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Category Archives: History
In part 4 of our “Gardening through the Decades” series, we go from the glittering excess of the twenties into the Great Depression. The transformation from Military Prison to Federal Penitentiary finished in 1933 and from there on out, the military days were over. Several areas were reconstructed for the new use. In particular, the houses on Officers’s Row, save for the Doctor’s House, were torn down and transformed into gardens. New rules about plants were implemented, such as nothing could be higher than waist height, lest prisoners hide behind the shrubs. And prisoners were dangerous, meaning that instead of a steady stream of gardening labor, there weren’t a lot of people to maintain the vast gardens.
Gardening itself was going through a severe transformation and lack of resources. The Great Depression brought most gardening advancements to a standstill. There wasn’t enough money for most Americans to eat, let alone pay for the expensive upkeep of a vibrant garden. If the crops themselves couldn’t survive, how were ornamental plants supposed to?
Those that were lucky enough to afford a garden did have some trends, however. Large rose gardens were popular in the 1930s. Another popular trend was a focus on vegetables and food gardens. If the stores weren’t providing enough food to eat, perhaps your own little plot of land could. Hedges were sculpted in a boxier style, like the styles of the 1900s and 1910s. Plants such as hydrangeas, lilacs, and hostas were also popular as a pop of color.
Overall, however, the gardens were a luxury few could afford. What was once a sprawling, beautiful, lush garden could be transformed into a scraggly plot of dust in a matter of weeks. People had to cut corners in order to survive and gardens were among the first things to go. There were no longer garden parties in outdoor salons or front yards that promoted public space and friendly interaction. Everyone was trying to survive.
Still, Alcatraz does have some 1930s touches sprinkled throughout. Hydrangeas are prominent in the Rose Terrace and a particularly beautiful one is found along the walkway up to the cell house. There are also roses found in Officers’ Row, the Rose Terrace, and along the terraces on the West Side. It took a while for gardens to recover from the Great Depression, but they would. They would come back brighter and more beautiful than ever.
In part 3 of our “Gardening through the Decades” series, we look at the Roaring Twenties. A time period known for its glittering excess and the start of the gangster era, this was a period of transition for Alcatraz. Alcatraz the Military Prison was ending, but there were still families on Alcatraz, and they were determined to make their gardens beautiful.
From the blues and purples of the Victorian Era, to the pinks of the 1900s and 1910s, these gardens were all about colorful flowers. This changed in the 1920s as the reigning trend became all about the green. There were still flowers, but the lawns became a fixture for many homeowners.
Likewise, they also had a desire to celebrate and welcome nature. Unlike the Victorians, however, their gardens weren’t allowed to grow wild. Instead, they started attracting wildlife. Bird houses, bird baths, fish ponds, and rock gardens were all the rage for the 1920s gardener. They also planted trees and bushes with bird attracting berries, such as holly and crabapples, in hopes of being a paradise for bird watchers.
The 1920s also marked a shift in landscaping focus. Before, backyard gardens were all the rage. It was a private space for entertaining and for showing off your beautiful collections of flowers. However, with more and more people owning homes in the suburbs, the front yard as a public space became the focal point. You couldn’t have your neighbors walk by and see your front lawn in a deplorable state. So, this space received the most attention with gardening and landscaping. Walkways and driveways were lined with perennials, such as irises, foxgloves, hollyhocks, California poppies, and bachelor’s buttons. Shrubs such as boxwood and holly provided the natural, bird attracting green that was so popular. And the lack of fences reinforced the idea that the front yard was public, and not private.
Alcatraz follows many of these trends. While most families lived in the apartment building, meaning no front yards, houses on the parade ground did have front yards. We also have many of the hallmarks associated with the 1920a.boxwood in Officers’s Row and along the Sally port provide some subtle barriers between walkways and garden space. Likewise, one can see California poppies dotting every garden on Alcatraz.
What is perhaps the most striking feature that relates to the 1920s garden aesthetic is the birdbath in the birdbath garden on the west side. The birdbath was originally designed by inmate Elliot Michener. It was sadly destroyed when the gardens were no longer cared for. Thanks to our handy and multi-talented volunteers, we were able to reconstruct the birdbath that is a pleasant surprise in the Bird Bath Garden. Thanks to our work in the gardens, we have many birds for the bird watchers among us. From the snowy egrets to the variety of songbirds, Alcatraz does attract wildlife.
The Roaring Twenties peaks through in many areas of the Alcatraz gardens. Look around the next time you’re out there and see if you can spot any of the historical elements.
