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'Steeling' daisies: Local smithy hammers out landmark gate for historic Cornell garden

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The initial idea was simple: Keep deer out of Cornell's Minns Garden. The result promises to be far more elaborate: Beautifully created steel gates, adorned with intricate plant forms representing the flora in the garden, that span the spaces between the garden's tall, bordering shrubbery.

The first, and largest, gate has been installed and was celebrated May 15 to thank artist-blacksmith Durand Van Doren, who crafted Minns Garden's new "West Gate" and hopes to finish two smaller gates by summer's end. The first gate is 24 feet wide, and the other two will be 6 feet wide.

Last summer, Hannah Carlson, a master's degree student in landscape architecture, began to create a design for the gates to close off the three wide-open spaces. At the same time, said Cornell landscape architect Laurene Gilbert, Van Doren's name was suggested for the job. Gilbert, the project manager, is in the Department of Project Design and Construction.

For Van Doren, the Minns Garden project is a landmark in a long career as an artist-blacksmith. The local ironworker collaborated with Carlson and Cornell horticulturalists and worked for six months hammering and shaping mild steel into a variety of intricate plant forms, ranging from daisies and daffodils to crocosmia and clematis.

"It's been a lot of fun and also my hardest work yet. I can definitely say I spared no effort," said Van Doren. "I owe a lot of credit to Cornell for the freedom extended to me in working on this project. I'm looking forward to the additional components that are planned for the next phase." The next two gates will include an arch and posts resembling the trunks of apple trees. "The chance to have my work in a place so beautiful and also historic means a lot to me," Van Doren said.

The details on the gate are most impressive, Gilbert said. Not only did Van Doren fashion a veritable catalog of leaf, petal and stem forms, but the flowers and plant life depicted on the gate represent actual varieties in Minns Garden and show their complete and scientifically accurate root systems.

The Lua A. Minns Garden is a much-loved feature of Cornell's campus that was originally sited three blocks away from its present location along Tower Road. It is named for the university's first professor of herbaceous plants, who in the 1920s established a spacious array of flower beds, where she could teach her horticulture students the particulars of gardening.

The finished West Gate "surpasses our original vision," Gilbert said. "We're very happy. It's great. He went above and beyond."

Van Doren, who has been a blacksmith for more than 30 years and belongs to the Artist-Blacksmiths Association of North America, has sold his work to such stores as Manhattan's Portico and Macy's. He has been spotlighted in The New York Times and New York Magazine and has worked with the National Park Service and Corning Glass executives. His work can be seen at Cornell's Willard Straight Hall and Law School, as well as at London's Shakespeare's Globe theater and the historic Great Camp Sagamore in the Adirondacks.

The gates are being funded through maintenance management.

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