Inside the Museum

INSIDE THE MUSEUM: A Look Into The Design of the Upper and Lower Courtyards


Stepping into The National Bonsai Museum is an experience unlike any other. If you get the sense you’re entering into a new and whimsical world where the calming influence of nature overtakes your soul, you are not alone. In fact, it was designed to feel that way...

We sat down with Jack Sustic, a former Museum curator who served for 13 years, to learn the history behind the decades-old courtyards.

The U.S. National Arboretum staff, the National Bonsai Foundation and architecture firm Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc. first designed the courtyards in 1999 to ameliorate calls for compliance with the American with Disabilities Act and to create a more fluid path for Museum visitors to follow, Sustic said. Visitors previously entered the Museum through the cryptomeria walk into a wide open space covered with gravel, but would not know where to continue from there, he said.

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The Maria Vanzant Upper Courtyard, named for a bonsai hobbyist whose husband contributed financially to the courtyard to honor her memory, was completed in 2003.

Sustic said the upper courtyard’s towering wall and water feature were constructed to direct visitors to stop first at the Exhibits Gallery.

A large trellis system runs the length of the gallery, but a solid peaked roof covers the first opening into the gallery to help visitors identify the main entrance. The courtyard itself is flanked by the Japanese Pavilion wall and the Exhibits Gallery, creating a boxy and formal feel consistent with the design of the wall and water feature.

“The sound of the water really helps to continue the feeling of calmness and coolness that the visitor experiences as they walk through the cryptomerias and into the bright, open upper courtyard,” he said. “It really helps to set the stage for the visitor to experience the Museum in a calm, reflective and reverent manner.”

Once the visitor leaves the Chinese Pavilion, a wide stairway between the upper and lower courtyard angles toward the Japanese Pavilion entrance to prompt their next stop.

Deborah Rose, another visitor impacted by the beauty of bonsai, donated money to construct the lower courtyard in memory of her aunt and uncle who introduced her to the captivating trees. The courtyard, christened The Rose Family Garden, was completed in 2005.

“Many people when asked what is penjing will tell you that it’s quite whimsical and brings a smile to your face with freedom of expression that often surprises the visitors and sparks their imagination,” Sustic said.

He added that the team intended to design the lower courtyard to reflect those sentiments.

The Chinese Pavilion’s undulating dragon wall, which lacks the straight lines of a traditional Western wall, and the irregular shape of the planting beds and blue stone pavers create a less formal atmosphere for visitors in the lower courtyard, he said.

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“The dragon wall is unique and a fun surprise for the visitor,” Sustic said. “It has that sense of whimsy and informality that is followed through in the outline of the planting beds and shape of the blue stone.”

Plan your visit now to experience for yourself the calming environment and whimsy one encounters in the Museum’s courtyards here.

INSIDE THE MUSEUM : History of Our Entrance Gates & Gardens

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Thousands of visitors filter through the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum entrance gates and gardens every year, but few know the significance behind the design.

Jack Sustic, who served as the Museum curator for 13 years, says before the Museum first opened in 1976, the entrance was only an open area with no gates or gardens.  

Today, visitors are welcomed into the Museum through the Ellen Gordon Allen Garden. In 1956, Ellen Gordon Allen created Ikebana International, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and spreading the art of ikebana, or Japanese flower arrangement. Allen established the organization’s first U.S. chapter in D.C.

“She’s quite important in the history of ikebana, especially in the United States,” says Sustic.

The design of the garden, engendered by Thomas Wirth at the Susuki Association in Massachusetts, was named in honor of Allen’s contributions to ikebana. The garden was officially dedicated to Allen in 1982.

Constructed by Shimizu Landscape Corporation, based in Maryland, the garden melds the Western style of a national art garden with the traditional traits of an Eastern bonsai museum.

Its large straight walkway represents a Western approach, which complements the Eastern-inspired sculpted tines within the garden.

“The designer was trying to create a buffer or transition between the two kind of philosophies, the two styles of gardening,” says Sustic. “The styles are so different and the approach to gardening is very different between the two.”

Sustic added that the entrance gate’s shingle roof and bamboo emulate a unique Japanese style not seen other places in the Arboretum. Sustic says visitors often appreciate the dedication and work incorporated into both cultures in the design.

The Museum’s Cryptomeria Walk

The Museum’s Cryptomeria Walk

Enhancements to the entry gardens and gates have been minimal since the original design, enduring only a transition in plantings or an added lantern to improve the look.

Visitors’ last steps to the Museum are taken on a walkway lined with cryptomerias, a Japanese cedar tree, believed to have a cleansing effect, which often surrounds Japanese temples and shrines.

Sustic says this design is intentional and meant to transition visitors into a more meditative state of mind.

“We would always tell people to leave all their earthly concerns at the door and welcome to the world of bonsai.”