The second in this “Historic Gardening Trends” series, we are now moving out of the 1800s and into the 1900s. The 1900s through the 1910s had their own gardening trends; building from what was popular during the Victorian era but rejecting and changing what new gardeners did not like about the style. Alcatraz itself was going through a change. The Civil War had brought a rapid amount of development and change in the structures, trickling down to the gardens. The construction of the main concrete cell block began in 1909 and, once again, the wives of the soldiers sought a way to bring life and civilization to the Rock via gardens.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was a trend to return to formal gardening. There was no longer a desire to have a “garden growing wild” aesthetic. The plants were often carefully pruned and nurtured to be contained. Furthermore, there was more of an effort to use architecture in gardening. With building projects being wider-spread, people sought to show off their house and its features, using the garden to direct the eye. Similarly, using concrete terraces, paths, and steps provided a bit more structure and more of an architectural feel. The Victorian tradition of using gardens as an outside room continued and would continue to be a hallmark of modern gardening practices. Gardens were places to gather with family and friends, not just a place to grow food. Water was another major feature in the early 1900s gardens. Fountains, pods, and waterfalls were popular.
The plants themselves were almost an afterthought to the garden. Gardeners used geometric lines and an enclosed feeling to make the outside feel more like the inside. Furthermore, the Victorian fascination with wild, sprawling exotics was replaced with neat, boxed hedged beds. The actual flowers and shrubs were kept off verdant laws and bowling greens. It was no use having people over to your garden if they could not walk around without stepping on flowers.
Inside these neat and tidy beds were a variety of peonies, irises, lavender, erigeron, and foxgloves. The colors were muted but more diverse than the Victorian era’s use of mainly greens, pinks, and purples. Roses were common as well. However, instead of ramblers and creepers allowed to sprawl and climb, they were contained into neat, round bushes.
The modern gardens of Alcatraz have these early 1900s touches hidden throughout. The water features are easy to spot since this is an island and the ocean serves that purpose nicely. The foxgloves can be found most commonly in the Rose Garden. While there are creepers and ramblers all over, other rose bushes, such as those in Foundation 8 of Officers’ Row, are kept rounded and contained. Lavender can be spotted peaking through in Foundation 9. The Toolshed Terraces gardens bring forth a more architectural element to these gardens, a subtle call back to the terraces commonly used during this time period.
What is perhaps most in line with the gardening style of the early 1900s is the fact that the gardens serve as a backdrop to the architecture, the prison. Instead of the garden being a separate entity, it is tied to, and often overshadowed by, the main cellhouse. The beds along the pathway are contained and wind around following the road; they are not allowed to grow wild and eclipse the cell house. As gardeners, we sometimes forget people come to Alcatraz not for the gardens, but for the prison. In the 1900s, the gardens were also there as a second thought; meant to enhance life and beauty on the island. It moves away from the “natural” and into the backdrop. These gardens have their own beauty and serve another purpose. But the combination of styles from such a long period of time is what allows the Gardens of Alcatraz to be diverse and beautiful, to represent a time and provide a look back as to what life would have been like for the families living on the island, and not just the prisoners and guards.
One of the most beautiful groups of flowers we have on Alcatraz is the iris. They have been a common staple in gardens for centuries. It is worth taking a moment to look at the long history of these flowers and when they became common garden staples in America.
Irises first grew to prominence as a garden flower in 1469 BCE. The Egyptian pharaoh King Thutmose III conquered Syria, where irises grew. An avid gardener, he brought them back to Egypt to be cultivated. This was the first-time irises had been documented as a gardening flower. From there, irises rose to prominence for their religious significance. They were carved into sculptures at temples and doctors used the rhizomes for medicine and perfume offerings.
As irises began to spread in the popularity, due to their showy flowers and lovely scents, the Greeks were the first to name them “iris”. Iris means rainbow and is the Greek messenger of the gods. Indeed, irises come in an array of colors, from deep purples to brilliant oranges. They continued to spread around Europe, becoming a staple in gardens from Spain to parts of Asia. Indians began to use their rhizomes for religious offerings. In Florence, Italy, the scent became a popular perfume. The iris inspired the design for the Fleur-de-lis. It is a common motif in France, past French Colonies, and with the Catholic Church, usually relating the Virgin Mary.
