Banyan in back corner: Golisano Children’s Museum adds leafy icon — indoors — to its growing foundation

Nature Maker Production Manager Rick Hunt, secures one of the 56 pieces that will make up the bottom portion of the Banyan tree exhibit at the Golisano Children's Museum of Naples on Livingston Road in North Naples. The tree, which was crafted at Nature Maker in Carlsbad, Calif., will stand 30-feet tall and 45-feet wide, will have a 100,000 leaves. The exhibit cost about $4.5 million. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

Nature Maker Production Manager Rick Hunt, secures one of the 56 pieces that will make up the bottom portion of the Banyan tree exhibit at the Golisano Children's Museum of Naples on Livingston Road in North Naples. The tree, which was crafted at Nature Maker in Carlsbad, Calif., will stand 30-feet tall and 45-feet wide, will have a 100,000 leaves. The exhibit cost about $4.5 million. Lexey Swall/Staff

Building a banyan tree

Tree to be focal point at Naples ...

You can’t visit the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples yet, because it’s still under construction. Director Joe Cox couldn’t give a firm date but it is expected to open in 2011. In the meantime, you can drive by and see the progress:

What: Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples

Where: Livingston Road, north side of the drive to the Collier County Sun-N-Fun Lagoon water park

Information: (239) 514-0084 or www.cmon.org

— If you believe you know banyans — those twisting trees with hanging roots that grace so many Southwest Florida’ streets and yards — a new installation at the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples could convince you otherwise.

After all, what banyan tree of your acquaintance contains a veterinary clinic?

Also, what banyan you’ve ever encountered cost $500,000 and arrived in Naples in 56, bubble-wrapped pieces?

But that’s the case for the museum’s new banyan. Crafted over 18 months by dozens of San Diego artisans, the trunk is constructed of fiberglass and will ultimately sprawl across an entire back corner of the 30,167-square foot, $25 million facility. When completed, it will soar 30 feet into the air, well into the museum’s open second story. Fabric leaves will dangle from the branches, and at the very tip-top will be a tree house that’s home to the aforementioned veterinary clinic.

Children will be able to scale the tree through a climbing structure located in the center of the banyan trunk, said Joe Cox, the museum’s executive director.

“When they are looking out, they are practically at ceiling height,” Cox said.

He described the banyan project — like the museum as a whole — as being an interactive experience for young patrons. For example, the tree’s vet clinic is intended to teach youngsters about the roles in, and responsibilities of, owning a pet. The tree house will also have an image of a pond projected onto the floor, filled with swimming fish. When children step onto the pond, the projection will ripple, just as if it were actual water.

And, of course, the fish will flit away, Cox noted.

In addition to helping youngsters understand more about animals and the environment, the exhibit’s tree house is also intended to help children cultivate an enthusiasm for exploration and foster their sense of ownership, Cox explained.

Elsewhere, other planned museum exhibits include a beach exhibit and an Everglades exhibit. There will be an almost life-sized, indoor version of the beloved Naples Trolley, too.

The museum’s largest exhibit will be space-themed, Cox said, and will boast a mission control area, a spaceship and a rover to explore the exhibit’s mysterious “alien planet.” The rover will be built from a hodgepodge of unusual treasures, such as a disco ball, skateboards, surfboards and other kid-friendly objects.

Cox described the exhibit as “space exploration as imagined by kids.”

“Our whole goal at the museum is to inspire kids to dream, to inspire kids to believe in themselves,” he said.

The decision to include the banyan was prompted by a wish from museum planners and community members to have something that was symbolic of Southwest Florida, Cox said.

“It’s pretty much the most iconic exhibit,” he said of the banyan.

When the tree was being created, Cox traveled to California to view the progress and be assured that the tree was appropriately “banyanesque,” he said. The resulting trunk is a steel structure with a fiberglass overlay that meets Cox’s expectations. The whiskey-colored trunk is a maze of lifelike roots, knots and textures, all of which were rendered by artisans using tools such as knives and paintbrushes.

“The detail is amazing,” he said. “The whole thing was handcrafted.”

An additional, reinforced cement foundation was poured specifically to support the weight of the massive exhibit, Cox added.

Museum officials have not yet announced a date for the opening of the new museum. The banyan, however, arrived at the museum on Monday and the trunk installation is expected to be complete by this weekend.

It will look much the way most transplanted trees do: leafless. The leaves will be added early next year, Cox said, in an effort to preserve the fabric from collecting construction dust.

“We want to make sure the leaves stay as clean as possible,” he said.

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