The Temple of Tolerance
The Temple of Tolerance looks like it should be in an artist-hippie enclave like Sonora, Arizona, or Taos, New Mexico -- not in the back yard of a suburban home in Wapakoneta, Ohio, birthplace of Neil Armstrong.
The yard belongs to Jim Bowsher, self-described "master" of the Temple. He took 18 years to build it. The Temple and its satellite shrines occupy all of the space behind Jim's home -- and that's a lot of space, because Jim owns the entire center of the block, roughly equal to about two dozen Wapakoneta back yards. It's unexpected and well-hidden; people driving past Jim's front door on Wood Street probably don't even know it's back there.
The first words that Jim said to us were, "There's a lot to tell here and I like to talk." Indeed, we quickly learned that those who talk with Jim should be prepared to spend a lot of time in his yard of art. Jim designed it, he said, as a retreat where people could feel accepted, especially young people.
"There's no bullying, no dope, none of the things that are a wedge between human beings," he said of his yard. "I want all magnet stuff to pull people together."
The Temple, a squat, circular pile of hundreds of tons of rocks and items made from rocks -- millstones, lintels, urns, foundation blocks -- is lovingly tended. Jim hauled most of the rocks himself, out of nearby farm fields. "The farmers were burying them!" he said, still shocked at the thought. "These beautiful banded rocks! They're artwork!" Stone steps lead to the Temple summit, an easy climb. Grass and turf have rooted themselves into the structure's crevices over the years, adding to its ancient look. The well-trimmed yard surrounding the Temple is populated by even more rock megaliths, many of them upright, like a Stonehenge-themed cemetery.
Each rock is individually photographed and cross-referenced, said Jim, "so if I die tomorrow you could tell where every single one of those rocks came from." That's several thousand rocks.
Jim pointed out a few of his favorites: a slab from a bank counter that robber John Dillinger leapt over; a potato-shaped rock from Woodstock; the front step of the former Klu Klux Klan headquarters in Wapakoneta. "I ask black people to sit on the step," said Jim, "so they can liberate it."
Jim keeps the rock checklist in his house, which is also packed with its own collection of unusual treasures. So, too, is the Barrel House, another of the yard's attractions, which Jim said was the only house in the U.S. deliberately built to resemble a barrel. It has bullet holes, said Jim, shot into it during Prohibition.
The Temple of Tolerance's job as a karma cleanser reminded us of the Lindbergh Crate Museum in Maine, owned by a guy who uses it as a metaphor for the can-do potential of its visitors (and he also displays it in his back yard). The Temple, a more ambitious project, has a richer trove of metaphors. "It's all meat on the same bone," said Jim at one point, explaining why the Temple is in sync with its guiding philosophy. "The dramatic part is only a whack with a 2x4 to get people's attention."
Jim was eager to tell us stories of how the Temple helped cure dysfunctions in the lives of its visitors. This made us wonder if the long-gone builders of other back yard wonders also cited miracles to their audiences. Being around a visionary like Jim, we realized, is fun, but it's also exhausting, especially on a hot afternoon.
The Temple of Tolerance is always open, and visitors who want the full Jim Bowsher experience can call ahead to arrange a personal tour. Jim hopes to some day donate his creation to Wapakoneta, but only if the town promises to keep it intact, admission-free, and open every day. "Even if it's torn down tomorrow," he said, "they will never erase the good that it's done."