The first documented iris in America was in 1600s Virginia. From there, irises would continue to hybridize, speciate, and transform into unique American varieties. It wasn’t until Michael Foster (1836-1907) studied and planted these beautiful flowers, that irises were made popular. One of his students, William R. Dykes (1877-1925) took an interest in irises and published a book called “The Genus Iris”. It was this study of irises that brought the flower to the popular conscious. In the early 1900s, there was a rise of irises in American gardens. It became so popular, Tennessee adopted it as the state flower. The most popular iris today is the German or Bearded Iris, an iris we have on Alcatraz. However, most irises have hybridized so much that there are 300 species, and these species are difficult to separate into a clean taxonomy.
The hybridization provides another unique focal point for Alcatraz’s irises. If you smell a modern iris, it doesn’t smell like much. On Alcatraz, the irises have a stronger scent. Different Alcatraz irises smell like root beer, vanilla, and grandma’s perfume (according to
some visitors). We have pastel purple, deep purple, white, orange and yellow Irises scattered about the Rose Garden and Officers’ Row. We use heirloom plants, which means our irises still have the genetic markers to make scent. Our use of heirloom plants provides an extra touch of historical intrigue to visitors who know their flowers.
As a flower, irises inspire the creative and bring delight to the floral enthusiast. They provide intriguing patterns and interesting shapes. They are unique and vibrant against the backdrop of stone and concrete. They are a flower with a long history, and it’s not hard to see why they’ve been a garden staple for thousands of years.
Alcatraz’s gardens were restored with the intention of being a reflection on gardening trends found from the 1830s to the 1960s. But what trends came in and out of fashion during this period? After all, much like clothing, gardening has styles, trend-setters, and certain characteristics that allows gardening historians to identify what was popular at the time.
The Victorian Era, named after Queen Victoria, was a period that ran from 1837 to 1901. This was one of the first times authorities made an effort to provide public gardens in England. The reasoning being the gardens would improve the manners of the lower class. The wives of soldiers on Alcatraz had a similar desire. They wanted to bring a sense of civilization and order to “The Rock”. There was also a need to ease boredom. With little to do while on Alcatraz and with the new soil and sand, they could begin to garden.
The Victorian Garden has three major characteristics: furniture, statues, and plants. The furniture used in Victorian gardens included benches, canopies, and pavilions. The purpose was to make the gardens feel more like a salon. It was a place to entertain and enjoy nature as well as show off to your neighbors how well you were doing. Statues were also used in Victorian gardens. They were mostly Greek Gods and semi-nude females. It was an attempt to invoke the classicism and culture of Ancient Greece.
The plants were where Victorian gardens started to become unique. Shades of pink, purple, and green were the most common colors. There were also many different types of plants in each garden. Thanks to globalization and imperialism, gardeners had access to more rare and exotic plants than ever. Orchids, tulips, roses, and daisies were all regulars in Victorian gardens. The rarer the plant, the more wealth you had. Another interesting style choice was the various ways these gardens were planted. There were showy, geometrically placed flowers (squares being the most popular shape, followed by triangles). Yet, there was also a call to have “wild” gardens. Creepers, ramblers, hardy shrubs and herbaceous plants emphasized the natural look. Pebbles marked the pathways and they used rocks invoked the image of wild and far off mountains.
On Alcatraz, the Rose Garden is where these Victorian trends are the strongest. The various roses are allowed to creep and ramble over concrete railings and walls. Come at the right time and you’ll see rows of various types of blue bells in both Officers’ Row and the Rose Garden. In Officers’ Row, there is a hidden cache of lavender, showing off muted greens and purples. Luckily, we don’t have to import rocks to get a “rocky” feel throughout the gardens. Alcatraz’s natural terrain already provides us with outcrops of rocks. We even kept the tradition of having rare and exotic plants in our gardens. One of the more famous examples is the Bardou Job Rose, a rose that is so rare it was thought to be extinct until it was found growing on Alcatraz in 1989.
The Victorian Garden is one of contradictions. It is a call back to the wild, but it is characterized by geometric designs and exotic plants. It is an attempt to bring civilization and good manners to the lower classes, but it is also a sign of wealth. On Alcatraz, we try to capture the complexity and beauty in our gardens. And as the climbing roses make their way up the rocky outcrops and bloom, we capture a moment in gardening history.
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.
Past garden manager, Carola, is quoted in Alcatraz’s Discovery film as saying the gardening is like ‘garden archeology’. Her words perfectly described the work of clearing vegetation and finding artifacts and landscape features that had lay hidden underneath ivy and blackberries for decades.
Her words are still very true today. The garden crew has been in over their heads clearing ivy from trees and uncovering terrace walls.
