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A Genius Among Us

Klein’s horticulture legacy
to be preserved at Yew Dell Gardens

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

CRESTWOOD, Ky. (December 2002) – Theodore Klein achieved international repute as an acclaimed nurseryman and horticulturist. But to many Oldham Countians, he was known as the generous guy next door.
Many of his neighbors may not have known how close to genius the late Klein really was in his everyday occupation. But now a select group of citizens have recognized him and want to share his knowledge with others.
In October, the “Friends of Yew Dell” committee was organized under the auspices of the Oldham County Historical Society. Its members included Klein’s daughter, Marian Klein Koehler, along with Karen Whitty, Paul Clinton, Sue Brown and Mary Rounsavall. Their mission was to buy and restore the gardens and arboretum resting on a 33-acre portion of Klein’s original 200-acre farm on North Camden Lane in Crestwood, Ky.
Klein had purchased the property in 1941 with his wife, Martha Lee. After Klein’s death in 1998 at age 93, his property went unkempt. The committee established its mission to restore the farm to its former grandeur. Members must raise $4.8 million to restore and maintain the estate.

Yew Dell Gardens at a Glance

• Theodore Klein was born on July 16, 1905, into a family that had emigrated in the late 1800s from Germany and settled in the Cincinnati area. His grandfather worked for Nicholas Longworth in the then thriving vineyards of the region. When these vineyards failed, the family moved to Oldham County, Ky.
• Theodore’s wife, Martha Lee, was from Shelby County, Ky. Through hard work and the popularity of his Japanese Yew trees, the couple bought their farm in 1941 in Crestwood. The farm is now known as Yew Dell Gardens.
• Over the years Klein found success in his nursery business, marketing hollies and yews to the nurseries and landscapers throughout the area. He planted more than 1,137 specimens of rare trees and shrubs in his arboretum. These were collected from friends and new cultivars of his own propagating efforts. He introduced to the nursery trade new varieties of redbuds, dogwoods, maples and hollies. There are 114 different genera, 240 species and 528 cultivars and selections represented.
• Klein was also a wood turner and stonemason. He built a small stone castle as a pool house, relocated a log cabin from nearby Brownsboro, and built bermed greenhouses, barns and his own fieldstone cotswalds-style home.
• Efforts are under way to assemble oral and written histories of Klein’s family in order to develop museum-type interpretive panels and exhibits. Since its conception, Yew Dell Inc. has developed a capital campaign to buy and fund Yew Dell Gardens with a total cost of $4.8 million – $1 million for purchase of the property, $500,000 for initial operating costs, $2.3 million for renovations of the main home, castle, gardens, 10-acre arboretum and site development, and a $1 million endowment.
• Yew Dell Inc.’s 15-member board is from Jefferson and Oldham counties. An advisory committee includes professional horticulturists, landscapers and arborists.
• Kristian Fenderson, a member of the Garden Conservancy’s Preservation Screening committee, compared Yew Dell to “several delightful late 19th century or early 20th century nurserymen’s gardens in Belgium and Holland.”
• Volunteer Days are held the second Saturday of each month for anyone who is interested. Contributions can be sent to Yew Dell Inc., P.O. Box 1334, Crestwood, KY 40014.

