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John F. Kennedy Center

And the Five Senses Garden

“Most gardens appeal to the eyes and, at times, to the nose. But none stimulates all the senses. Shouldn’t a well-planned garden excite the senses of hearing, taste and touch, as well as sight and smell?”–David C. Hager, Flower & Garden, August 1969

A National Prototype

Situated at 1411 Oakland Drive, the John F. Kennedy Center opened in 1965, just two years after the death of the 35th President of the United States. School officials had been planning to build a school that would serve students with special needs since the summer of 1963, when voters approved funding for the construction of a new school. Prior to the establishment of the school, a local organization called Kalamazoo Association for Retarded Children served as the primary vehicle for education and training of children with developmental disabilities. A year after the voters approved funding, G.E. Diekema was chosen as architect to design the school, which cost roughly $370,000 to construct. It was at a board meeting in November of 1964, a year after the assassination of Kennedy, that it was unanimously agreed upon that “the memory of the late President John F. Kennedy will be honored here in the name of a school building designed to deal with one of his major interests–mental health.” It was the first of its kind in the nation when it opened in September of 1965 as a public school formed to serve county-wide students with severe cognitive and physical disabilities. The school, administered by Kalamazoo Public Schools  and the Kalamazoo Valley Intermediate District, and funded by county and state taxes, enrolled students ranging from ages three to twenty-one years-old. The school’s 1967 information brochure summarized their mission:

“Skilled instructors assist eager pupils to develop basic personal health habits, to speak or otherwise to communicate with others, to achieve coordinated movements, to perform simple household tasks, to engage in crafts and some vocational activities, and to become acquainted with the world around them.”

By the early 1990s, the school building was being used by the Kalamazoo Valley Intermediate School District to administer the Young Adult Program (YAP), a skills training workshop for teens and young adults. Today, the building houses Phoenix High School.

A Garden of Accessibility for All

About a year after the school’s opening, the idea of developing a ‘five senses’ garden began to bloom after a member of the Kalamazoo Garden Council (composed of about 20 garden clubs) was provided a tour of the school. She had noted that the grounds were rather drab, and that she and her fellow plant lovers would help with beautifying the area around the school. The school’s Principal, Dominic Di Giovanni, was appreciative of their efforts, but grappled with how plants and flowers could be applied more functionally for the 125 students he served, some of whom possessed hearing and visual impairments. Creating an adaptive, educational garden that could be appreciated and experienced by all of the students, grew into the multi-sense concept, the first of its kind in the nation.

Site Plan for the Five Senses Garden by Robert L. O’Boyle & Associates, 1967

By the spring of 1967, a design had been drafted by local landscape architect Robert L. O’Boyle & Associates. The idea was simple: to design a garden that stimulated all five senses, and that would provide an affirming, learning experience for all who engaged it regardless of physical or cognitive ability. The five senses garden was the focal point, but O’Boyle’s ambitious site plan also included a sundial, single color garden areas, a sculpture garden, individual study areas, group discussion areas, individual and group initiative plots, an area for small animal, bird and insects, a small patio, a cut flower area, a kitchen garden, and an active recreation area with playground equipment and large, open lawn. The entire project was to be called the John F. Kennedy Park for the Handicapped, though the project’s advocates emphasized that the park would be open to all members of the community. Not only was KPS to contribute financially to the development of the grounds, but so too were the members of Kalamazoo’s Garden Council, whose primary mission was to coordinate marketing and fundraising efforts. The two most visible individuals engaged with moving the project from the “dream stage” to its formation were Rosalind Dale, appointed project coordinator, and the principal of the school, Dominic Di Giovanni.

One of the largest donors to sponsor the project was the Jaycees, who agreed to contribute $5000 and labor. Local labor also came from volunteer nurserymen and KPS students enrolled in a bricklaying apprentice program. The Five Senses Garden was finally dedicated in September of 1969 after sufficient funding was obtained, and was later cited for its inclusive design by the American Association of School Administrators a year later.

Five Senses Garden, c.1985

From the Kalamazoo Public Schools website:

“In 2000, Dr. E. Dennis Lynne, Sandy Howe, Bob O’Boyle, and Fran Barth began the process of revitalizing the garden. DeVisser Landscape, Deary’s Landscape Services, DeYoung Landscape Services, Forget-Me-Not Landscape Artists and other members of the Kalamazoo Valley Landscape and Nursery Association (KVLNA) removed old and unwanted plant material, including trees and shrubs. Employees of Western Michigan University’s Landscape Services Department have been involved in the the rejuvenation of the garden and continue to do much of the heavier work.”

Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, March 2023



“‘Garden of Five Senses’ donations sought”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 April 1967, page 23, column 4

“Five Senses Garden still needs financial support”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 April 1968, page 8, column 1

“Finishing touch at JFK garden”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 November 1968, page 46, column 1

“Citation honors garden”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 February 1970, page 21, column 2

“Young Adult Program toasts 20 years”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 October 1996, page 42, column 1

“Gardening for life: design for maximum benefit”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 May 2009, section S, page 14, column 1

Local History Room Files

Subject File: Kalamazoo Public Schools – John F. Kennedy Center

Subject File: Special Education


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