Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden is truly like no place you’ve ever been, or are ever likely to go.
Originally known as the Plant Farm Museum when he started building it in the early ’60s, the folk art legend’s visionary attraction was a 40-year work-in-progress.
Using found objects he collected for decades, he built sculptures from castoff bicycle parts and hubcaps. He built a treehouse completely lined with mirrors, inside and out. He created vivid text-image paintings seemingly inspired by Bible verses and pop culture icons (Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Santa Claus, etc) in equal measure.
By the time Finster died in 2001, he had created some 46,000 objects in 25 years. As the property began to decay in the heat and humidity of North Georgia, the Paradise Garden Foundation stepped in to preserve and protect it.
Today, visitors can stay in one of three Paradise Garden cottages, each of which grants you 24-hour access to Howard Finster’s greatest masterpiece.
Read on to learn more about the history of Paradise Garden, and what it’s like to explore this otherworldly attraction all alone in the dark of night…
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Summerville GA
PARADISE GARDEN COTTAGES INFO
ADDRESS: 201 N. Lewis St, Summerville GA 30747
EMAIL: [email protected]
OFFICE HOURS: Tuesday-Sunday, 11am to 5pm
ACCOMMODATIONS: Paradise Garden offers three AirBnB rentals, two of which are part of a Duplex Cottage.
We stayed in Suite #1, which has a full-size kitchen, living room, and a small bathroom with a shower (no tub). The comfy king-size bed has a luxury mattress with high quality linens.
The front porch of the Duplex Cottage is shared with Suite #2. There’s also WiFi, and a key that allows guests 24-hour access to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden.
DIRECTIONS TO PARADISE GARDENS AIRBNB FROM ATLANTA: Take I-75 North to exit 306 for GA-140 W toward Adairsville GA. Use any lane to turn left onto GA-140 W.
After 2.1 miles, make a slight right to stay on GA-140W and follow it for another 14 miles. Turn right on US-27 N and follow it for 13.4 miles into Summerville GA.
Take a slight right onto E Washington St, then turn right onto Highland Ave in a half-mile. After one mile, take a right onto US-27 N/Commerce St and follow it for 1.9 miles.
Turn right onto Rena St, then go 0.2 miles and take a right onto N Lewis St. Paradise Garden will be on your right, and the AirBnB duplex will be immediately on your left.
HISTORY OF PARADISE GARDEN & COTTAGES
Long before he became one of the world’s most iconic folk artists, the Reverend Howard Finster was using unique methods– songs, poems, television– to spread his spiritual messages. Though he started preaching when he was 16, he didn’t begin painting his “sacred art” until he was 60 (1976).
Born in Alabama, Finster began building his Paradise Garden on the land behind his home in Summerville GA in the 1960s. He used spare parts from his TV repair, bike repair, and other businesses to create a monument to human invention that he called a “Memorial to God.”
A passionate and inspiring speaker who loved to play banjo and yodel, Finster’s larger-than-life persona and utterly unique artistic vision garnered mainstream media attention in the ’70s and ’80s.
R.E.M. shot their music video for “Radio Free Europe” at Paradise Garden, and Finster later designed album covers for the Athens-based band and NYC alt-rockers Talking Heads.
When he died at the age of 85 in 2001, Finster had finished an estimated 35,000+ paintings. Many of them can be found in collections at the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, American Folk Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, and countless other museums and galleries around the world.
The Paradise Garden Foundation continues to preserve and protect Finster’s remarkable masterpiece today.
According to Executive Director Tina A Cox, they acquired the duplex house behind the Garden in 2012 and used it as their office for 5 years before converting unit #1 into an artist residence. Unit #2 was similarly renovated in 2019.
Both of these Paradise Garden Cottages feature a combination of Finster’s original art and prints as well as original works by other artists who have appeared at Summerville’s annual Finster Fest Art Festival.
The charming, colorful cottage interiors were designed by Summer Loftin Antiques & Design of Atlanta (a longtime member of the Paradise Garden Foundation Board of Directors). Each unit has their own special theme, and the art and decor made Suite #1 one of the most unique places to stay in Georgia we’ve ever visited.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Paradise Garden AirBnB upon arrival is the vivid hues of the duplex itself.
The golden yellow exterior is offset by teal blue doors and windows and bright red furniture and porch swing, with one of Howard Finster’s trademark Coca-Cola Bottles in between the two doors.
The bold design choices continue as you move inside the charming cottage. The cozy living room features more than a half-dozen eye-catching folk art pieces, with colorful afghans, rugs, and pillows all around.
They’re not all Howard Finster art, but they all share a similarly folksy and unpretentious aesthetic that reminded me of my cool, post-college apartment.
It’s the kind of place that makes you feel immediately comfortable upon arrival: Even our two dogs settled in more quickly than we expected.
The full kitchen was large enough for a small table for two, with all the essentials: Fridge, stove, microwave, Kuerig, dishes, etc. But it also boasts eclectic decor, from a carved wooden Indian head and an antique Coca-Cola bottle stand to a Loretta Lynn serving tray and a framed Howard Finster print.
The king-sized bedroom features a luxury mattress with high quality linens. Which makes it all the more cozy to lay in bed and look at the art all around you.
There are Finster lamps and pillows, an artful Toucan painted onto an old burlap sack that once held coffee, and lots of other intriguing details that make this place a haven for art lovers.
