This past Friday, I had the pleasure of showing Russ Beatty the restored gardens. Beatty was one of the authors of the Gardens of Alcatraz book that was published in 1996, long before the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project began in 2003.
Beatty is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California in Berkeley. His interest in historical landscapes is initially what got him interested in the Gardens of Alcatraz. In 1995, he was asked by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to write a chapter for an upcoming book (Gardens of Alcatraz) that the Parks Conservancy hoped would draw attention to the withering gardens on the island.
Beatty delved into researching the gardens – combing through National Park Service archives for letters and photos that would provide a glimpse of the people who created and tended the gardens. He also set about trying to find people to interview that could give a first-hand account of gardening on the Rock. The National Park Service hosts an annual Alumni Day on Alcatraz where past residents (guards and their families and inmates) come back to the Rock and share their stories. Ever hopeful, Beatty sent a questionnaire to the Alumni visiting the island that August day in 1995. Amazingly, he had one response – from Elliot Michener, inmate number AZ 578, who was there and sent Beatty a long letter after he returned to his home. The letter detailed his experiences gardening on the island. Many of his quotes are in the book as well as on interpretive signs in the gardens and are used throughout our website.
At the time, Elliot lived in Sierra Madre and Beatty travelled twice to his home to interview him. Beatty had a difficult time drawing Elliot out of himself but recalls that his home, a rented basement flat in a cottage, was sparsely decorated. He photographed Michener, age 89, under a bougainvillea growing outside in the yard. Elliot recounted one incident on the island shortly
after he started working as the houseboy for Warden Swope and his wife. It seemed that the previous inmate houseboy had built a still to make moonshine in the Warden’s attic. Fearing of being blamed for the still if it was discovered, and no doubt losing his new earned position and the perks it came with, he quickly disassembled the still and buried the pieces in the garden. The Warden’s garden is one of the remaining historic gardens on the island that has not been restored yet, perhaps if we do, we will turn up pieces of copper – at least we will have an explanation ready for the finds.
A year after the book was published, Beatty found himself along on a Garden Conservancy Fellows Tour of Napa Valley. Antonia Adezio, President of the Garden Conservancy, was also there. Beatty excitedly shared a copy of the book with her – planting the seed for the partnership project that would eventually save the gardens.
Beatty is now gathering research for an article for Site Lines, a journal of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, and he was on the island to interview myself and take a look at what has become of the gardens. After Beatty had asked all of his questions, I had a chance to ask him some of my own, after all, here is a gentleman who has actually spoken with Elliot Michener, the inmate that is talked about quite a lot on our docent led tours and whom we credit the development of the inmate gardens largely to.
Do you see any specialness in the story of the Gardens of Alcatraz?
The story ties together a great deal of California and US history — the fortress built as a result of the Civil War to protect the Bay; the reshaping of the land as a fort, but also recognizing the innate human need for beautification through gardens and gardening; the solace and relief gardeners from the military prison as well as the Federal penitentiary found in their creativity and work in making and tending gardens – – early unintentional horticultural therapy; the changes that these efforts made in the lives of hardened criminals; the gardens as expressions of beauty by both families and inmates in an effort to live in such an inhospitable environment, and the story the gardens bring to the visiting public whose main interest is rather macabre about the Federal period criminals such as Al Capone (the softer side of the story). Also the fact that such a rich palette of plants has been able to survive through long neglect in such a hostile place — a created ecology.
If you could interview Elliot Michener again, what three questions would you ask him?
• How were you treated by your fellow inmates when told of your gardening experiences?
• Tell me more about Capt. Weinhold; how else did he help you other than giving you gloves and seeds?
• What brought you to Los Angeles; tell me more about your lady friend and the gardening you did for her.
Perhaps one day, Beatty will be able to write another book about our chapter in history and how these once neglected historic gardens have found new life. Beatty sent me a quote from J.B Jackson that ‘there is a necessity of ruins. Places need to decay before they are well understood and their importance gives rise to discovery and restoration’. This quote really is the essence of the Gardens of Alcatraz. For so long they had been abandoned, but they are now revitalized and telling the softer side of Alcatraz’s history.