If you’ve never been to Pyramid Hill, you’ve been missing out one of our region’s hidden treasures.
Summer is the perfect time to remedy that situation.
Located just south of Hamilton’s city limits on Route 128 between Hamilton and Ross —also known as Hamilton-Cleves Road — are 335 acres of lovely woodlands, meadows, lakes and gardens. Nestled into that special landscape is a collection of art that we guarantee you’ll find quite surprising.
“We are very unique — a marriage of art and nature,” explained Pyramid Hill’s interim director, Shaun Higgins, who assumed his post following the death of the park’s well-known founder, Harry T. Wilks. Higgins served as assistant director of the complex from 2001 to 2005.
The outdoor and indoor permanent exhibits are a fascinating blend of ancient and modern sculpture. The 77 contemporary outside sculptures — which date from the 1960s to the present — are located throughout the park. The Ancient Sculpture Museum houses a collection of Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian sculptures acquired by Mr. Wilks through his worldwide travels as well as from famous auction houses such as Sothby’s and Christie’s.
A 75-minute DVD at the indoor museum plays continually and relates the story of the antiquities.
Paying a visit
When it comes to touring Pyramid Hill, you have three options. You can drive the Gallery Loop Road in your car, pulling over at designated spots to explore a particular area.
If you’re so inclined, you can hike the trails — not just the open meadows with sculptures on view but also the natural areas that take you into the woods. A third choice is to rent an Art Cart; the open golf carts can be driven throughout the park.
“The carts make you feel like you’re more integrated with nature,” Higgins recommended. “It’s easier to stop along the way and get out and explore.”
None of the outdoor sculptures are roped off and visitors are encouraged to interact with them. They’re tactile and made of materials ranging from stone and metal to aluminum and bronze. Popular favorites include “Cincinnati Story” by George Sugarman, a colorful structure that once stood in front of the Chiquita Building in the Queen City, the “Age of Stone,” a huge work by Jon Isherwood that’s composed of nine pieces of massive granite ranging from 12- to 18-feet-tall and has been compared to Stonehenge, and the park’s dramatic signature piece, “Abracadabra” by Alexander Liberman, who also constructed the welded steel “Laocoon” and Torre II.
Other attractions: There are remnants of pioneer inhabitation on the site and the Butler County Master Gardeners have created three public gardens. Other areas showcase the native plants and habitats.
The Ancient Sculpture Museum houses over 93 pieces of sculpture with each piece said to be over a thousand years old.
The history of Pyramid Hill
The fascinating story of the park can be traced back to visionary Harry T. Wilks, who passed away on his 89th birthday, March 11.
“He was still making plans for this park on his death bed,” said Rick Batdorf, who was associated with Wilks since 1980 and involved with the park since its inception. “The last thing he said to me was: ‘Are the daffodils up yet?’ “
I was fortunate enough to visit with Mr. Wilks last summer at Pyramid Hill. He introduced himself as a small-town Hamilton lawyer who was “lucky and picked the right investments,” enabling him to purchase 40 acres of land in the country in 1987 to build a home.
“With advice from my broker, I’d find a young company, and every time I’d save a little money, I’d buy a little more stock,” he explained during that visit. Wilks said he’d always loved nature and always loved to travel.
“You learn so much when you travel. I still learn something every day,” he said. “I started with state parks, then traveled around the country and then abroad. I always travel by car, and we didn’t go on tours.”
During my visit with him last summer, Wilks told me about the memorable day when he was out in the country, sat down to rest and spotted a deer on a ridge.
“Why don’t you build an underground home on the ridge?” he thought to himself. In 1992, he moved into what was to become the most famous underground home in America — Pyramid House — once featured in “Architectural Digest.”
Wilks admitted he didn’t know a thing about sculpture when his fascinating journey began. But he said he was determined to find a way to save his precious land for the future.
“I thought when I died, my kids would have to sell the land,” he explained. “So I decided to create a public foundation so that the land would never be subdivided and so the public could enjoy it for many years to come.”
He said he didn’t want to turn the land into soccer fields, and on his travels had seen monumental outdoor sculptures, primarily in big cities. He eventually decided that type of art would enhance his land and that he would turn it into a non-profit public sculpture park. It is now run by a board of directors with Wilks’ two daughters on the board.
“I looked for quality, first-class work that had been done since World War II ,” explained Wilks, who officially opened the park in the spring of 1996. “What I picked was just instinct and a lot of luck. I’m not an architect but I designed my own home.”
The ancient pieces in the indoor museum came from his love for Naples, Florence, Pompeii.
“I was always interested in antiques and ancient cultures, ” Wilks said. “So I started collecting for my home.”
Eventually, he decided to connect the two worlds at Pyramid Hill.
“I’m proud and surprised and grateful,” Wilks said about the estimated 34,000 visitors that now come to Pyramid Hill each year.
Batdorf, who remembers the early days when the land was so thick with honeysuckle that it was impossible to walk two feet, says Pyramid Hill is wonderful any time of year.
“Every season has something special to offer out here,” he said. “It’s a winter wonderland when you have a fresh blanket of snow, in the spring everything is so fresh, in the fall the place looks like it’s on fire sometimes with the trees and we have lots of people in the park in the summer when everything is so green.”
Higgins said even in the years he wasn’t working at Pyramid Hill, he was still promoting it and handing out brochures.
“One of my favorite places is our overlook, one of the highest points in Butler County,” he says. “You can look over sections of the park, see fairways and lawns, lakes and our beautiful “Abracadabra” — it’s a breathtaking view. “
He advises visitors to enjoy the park’s serenity and peace.
“Just relax, take your time, soak in where you are,” he said. “Let yourself become one with this environment.”