The only thing we didn’t love about the cottage was the tiny bathroom. The room felt cramped, and the shower (no tub) was so small that I had to position myself diagonally to keep my shoulders from pushing out the shower curtain and soaking the floor.
Other than that, the cottage was a lovely place to base ourselves for a few days of exploring the city of Summerville, and the opportunity to explore Paradise Garden at night was truly extraordinary.
READ MORE: 101+ Things to Do in North Georgia
EXPLORING PARADISE GARDEN AT NIGHT
By far the best thing about staying in the Paradise Garden AirBnB Cottages is the fact that you get a key that allows you to have 24-hour access to explore the illuminated grounds at night. We recommend bringing a flashlight or headlamp to make the most of your visit.
During the day, the 2.5-acre Garden’s 22 structures, buildings, sculptures, and murals seem weirdly whimsical– part outdoor museum, part artful junkyard, and part religious paean to the beauty of God’s creation.
But at night it takes on an otherworldly vibe that trods the middle ground where creepy and cool intersect. The intentional lighting design makes a masterful use of shadows, allowing you to see things that don’t stand out quite as strongly during the light of day.
Circling the “World’s Folk Art Church,” Paradise Garden’s iconic chapel, feeds visitors into the “Rolling Chair Ramp.” As you peruse eye-popping artwork by Howard Finster and other folk artists, you’ll hear the voice of Finster himself eerily echoing from a TV down the hall.
Rusty bicycle and TV parts that look relatively drab by day take on a strange glow at night. Random quirky elements that I didn’t notice in the afternoon (such as the giant shoe pictured above) somehow stand out more in the dark.
It’s also interesting what they choose NOT to light up, such as the white coffin tucked away in a dirt floor chapel, set atop a rusty old desk, with Finster’s iconic Angel painting floating above it. Our headlamp makes it look bright in the photo, but the dim lighting when we arrived made it seem downright spooky.
If you do visit at night, make sure you look for Finster’s artfully engraved headstone, and the the “unknown body of Chattooga County,” which is buried in a sarcophagus built by Howard himself.
Note that all proceeds from AirBnB lodging goes toward the operation, upkeep, and restoration of the historic Paradise
Garden. They had just started working on the first phase restoration of the World’s Folk Art Church during our early 2021 visit.
For a tiny Blue Ridge mountain town of just over 4,000 people, downtown Summerville packs a lot of history into a fairly small area.
The intersection of Commerce St and Washington St is the heart of downtown, with the 1909 Neo-Classical Courthouse its most iconic landmark. The building across the street (now home to Thatcher’s BBQ) was built in 1896.
Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the Historic Summerville Train Depot just around the corner. Built by the Central of Georgia Railroad in 1918, the depot was the center of life here until the 1950s.
Commerce St/US 27 itself is a slice of Cherokee history: It was part of the original Trail of Tears route in Georgia after the signing of the New Echota Treaty in nearby Calhoun.
The area is also where you’ll find popular restaurants like Jefferson’s, Los Maguey Mexican Restaurant, the Vineyard Vegetarian Cafe, and the Great Awakening Coffee Company.
J.R. “Dick” Dowdy Park
Located just across the street from the Summerville Train Depot, Dowdy Park offers a tranquil mixture of history, recreation, and relaxation.
On the history side, there’s the Couey House (a mountain cabin once home to early settlers), the Summerville Railroad Turntable, and a Veteran’s Memorial Park paying tribute to the men and women of America’s armed forces.
On the recreation side, there’s a really nice playground for kids, and walking paths connecting Dowdy Park to Willow Springs Park and the downtown historic area.
In terms of relaxation, the park is located on Town Creek (which feeds into the Chattooga River), and offers lots of picnic tables, gazebos, and benches for those who just want to kick back and watch the world go by.
James H “Sloppy” Floyd State Park
Located 3 miles from downtown Summerville, this picturesque 561-acre park was named for James H. “Sloppy” Floyd, a local politician who served in Georgia’s House of Representatives from 1953 to 1974.
One of the most under-the-rader North Georgia State Parks, Sloppy Floyd offers great fishing on 2 lakes, 4 picnic shelters, 4 cottages, 24 tent & RV campsites, 4 backcountry campsites, and a pioneer campground.
It also boasts 5 miles of hiking trails, the best of which is the 1.7-mile Marble Mine Trail, which leads to a lovely waterfall that trickles over a rocky outcrop and the entrance to an old marble mine.
For those seeking a longer, more challenging hike, the Marble Mine Trail eventually connects with the 330-mile Pinhoti Trail. You can also trek the strenuous Jenkins Gap Trail to find killer views of the lake from atop Taylor Ridge.
Rocky Mountain Public Recreation & Fishing Area
Located between Summerville and Rome GA, the Rocky Mountain Public Recreation & Fishing Area offers 559 acres of unspoiled wilderness.
This includes two lakes that offer fantastic fishing, Antioch Lake and Heath Lake. Note that Heath Lake is only open to anglers the 1st to 10th of each month, but both lakes offer opportunities to catch largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish, redear sunfish, crappie, and walleye.
The Rocky Mountain PFA also offers archery hunting opportunities for deer, turkey and small game, as well as waterfowl hunting with firearms on Antioch Lake and Heath Lake. Check their site for full Hunting Regulations, or call 706-802-5087 for more information.
Other attractions here include a public beach, bike trails, boat ramps, tent & RV campsites, primitive camping, picnic shelters (by reservation), and numerous different hiking trails. –by Bret Love; all photos & video by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted