activities, let's say, with the Italian garden, north waning garden, we also reference north side, east, south side, and so forth. As far as some landmark designation, it's practical. And believe you me, when we first started, it made a lot of sense because at first, oh, we could do this garden in two weekends. And we realized that, no, that's not going to be the case. So the plan designations of location to the garden became very, very clear that we're going to slow this one down a little bit because none of us are in physical shape to tackle it. So we concentrated on specific areas, the central part, west slope and so forth at given work days.

Interviewer [00:26:43] So let's see, Greek garden and the Italian garden and all of the Cultural Gardens are one of the only, or two of the only gardens, maybe the only gardens that are directly connected by formal kind of sidewalk there. Do you have anything to say on that?

Andrew Chakalis [00:27:14] Well, actually, there is a linkage. I think what your observation brings is that there is an absolute stone pathway, which we also restored early on to reconnect those two gardens from the original plans. Going to the Italian garden, we do not have a footpath, let's say, in stone, but there are connecting points from one garden to another garden, from various gardens. But there's not a deliberate pathway, let's say once you're in the gardens to all the gardens, you would have to take part of the walkway on East Boulevard and Martin Luther King Boulevard to make that linkage. So there is this puzzle of artery going through the different gardens. We're very lucky that we do have that bridge between the two gardens, and it connects. It makes it very easy. We've noticed that people walking through to get into the gardens will benefit by the passage of that walkway between, let's say, the Italian and Greek. But there again, they will continue either going down to the MLK boulevard or they'll walk on an undefined pathway over to the Lithuanian garden. So it's.

[audio cuts out briefly]

Andrew Chakalis [00:28:43] No, we were just asking because some people said, because of in history, kind of the close association with Italian and the. Well, it's serendipity that from my perspective, it's great to see the Greek and the Italian as neighbors in this corridor. There is so much influence from one to the other, and still today we experience that history. So I think it was, once again, the type of planning and thinking that went into developing this corridor. I don't think many people really can grasp or appreciate, and I'm hoping that some publication or documentation could raise those issues. But the scale of the gardens, the landscape ideals, the infrastructure, the monuments, sculptures that are suggested are implants. There's a tremendous wealth to experience for a visitor to these gardens. They're educational on their own. They're very tranquil as far as their natural beauty. And I think that's the real satisfaction that comes forth from our organization, to have people begin to uncover what is really here from an educational standpoint or just from an enjoyment standpoint alone. Yeah, I'm really pleased that we are neighbors, but if you encompass all of the gardens, that's when it really sinks in that wow there's a tremendous legacy of all these cultures coming together into Cleveland, and those who inspired the original ideas for these should be not forgotten.

Interviewer [00:31:08] What's your hope for the future?

Andrew Chakalis [00:31:10] Well, I think we still hold to my earlier commune that we want to see gardens that represent the makeup of our community today. American Indian, African American, the French should be here. There's a host of communities that should be present in this corridor, and I would say that I think that's long term. We need a pavilion, perhaps a center for people to maybe meet, for visitors to park and have the opportunity to walk into the gardens. Finding that location is going to be a tough one, but I think it's it can be realized, more education into it, but hopefully just to keep it open and available and free to the public to experience, not only to Clevelanders, but people from all over.

Interviewer [00:32:20] If there's one statue you could add in the Greek garden, would it be anybody?

Andrew Chakalis [00:32:27] Oh, boy. Oh, that's a tough one. I don't think that one would be able to do it. We're giving up on the other three busts. But I wanted. [audio ends]

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