In 1929 Kentucky-bourbon-distilling magnate Isaac Bernheim purchased more than 13,000 acres of barren land, formerly used in ore mining, for the development of an arboretum with a natural history museum and art gallery. In 1935 Olmsted Brothers, overseen by James Dawson, designed a plan that realized Bernheim’s vision for a reforested landscape that would connect people with nature. The plan called for adding three small bodies of water (Holly and Cedar Ponds and Mac’s Lake) and an entrance road that stretched from State Highway 245 to the arboretum’s forty-eight-foot-tall fire tower. The land was transformed into a series of open lawns and meadows bordered by crab apples, hollies, and maples. Thirty-two-acre Lake Nevin was created near the entrance in 1949, and the arboretum opened to the public the following year.
In the 1960s landscape architecture firm Miller, Wihry, and Brooks designed several gardens for the grounds. A research and visitors’ center were built in 2004-05. By the early part of the twenty-first century, the site’s total acreage had expanded to 16,137.
Today the landscape is divided between a 600-acre arboretum and over 15,000 acres of beech maple forests, known collectively as the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. The arboretum holds more than 8,000 varieties of trees, shrubs, and perennials. Networks of paved trails connect to the arboretum’s main attractions, including the Olmsted Ponds (formerly Holly and Cedar Ponds), Lake Nevin, a grassland prairie, bluegrass savanna, cypress-tupelo swamp, and Bernheim’s gravesite. Over thirty-five miles of hiking trails weave across the landscape’s varied topography of ridges and slopes through forests, grasslands, and watersheds. Installed on the grounds are various permanent and temporary sculptures, including sculptor Thomas Dambo’s “Forest Giants in a Giant Forest,” and George Grey Barnard’s “Let There Be Light.”