The committee has now evolved into Yew Dell Inc., a nonprofit organization that depends heavily upon volunteers to make the initial dream a success. “It’s amazing how they’ve pulled it all together,” said Holly Cooper, Klein’s granddaughter.
Cooper sits on the board of directors for Yew Dell Inc. and said that the preservation of her grandfather’s estate “is so gratifying.” She said it gives her and her family a sense of pride to know there are individuals who were affected enough by Klein to want to continue his work in the field of horticulture and preserve his legacy.
One major way in which Yew Dell Inc. members have carried out this plan is by appointing Paul Cappiello as their executive director. Cappiello’s achievements in the horticultural industry made him the perfect choice, said Cooper. “He answered our ideals. Papa would be so pleased.”
Cappiello, 40, began his duties Dec. 1. “This is a great honor and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “Any chance to be involved at the beginning of such a project and watch it grow for the long term is an opportunity worth pursuing.”
Cappiello has his work cut out for him, as do all involved with this project. One major ongoing task is identifying and cataloging more than 1, 137 individual specimens in Yew Dell’s vast plant collection.
Klein was constantly researching the more than 240 species of trees and shrubs planted on his farm. He developed new versions of holly, yew, redbud, dogwood, sugar maple, weeping katsura and witchhazel, among others. Part of his estate was devoted to a repository of historic trees.
Klein donated many hollies for the now famous Bernheim holly collection – one of the largest in the nation, said Cappiello. Cappiello has been the horticulture director at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Bullitt County, Ky., for the past five years.
One of two grants from the Kentucky Division of Forestry enabled Clinton, owner of Beechwood Trees and Gardens, to begin the inventorying process. He said the $30,000 grant money had been awarded to Yew Dell Inc. to aid in funding the development of strategic planning as well. Clinton was one of many young nurserymen whom Klein took under his wing. “He was a very, very kind man,” said Clinton. “When you would visit him, he would take you out and show you what was interesting.”
Klein’s willingness to share his knowledge and enthusiasm about trees and plants is what drew Suzette White to him. White owns her own landscape business, Nature By Design, and, like Clinton, considers Klein her mentor. “He always had time for you, no matter who you were,” she said. White’s knowledge has earned her the position of the chair of the Yew Dell Horticultural Advisory Committee, as well as a position on the board of directors.
She said Yew Dell Gardens is “such a treasure, and so much the life of Theodore. It would be hard to see his work destroyed.”
That is why she is so intensely interested in being a member of the organization that will preserve Klein’s work. She cited the Garden Conservancy as “having been a huge help in trying to get a formulation and direction for Yew Dell.”
Mary Rounsavall, president of Yew Dell Inc., said that Yew Dell was recently designated as one of nine gardens nationwide to become a Partnership Project of the Garden Conservancy. She said the conservancy is a national nonprofit organization “founded to help preserve America’s exceptional gardens.”
Rounsavall said the conservancy is a great resource in terms of advice and availability. The organization has the “ability to do just what they say they will do,” she said.
Yew Dell Inc. has many goals for the future. One is to implement an entire “curriculum with the school system in mind,” said Clinton. He and the other board and committee members would like to see special programs instituted at Yew Dell in the form of educational classes, lectures, workshops, demonstrations and summer camps.
Rounsavall said the fanciful setting of Yew Dell Garden could also be a future site for weddings, receptions, community meetings and special events.
“Because Theodore was such an educational person, always teaching how a particular plant does in this area an so forth, we want to continue this educational quality,” White said.
“Everyone came to him for an education,” said Cooper. “This property and its lifestyle are endangered. It matters that it lives on.”
Cooper described spending weekends at Klein’s farm while growing up as “idyllic.” It was a treat to her to come from Louisville to the country for the entire weekend where her grandmother raised vegetables, all kinds of animals were underfoot and cousins gathered to play.
Klein was a spontaneous man, often jumping up from the table to take a call or “grab his cap and go out the door,” she said. His willingness to help at a moment’s notice drew many people to him. He would often bring trades people in to set around the table with his family and discuss his work.
She grew up on the farm when it was a working nursery, all abuzz with activity and learning. But she didn’t have any idea at the time just how important her grandfather was outside of the family.
From these experiences, Cooper said she learned to feel just what motivated her grandfather. “I feel it, too. It was a thirst for learning. A challenge.”
Klein was born July 16, 1905, into a family that had emigrated in the late 1800s from Germany to settle in Cincinnati. His grandfather had worked in the then-thriving vineyards of that region, but when the vineyard business began to fail, the family moved to Oldham County.
It was Theodore’s family trade “to grow things,” said Cooper.
“Experimentation was a cornerstone of Mr. Klein’s philosophy,” said Cappiello. Horticulture “is not just about making people’s gardens nicer. It can have dramatic economic, educational and quality of life impacts.”

• Yew Dell Gardens is not expected to open to the public until 2004, although private tours are available. To schedule a tour or learn about volunteering opportunities call (502) 241-4788.

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