Christus Gardens (Gone)
[Note: This attraction closed, but the owners have opened a new attraction in the same spot: Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens]
Christus Gardens was the dream of young Ronald Ligon, whose dad was a prosperous owner of cemeteries and a pioneer of multi-story mausoleums. Ron had "a brush with death" while attending Vanderbilt University (according to "The Story of Christus Gardens," available in the gift shop), and spent the following years wandering Europe, visiting Christian shrines. The Guide explains that Ron was conducting research so that he could build "an enduring memorial to Christ" in gratitude for his continued survival.
By 1960, at age 23, Ron was apparently on sabbatical from his spiritual quest, as he was in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, looking for land on which he could build a motel. A real estate agent showed him a piece of property next to the town's chair lift, and Don realized that this was just the spot for his great memorial. Christus Gardens was opened in August of that year and quickly became "America's #1 religious attraction," according to its brochure.
The centerpiece of Christus Gardens is a six-ton slab of marble into which is carved a face of Jesus, "the most photographed object in Gatlinburg," according to the attraction. Oddly enough, it was not commissioned by Ron Ligon as part of his memorial, but instead was found by him, abandoned, in a dusty warehouse in Italy. It's been sculpted in such a way that it seems to face you no matter where you stand. A sizeable amount of pocket change has been lofted at the base of the Jesus Slab, and its miniature replica is reportedly the hottest-selling item in the gift shop.
This second-hand main attraction is augmented by Ron Ligon's original creation -- the fruit of years of European travel -- a series of wax dummy dioramas that depict highlights from the life of Jesus. These are accompanied by scratchy, King-James-Version-era narration over a screeching heavenly choir, with repeated references to Jesus as "The Master." Satan resembles Ming the Merciless and appears to be dressed in mylar, while the relatively bloodless Christ on the cross is made of solid wax and "valued at over $20,000." The dummies were supposedly clothed by the costumer from Ben-Hur. Jesus goes to heaven inside what looks like a cave of cotton candy. It is all extremely inspiring.
Christus Gardens made an effort in recent years to diversify its offerings. Mark Pedro, its art director, painted a colorful 900-sq-ft mural of characters from the Old Testament, including God, who looks a lot like modern-day Smilin' Jesus. Pedro also painted depictions of Jesus' parables, and the attraction added displays of biblical coins and gems, and some old Bibles as well.
But the big draw has always been "the famous Carrara Marble Face." When the automatic doors whoosh open after wax Jesus goes to heaven, and you walk out to confront the Slab inside its glass-roofed patio garden, you sense what Ron Ligon must have felt when he first laid eyes on it all those years ago -- because its eyes will certainly never look away from you.