Using the Cultural Landscape Report for Alcatraz Island as a guide, permission was granted by the Park Service to clear overgrowth from known garden areas that no one had worked in since the prison closed in 1963. As part of the approval, garden volunteers and staff attended a lecture by National Park Service Archeologists, Leo and Peter.
With broad reaching strokes, Leo and Peter described their work across the park. San Francisco has a rich history with native settlements, missions, military history. Every time significant ground disturbance is done in the Park, this duo is on the scene. Some finds are accidents whereas others are known sites of interest. Leo described what to do in case items were found –
-take a photo with a point of reference in the background, not to zoom in on the object but give an easy way to find where the object had been found.
-fill out the paperwork that marks on a map where the object was found, and describe the item and the circumstances under which it was found
A key point was to distinguish between a single item found and a ‘feature’. A feature, as we now know, is considered a group of artifacts. In the case of finding a feature, the objects should be left in place and give Leo a call.
All of the objects found are taken to the Presidio archives where they are cleaned, recorded, and added to the collection. For garden artifacts, Leo has been marking the locations of the items on an overall map. Overtime, the pinpoint locations of objects give a big picture of significant areas, slow archeology in a sense.
Most people think of Alcatraz as only a federal prison, but the island has layers of history that equals the city of San Francisco, where the story of the gardens is woven throughout. Seeing the island through Leo’s eyes was really, well, eye-opening. Landscape features that we always walk by, were given an explanation, or at least a theory that made us all think – ah, that makes sense. For example, many parts of the island had a whitewash over the bricks, stone and concrete. The whitewash façade has fallen away in many areas, but the anchor holes of the façade remain.
Today, the holes look like planting pockets. We had always wondered about the evenly spaced shallow holes. They obviously weren’t big enough for a large plant with roots, or even to hold moisture during the dry summer. With Leo giving his theory of the holes being the anchor points, the holes suddenly made sense. By chance, the cliff below the Warden’s house is being stabilized with the addition of fake rock being anchored with long bolts – just like was done long ago.
One of the coolest objects found was an arrowhead several years ago, and another arrowhead showed up a few months ago. Leo explained that the arrowheads can be dated by using the fact that glass absorbs water at a specific rate for locations.
Other features of the island, are fun to speculate over – the bluestone found on the island is only found in a few locations around the Bay Area, Angel Island and Corte Madera. Not only did significant labour went into gathering the bluestone and hauling it to Alcatraz, but seeing it used for building reflects a known time period and a recycling of building material as well. Leo’s passion was evident as he said ‘some we will never learn but there is meaning in it all’.
Our take away lesson from Leo’s talk was to “overly thoughtful and nerdy about everything you find”.
Did you know that when the cell house on Alcatraz was completed in 1912, it was the largest steel reinforced concrete structure in the world?
The world of concrete has come a long way since then, becoming the main building material in pretty much everything from buildings to bridges, and is actually the world’s second most consumed material (water is first). Fittingly, Alcatraz continues to play a part in the latest technology for concrete with the Concrete Preservation Institute.
A National Park Service Partnership began with a school program based out of Chico State University for students in Concrete Studies to have hands-on experience. Alcatraz happens to be an island full of concrete that is weathering in the salty wind that offers endless projects to students.
Much like the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, the Concrete Preservation Institute program quickly grew and, as of 2015, is now its own separate ‘non-profit educational foundation that advances the industry and partners with the US National Park Service at Alcatraz Island to preserve landmark structures’.
Personally knowing very little about concrete, other than it is strong, I wanted to know more about how the students worked their magic of transforming deteriorating railings back into new. Catrina, a current student of the program, and Scott, one of the programs leaders were generous with their time to answer my questions.
The concrete preservation projects the team works on are decided by a Projects and Stewardship committee of staff from the National Park Service, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the CPI team themselves. As the program continues, the student’s projects are getting more complicated and more skilled. However, the gardens offer a fairly straightforward project with the many concrete panel railings in the Rose Terrace and Officers’ Row. For each project, students learn project management and hands on training doing the work. For management, students run the project and comply with NPS protocols such as providing an existing conditions report, historical report and taking in progress photos to document the work. The hands on training involves drawing the railings to scale in blueprints, building the forms and learning how to work with the various materials with safety as a priority.
In her own words, Catrina is embracing CPI for what it is; a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of becoming an asset to history. “I am learning so much here. Other internship would be all paperwork and no application of skills. This is what makes CPI different. We learn from instructors who have dedicated their lives to the concrete Industry”. The students frequently receive visits from people who literally write the textbooks students use in concrete engineering majors!
