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The Art of Alpine

By Kevin Bielicki, on December 1, 2021
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This year’s A Longwood Christmas theme of fire and ice is one that requires almost a transformative way of thinking and designing. As fire and ice are extremely contrasting elements, we have turned to the use of drama and scale to best showcase the differences between these two extremely strong forces … as well as the inherent beauty of each. The multifaceted splendor of ice is on now on full display in our Exhibition Hall, where we’ve turned our Fern Floor into an alpine wonderland complete with an icy, intricate waterway, delicately flocked trees, cascading waterfall, and suspended icicles above. Inspired by organic forms and architectural elements found in the Conservatory—but recreated in a stylized fashion that plays off the whimsical, playful aspect of such a wondrous place—the space has been transformed into a true environment, meant to whisk you away to an entirely different world. How we created this world is a story in itself.

As with all of our seasonal displays, the Exhibition Hall design began with conceptualization. We wanted to emphasize the concept and element of ice without simply making a space that looked cold … we wanted the space, despite its icy appearance, to envelop our guests in a feeling that went beyond the representative climate. So, we turned to pushing the scale and the elevation of the Exhibition Hall space in our design, to bring one’s eye along the floor and then up to the ceiling, taking all of one’s surroundings in as a cohesive environment. When viewing the Fern Floor with the Orangery at one’s back, it’s the intent to first look right under the Orangery clock, taking in the symmetrical sightline along the Fern Floor and up to the 21-foot flocked Exhibition Hall Stage tree all at once. The waterfall that cascades from the Exhibition Hall Stage tree brings your eye back to the start and helps it understand the flow of water on the floor itself.

The rotating Exhibition Hall Stage tree, complete with an icy cellophane garland and silver bay laurel, reflects the winter scene. Photo by Hank Davis.The rotating Exhibition Hall Stage tree, complete with an icy cellophane garland and silver bay laurel, reflects the winter scene. Photo by Hank Davis.

When conceptualizing the design, we were inspired by high alpine trees and naturally flowing waterways that carve the ice and create organic forms. This tree and waterway inspiration became the basis for the structures used on the Fern Floor, translated into the flocked pine trees to the snowflake shapes—crafted from acrylic—that radiate along the waterway, running the full length of the Fern Floor. These acrylic shapes started as a hand-drawing I made, inspired by the wallpaper in the Conservatory Ballroom and the more traditional architectural elements of the Conservatory, but ultimately recreated in a whimsical way. From conceptualization to installation, the Fern Floor display process was highly collaborative, and would not have been possible without our expert team of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters, and metal shop from our Facilities department, as well as our Performing Arts department.

We created this detailed sketch using a three-dimensional computer program, building a three-dimensional Fern Floor within the program and adding our acrylic shapes to we could view the space from many angles and get a sense of what the final product would look like. These mockups also provided us with the specific dimensions the final shapes needed to be. Photo by Steve Fenton.We created this detailed sketch using a three-dimensional computer program, building a three-dimensional Fern Floor within the program and adding our acrylic shapes to we could view the space from many angles and get a sense of what the final product would look like. These mockups also provided us with the specific dimensions the final shapes needed to be. Photo by Steve Fenton.

What started as a hand drawing evolved into a rendering and then into 80 feet of actual physical shapes, expertly hand-cut from acrylic by Longwood Finishes Division Lead Ken Stapleford. Stapleford began hand-cutting the shapes using a router and wood templates in June 2021; this extremely precise process took about two weeks. After the shapes were cut, our paint shop led by Senior Painter Dave Landgrebe logged more than 150 hours applying a floral-patterned window film to the acrylic shapes. The film helps the acrylic read as fractal ice with subtle undertones.

Longwood Finishes Division Lead Ken Stapleford works on hand-cutting the acrylic shapes in the carpentry shop. Photo by Steve Fenton. Longwood Finishes Division Lead Ken Stapleford works on hand-cutting the acrylic shapes in the carpentry shop. Photo by Steve Fenton.

After cutting the shapes, we applied a floral-patterned window film to the acrylic, which helps it read as fractal ice with subtle undertones. Photo by Steve Fenton.After cutting the shapes, we applied a floral-patterned window film to the acrylic, which helps it read as fractal ice with subtle undertones. Photo by Steve Fenton.

After adding a pool liner to the Fern Floor in preparation for the acrylic and water features, Archivist Alison Miner and Horticulture Specialty Grower Kevin Bielicki remove air bubbles from under the liner for a smooth finish … while the acrylic pieces, waiting to be installed, look on. Photo by Carol Gross.After adding a pool liner to the Fern Floor in preparation for the acrylic and water features, Archivist Alison Miner and Horticulture Specialty Grower Kevin Bielicki remove air bubbles from under the liner for a smooth finish … while the acrylic pieces, waiting to be installed, look on. Photo by Carol Gross.

Six flocked Christmas trees dressed in cool white lights, as well as ice-inspired ornaments, run the length of the Fern Floor, with points of the acrylic snowflake shapes radiating from each tree. The underplantings of Senecio cineraria ‘Silver Dust’ (dusty-miller), Cupressus arizonica 'Blue Ice', and Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ add an icy feel. Photo by Hank Davis.Six flocked Christmas trees dressed in cool white lights, as well as ice-inspired ornaments, run the length of the Fern Floor, with points of the acrylic snowflake shapes radiating from each tree. The underplantings of Senecio cineraria ‘Silver Dust’ (dusty-miller), Cupressus arizonica 'Blue Ice', and Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ add an icy feel. Photo by Hank Davis.

A close look at the acrylic forms on the floor show their icy, reflective detail. Photo by Hank Davis.A close look at the acrylic forms on the floor show their icy, reflective detail. Photo by Hank Davis.

In addition to the acrylic shapes on the floor, Stapleford also created 30 spectacular acrylic hanging icicles that range between 6 and 10 feet long and bring a whole other dimension to the space. For both the acrylic shapes on the floor to the massive hanging icicles, our goal was for the acrylic forms to look like they were crafted from ice itself … and we’re so pleased with the result.

The lighting that envelops the space takes our design to a whole other level … and reflects how the entire design is the result of collaboration and expertise among many Longwood departments. Longwood Lead Performance Technician Sarah Brennan of our Performing Arts department took our acrylic design and created a lighting concept to help make the Fern Floor feel like its own world and space. Using LED lighting, which has a huge range of color mixing options, Brennan was able to tweak, adjust, and find colors that perfectly complement the overall design … and our team of electricians, particularly Bradley Wimer, helped us achieve that vision.

A vision of icicles soars overhead. Photo by Hank Davis.A vision of icicles soars overhead. Photo by Hank Davis.

The lights from the ceiling start as a very saturated blue near the clock and then become a little less saturated, and more icy-white in color, as they near the Exhibition Hall Stage tree. Brennan achieved this look by adding a bit of red and green to the blue in varying amounts depending on the gradient location. We also added twinkling effects to the lights to help give the space movement; the twinkling effect beautifully interacts with the hanging acrylic icicles, while the blue uplighting along the Exhibition Hall columns helps ground the space. Simply put, viewing the Exhibition Hall at night is simply breathtaking.

Electrician Bradley Wimer took in a uniquely beautiful view of the display during installation. Photo by Bradley Wimer. Electrician Bradley Wimer took in a uniquely beautiful view of the display during installation. Photo by Bradley Wimer.

From conceptualization to final installation, our Exhibition Hall beautifully depicts not only the winter wonderland aesthetic we set out to achieve … but it also represents the beauty of collaboration among the many, many people who helped bring this space to life. We’re thrilled to welcome you to our icy alpine wonderland.  

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