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Grabowski's Gothic Garden

Joe Grabowski of Edgewater, Florida, views everything with an artistic eye and with his creative mind has magically turned his house and yard into what he calls a “visual fantasy.” People slow down when passing Joe’s place just to savor the sight of this unusual landscape which looks like it’s right out of the Middle Ages. “I call it my Gothic-medieval garden,” explained Joe who has lived here for the past twenty-seven years. “It has a European flavor and fantasy, with just a touch of country with a pig here and there.” In the center of his yard an ancient oak tree adds to the atmosphere with its dripping strands of Spanish moss. In walking up the drive, I expected to see gnomes scampering for cover or a gargoyle swoop down from that oak tree. I didn’t see any, but I know they were silently watching me from their secret hiding places in this garden of fantasy.

For the most part, this retired designer for Gimbals of New York has taken garbage and transformed it into art. Joe once hauled broken bricks and blocks from building sites in the neighborhood and then using spray paint turned them into real-looking rocks and stones. It’s an example of how one man’s junk ends up being another man’s treasure…or in this case, “objets d’ art.”

“During the Depression, my father worked as a janitor taking care of an eight-story apartment building, fixing the toilets, furnaces and things,” recalled Joe of his childhood in New York City. “That was back when all the movies were about millionaires, so it was my fantasy to grow up and live like a millionaire. I would fantasize all the time and play millionaire games. On Sunday mornings, I would gather the pillows around me and have breakfast in bed. I would pretend that my father was the butler; he would bring me a tray of French toast with a flower from the garbage. I had no millions in my pockets, just my talent. My sister and I were the janitor’s kids; we had no friends to play with. Then when we went to Poland we had no friends because in the eyes of the poor people there, we were rich. So all my life I had no friends, no millions, just my imagination and natural talent.” It was this artistic factor that led Joe Grabowski to the famed Gimbals department store where for 32 years he designed window and floor displays. Several of the items incorporated in Joe’s décor were originally used in Gimbals’ displays and several are items purchased from Broadway productions.

Joe Grabowski visualizes art in just about everything, bottles, rocks, leaves, bowling balls, broken toys, plastic ornaments, wrought iron chairs, discarded light fixtures, and a decorated rocky-horse that supports his mailbox. “I like things to look old,” he said. “I see beauty in it all, flaky, peeling paint, or even the mildew look which I try to duplicate in my surroundings.” He even likes sand and dirt, which he carefully rakes in swirling patterns like the one seen in Oriental gardens.

Joe says everyday is a different mood which inspires him to make changes. “Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I will work at night making a change here and there. It keeps everything interesting.” He said that women are especially attracted to his yard, but that it has drawn several songwriters who were looking for inspirations and even photographers looking for scenes to feature on record albums.

The former designer has few real plants and no grass at all, because, as he will tell you, “I started doing this during the water shortage, the bottles and items you see are my plants and shrubs. My solution to saving the world is using silk flowers instead of real plants. Some people might say it’s tacky, but I don’t have to water them and I have my color all year round. I’d rather be tacky than thirsty.” Well that made perfect sense to me, plus it saves gas since he doesn’t have to mow the lawn.

From bowling bowls, bottles, vases and golf balls, this artist has fashioned finials, which from across the yard looked to me like the onion-topped architecture of a miniature Turkish village. “That’s exactly what they’re supposed to look like,” smiled Joe as he directed my attention to a circle of wrought iron chairs around what looked like a dry pond. “What do you suppose that represents?” I took a good look and replied, “King Arthur’s round table?” I was right again, and beyond that was an arrangement of rocks with a single upright stone that could very well be King Arthur’s grave.

Looking at this strange yard you begin seeing the same fantasies that its creator talks about. It’s a test of the mind because if you don’t see a fantasy in this yard then you don’t have much of an imagination. “Kids see my yard and ask if I’m the Devil,” laughed Joe. “I just tell them no, I’m a wizard.” Children have referred to his yard as Harry Potter’s place, Alice in Wonderland, and the Ghostbuster place, but to Joe it is simply a labor of love and a way to express his artistic inspirations for others to enjoy.

“The best compliment I ever got was from a real bully,” recounted Joe. “I was sitting in my garden and at a distance I could hear someone cursing up a storm. I looked down the street and saw two boys coming my way. The cursing got louder like they were trying to shock the neighborhood. I thought to myself, oh, oh, here comes trouble and wondered what would happen. The cursing stopped and so did they, right in front of my house. One of them gives me a mean look…and then says to me, ‘I love your place. When I was two years old my mother would bring me by to see it, and I’m twenty years old now and I’m still crazy about it’ So, here I was with a tear in my eye. I said to him, you touched my heart, God bless you.”

I like to bring the indoors outside in decorating my house, it gives you a preview of what’s inside. His house resembles a dark medieval castle and it takes a second for your eyes to adjust to the dimness. There is brick flooring in the main areas of the house and all the walls have been artistically painted to resemble stone. Every room throughout the dwelling has a theme and the entire place looks like a museum. His kitchen has a country store motif with crockery, hanging cups and utensils. The guest room has an arrangement of antique dolls and resembles a window display in an upscale New York department store. Antiques, paintings, swords and shields grace the walls of the living room and with a few lighted candles it becomes like King Ludwig’s castle.

On the exterior this resident artist has given the same touch to his doors and windows by using discarded objects creatively touched-up with the right colors of paint. Some of the things that look like metal are really plastic; it’s all in the way the artist paints it. He mainly uses various colors of spray paint to achieve a particular medieval-like color scheme but seldom strays from his trademark grays and blues. His property, or mini-estate as he prefers, is a constant changing masterpiece. “People are always coming by to see what changes I’ve made,” explained Joe. “I don’t mind, but if I’m in the process of creating I don’t like my vision interrupted, it could take days to get my inspiration back.”

Joe says he is a living testimony that you can live on a fixed-income and still enjoy elegant grounds around your estate. As proof that he uses any discarded item, the stoop at his front door is actually a marble fireplace mantle acquired from a mansion on New York’s East Side that was torn down about forty years ago.

Joe Grabowski still doesn’t have those millions that he fantasized about in his youth, instead he has something that money can’t buy, an amazing creative mind and the most unusual yard in town…and of course a marble mantle from a New York mansion.

Weird Florida


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