Christus Gardens, a 47-year landmark located in the heart of Gatlinburg, will cease operations and if a pending sale of the property goes through, redevelopment of the land could begin in 2008.
Millions of people have visited the attraction which dramatically portrays the life and death of Jesus Christ, but 71-year-old Ronald Ligon of Franklin, Tenn., who conceived and built Christus Gardens, said that due to his age, poor health, and a lack of interest among family members to continue operations, he made the decision early last year to sell the property. "I think it's best to get some things worked out before something happens to me and I leave that responsibility to someone else," Ligon said.
As for the displays which include a six-ton marble carving of the face of Jesus, paintings depicting the parables of Jesus, and an heirloom Bible collection, Ligon said, "We will move it all into storage and hope that someone comes forward who will be interested in taking the business and moving it elsewhere. I've gotten too old to start over somewhere else."
Reminiscing about the business he opened Aug. 13, 1960, Ligon said he conceived the idea as a young man while undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. "I spent a lot of time on my back in the hospital, so I had a lot of time to think and plan, and I did that. After I got up and going I began looking for the right opportunity to present itself," said Ligon.
Originally, he planned to build the attraction in Florida, but after a visit to Gatlinburg during which he fell in love with the mountains, Ligon said he determined the mountains would be a good place for it although there weren't many other attractions or tourists. "Pigeon Forge was nothing but farmland; I've often said that I made a mistake in building Christus Gardens. I should have bought Pigeon Forge instead," he said, while laughing. Being the first outsider to come in and try to buy land, Ligon said most folks wouldn't sell to him.
"I paid $150,000 for (the land Christus Gardens occupies), and I was told then that it was the highest price ever paid for a piece of land in Sevier County. People laughed at me then, but those same people today would say that I stole the land. ... It's been a wonderful 50 years; I've made a lot of good friends out of it ... a lot of my friends have gone on now," he said.
During the years that Ligon planned Christus Gardens, he said he traveled widely in Europe in search of displays and stumbled upon the "biggest and best" display in the attraction; the marble carving of Jesus' face.
"I met a man in Italy who owned a quarry, and he remembered that before World War II someone had commissioned this concave face of Christ carved from marble, but World War II had ended that commission. He took me deep into this back room where this huge thing was buried beneath all these things piled on it. When they pulled the covers off, I felt very fortunate to be able to obtain this thing - it ended up being one of the most popular things at Christus Gardens."
While Christus Gardens had good attendance every year, Ligon said, "Attendance probably is not as much as it was in the earlier days, but back then about the only two attractions in town were the chair lift and us; there was no Dollywood or anything else, so the competition was not there. The most visitation we had in any one year was about 200,000 to 250,000."
Ligon said he has felt fortunate that he had the support of the community in his business. "When we've had marketing surveys, we've found that word of mouth has always been the number one way people found us. We feel that a lot of folks in the county and the community recommended that people come see us and we always appreciated it."Asked if he feels sad about closing Christus Gardens, Ligon struggled to compose himself, then said, "When you've done something this long, it's like it's another child. Yes, I do feel sad about it."