I was fortunate today to be invited to the monthly meeting of the Alameda Master Gardeners to teach them the ‘paperwork’ side of gardening. It’s a side of gardening that most visitors are not aware of, even if they are gardeners themselves.
With Alcatraz being a National Historic Landmark, the National Historic Preservation Act applies to everything that is done on the island, not to mention the other roughly 2500 sites in the United States designated as National Historic Landmarks. Adopted as law in 1949 by Congress, National Historic Landmarks ‘are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.’ (https://www.nps.gov/nhl/)
Section 110 and 106 of the Preservation Act set out broad responsibilities of Federal agencies and requires the agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) does have its own team of a historic architect, historic landscape architect, archeologist and supporting staff to ensure that historic preservation is fully integrated into the ongoing programs within the Park.
Beginning the class off, I introduced the concept of a cultural landscape – special places that reveal aspects of our country’s origins and development through their form and features, and they ways they were used. The special places include a wide range of landscapes – residential gardens, parks, scenic highways, battlefield and institutional grounds.
There are 4 types of cultural landscapes – historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes and ethnographic landscapes. Alcatraz Island is a cultural landscape and the gardens fit in the historic vernacular landscape category. This is a landscape that has evolved through use of people whose activities shaped the landscape. The landscape now reflects the physical, biological and cultural character of the everyday lives of the residents.
Alcatraz Island’s period of significance expands from 1847 to 1973. These years span the early exploration of the Bay, military fortification, including the construction of the first lighthouse on the west coast, the military prison, federal penitentiary and the early General Services Administration (GSA) caretaking, Native American Occupation and the beginning of the GSA while the island became part of the GGNRA.
Perhaps this is where people started to doze off…but we weren’t quite done with terms and definitions.
The Secretary of the Interior has Standards for Treatments, which is a series of concepts about maintaining, repairing, and replacing historic materials, as well as designing new additions or making alterations. The standards offer general design and technical recommendations to assist in applying the standards to a specific property.
In a nerdy way, these standards are why I love my job. Using the guidelines, you can transform an overgrown historic garden into a cared for landscape once again.
Of the 4 types of treatments – preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction – rehabilitation was chosen for the best method for the Alcatraz gardens. “Rehabilitation is making a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions of features that convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values.”
Rehabilitation fit our goal – to preserve and maintain the gardens created by those who lived on the island during its military and prison eras, and to interpret their history, horticulture, and cultural significance for visitors. The island still had over 200 species of plants, the majority of these were ornamental survivors from past residents, and plenty of remaining garden paths that gave the framework of the gardens.
With the rehabilitation treatment chosen, we had many considerations to take into account – the use of the gardens – historic, current, and proposed use for the future, archeological resources, the natural systems (nesting seabirds and we had no fresh water), interpretation of the gardens to visitors, accessibility and safety, not to mention the management and maintenance of the gardens.
Beginning in 2005, a treatment plan was written up for each garden area that reflected the military and/or federal prison eras. Each plan contained historic photos, documented current existing conditions and described the future use. Working on one area per year, we finished the scope of our project in 2010.
The bulk of our work was done prior to Alcatraz Island having a Cultural Landscape Report (CLR). Most historic sites have a report that has documented all of the contributing features of a landscape. However, the longer we waited, features of the gardens and the plants themselves were failing. We received permission to have a Cultural Landscape Inventory done, a much faster process, and with our treatment plans we moved forward.
Now, with a CLR we are able to work on areas and while we still need our plans reviewed and approved, our plans fit into the overall plan for Alcatraz Island.
Finishing off the lesson with photos of historic, before, and after photographs of the gardens, the terminology learnt earlier made sense (or at least I hoped). Just like compost is the best foundation for thriving plants, well made plans make the best foundation for gardens.
Afterwards, people came up to chat and many remarked that they had no idea there was so much history on Alcatraz. I think this quote from Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says it best – “History is typically conveyed through books or in a classroom, but history can also be conveyed through place”.
Maybe next time just walking down the street, you’ll question why a row of trees was planted or why the fountain was placed where it was, or why a random granite block is in the sidewalk? The cultural landscape is everywhere around us, just waiting to be read.