Arts and Entertainment Guide
Behind The Scenes Of Todd Michael's New Mural At Hugh Taylor Birch State Park
Before Walt Disney established his famous theme park, South Florida was home to one of the state’s biggest attractions—Hugh Taylor Birch State Park.
Spanning an impressive 180 acres of undeveloped Florida mangroves and oak canopies, the estate officially opened as a public park in 1949 under the stipulation that it must forever be preserved as stated in Hugh Taylor Birch’s will.
Nestled in the heart of Fort Lauderdale, the subtropical paradise once drew visitors from all around the nation to immerse themselves amid the exotic animal and plant life and, in the mid-1960s to ’80s, ride the park’s infamous 3-mile Scenic Railroad.
Now, after 30 years of falling off track, the nature preserve is finally getting a much-needed face-lift. The park’s non-profit group, Friends of Birch State Park Inc., is focused on revamping the park’s current attractions and adding new features that draw guests into the park. And what better way to greet them than with an art installation at the entry?
Funded by a $20,000 Art of Community grant given by the Community Foundation of Broward (CF Broward), Friends of Birch has restored the A1A underpass that connects Birch State Park to the beach. And under the artistic direction of Todd Michael, the tunnel has been transformed into an 80-foot work of art complete with a colorful mural, new lighting and sounds of the ocean on a continuous loop.
“The Birch State Park Mural project is a perfect example of how the arts can magically transform older spaces into something new that connects people to the environment—and to each other,” says Kirk Englehardt, vice president of marketing and communications for CF Broward.
Following an “under the sea” theme, the walls are decorated with numerous sea creatures from turtles and fish to dolphins and whales.
As beach and park goers descend the stairs into the tunnel, the mural gradually changes from a sandy beach, to shallow water, and eventually into the deep ocean, giving visitors the feeling of slowly being submerged into the water.
“It’s an attraction,” says Gale Butler, executive director of Friends of Birch State Park. “It’s a way of drawing the kids down into the tunnel, and it’s safer than crossing the road.”
On the exterior of the tunnel’s beachside exit, the non-profit hopes to eventually have Michael create a vibrant mosaic to act as a billboard for the park and draw in more people.
“So anytime anyone drives down A1A, [they] can’t miss it. It’ll be glistening like a big diamond,” the self-taught mosaic artist explains about the project he says they’re still trying to secure funding for.
This isn’t the first mosaic the 40-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident has made for the park. In 2015, Michael fashioned a 12-by-9-foot mosaic titled “Helen Birch Banyan Tree with Animals” for the exterior of the park’s watering hole, Park & Ocean. However, the 4,000-square-foot tunnel mural is the largest piece of art Michael has done in his career, which dates back to 1999.
“We love him,” exclaims Butler, who has been with the park for four years. “He’s great to work with.”
While the updates to the tunnel are intended to draw attention, they are ultimately meant to lead guests to discover the park’s true natural beauty.
“This is a gift that Hugh Taylor Birch left to the city,” Butler says, “to the people of Fort Lauderdale.”