Paradise Garden has the stuff roadside attraction dreams are made of, only it’s quite a ways off the main road. It’s a good 30 minute drive from Interstate 75 to the little town of Pennville Ga, and not a particularly fascinating one–mostly dense woods and farm fields until barbecue stands and general stores start to pop up along the road, taking you through Summerville and its quiet downtown, past Dowdy park and the depot on your right and gas stations and chain restaurants on your left. If you blinked you might miss Pennville and the road leading up to Paradise Garden. It’s all small shotgun houses for a while–nothing out of the ordinary for a small southern town–and then suddenly over the roofline a rickety wooden tower appears, tiered up like a leaning wedding cake.
It’s the World’s Folk Art Church, the centerpiece of Paradise Garden, created by the sometime reverend Howard Finster in the 1960s. Originally called the Plant Farm Museum, the small, swampy plot of land evolved into Paradise Garden after Finster saw a vision and took up the calling to make sacred art. He filled up his four acres with a maze of structures and gardens, statues and sculptures made up of found items ranging from the sacred to the profane. There are plenty of Bible verses painted on signs, sometimes placed right by paintings of Elvis and Coke bottles. Somehow it works.
When we went there on a Saturday I expected long lines and lots of people. After all, Paradise Garden had just re-opened for the season, kicked off with a music festival and stories in the Atlanta papers. But when we went the place looked so empty that I wasn’t even sure if it was open until an extra friendly woman sitting on the front porch waved us in, handing us maps and setting us off on our own tour. Of course being just about the only people at Paradise Garden wasn’t exactly something to complain about–it meant tourist-free photographs (no background lurkers), no lines, and a suitably eerie experience in an eerie place.
But some big changes are being made around Paradise Garden that might bring in some more visitors. Earlier this year Chattooga County purchased Howard Finster’s home and gardens to help preserve them for future generations. Then in March, Paradise Garden was added to the National Register of Historic Places. May brought along a giant feature in Atlanta’s Creative Loafing, and a month later, the place received a half-million dollar grant to help boost tourism.
I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing a very different Paradise Garden the next time we take the trip out to Pennville. The paths will probably be more clear, and falling-apart sculptures will be fixed up, ready to face the elements for another fifty years. Most likely the World’s Folk Art Church will be a little more steady and a little less leaning; maybe by that point it will even be safe enough for visitors to go to the top and see Howard Finster’s wonderland from up high. Because I bet that those views alone are worth the trip to Pennville.