Q: Can you tell me a bit about the program itself?
A: CPI is a twelve weeks program open for college students and post nine eleven veterans. There are 3 sessions per year. CPI teaches students research & technology innovation, tool knowledge and application skills, importance of industry job site safety, and using skills to apply to preservation of Alcatraz. There are people from many different educational backgrounds in this program. Some participants educational background range from construction industry management, civil engineering, biology, megatronics engineering, and architecture. Several people involved are both in schools and active duty servicemen and vets who served in Iraq. Veterans are always urged to join CPI program. I believe this program is an amazing opportunity for anyone who is involved.
Q: What makes the concrete you are using now special?
A: The concrete we are using is manufactured by BASF to add extra features to withstand the elements which typically limit the longevity of concrete. We mixed fibers in the mix for the panels of the railing because those areas are subjects to a greater weight load because of the top portion of railings. The panels are only 2″ in thickness so the panels have stainless steel threaded rods (the new rebar) embedded in them. Cracking over time is natural process in concrete because the rebar corrodes. The synthetic fibers never break down and so in theory, the concrete should last indefinitely.
Catrina was initially informed about this opportunity from her program director at New Jersey Institute of Technology. The current session finished on August 21 program and she will have a greater advantage for applying for fellowships and scholarships. In the fall, Catrina will continue her schooling at New Jersey Institute of Technology for her engineering degree in concrete industry management and construction management. Her future is bright with limitless possibilities.
With the abundance of concrete in the world, skilled people will be very much in demand to care for aging structures. Students will either go directly into the industry after their internship or will return to school to study chemistry, biology or architecture.
Did you know the Dahlia is the official flower of San Francisco?
On October 4, 1926, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took a vote and animously decided that the Dahlia best represented their city.
From the San Francisco Dahlia Society website, the proclamation reads:
“WHEREAS, the Dahlia has reached its highest perfection in and about San Francisco, and because Dahlias originated in San Francisco are grown in gardens all over the world; and
WHEREAS, the Dahlia partakes essentially of the character of our beloved city, in birth, breeding and habit, for it was originally Mexican, carried thence to Spain, to France and England in turn, being changed in the process from a simple daisy-like wild flower to a cosmopolitan beauty. It has come back to San Francisco like the sophisticated world traveler it is, to find its favorite home here, where it thrives in the cool summers and the moist air of our fog-swept, sandy gardens by the sea;
WHEREAS, it is a robust flower, generous and able to thrive in any reasonable soil, so long as it is not too dry, and has the primitive strength of our pioneer ancestors, together with the gayety and color that no other city nor flower can hope to equal, going, like our artists and poets, to carry color and beauty into far climes, but blooming best in our own gardens out of doors in our cool even climates;
WHEREAS, in its versatility, its beauty, its infinite variety of color and form, it is the very symbol of San Francisco life and of the spirit of her people; therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the Dahlia be and it is here designated the official flower of San Francisco.”
The reasons the Dahlia was chosen in 1926 still hold true today – San Francisco is still a world-class city – still innovating, has spirit and still has foggy, cool summers.
Since the 1920’s, dahlias have had a dedicated plot near the Conservatory of Flowers and are an attraction for locals and visitors throughout the summer. With dahlias being so popular, perhaps this is why the residents of Alcatraz began to grow them. Our small collection consists of heirlooms from the 1880’s through the 1940s. The flowers are just beginning to bloom – time to take in this history within history on a tiny island.
This week Alcatraz staff and volunteers were invited to visit their neighbour, Angel Island for a tour. While we are very familiar with Alcatraz’s history, it was really fascinating to see the same history but from the perspective of Angel Island.
Angel Island is a State Park that is only 1 mile away from Alcatraz and is the largest island in the San Francisco Bay. Unlike Alcatraz, coastal natives, the Miwok, did live on Angel Island with its source of fresh water and a population of deer established when the island was still connected to the mainland.
Alcatraz is described as a ‘layered cake of history’ and our tour of Angel Island took us through many layers. Like Alcatraz, the military had a very strong presence to protect the Bay with the start of the Civil War. In 1863, artillery guns and batteries were constructed, houses were built and camps were set up. In the coming years, Angel Island was used as a quarantine station for immigrants and troops returning from the Spanish-American war in 1899, a discharge station for troops coming and going to the Pacific, an immigration station from 1910 to 1940 and a prisoner of war facility for the second World War.
The island is best known for being the Ellis Island of the West – an immigration station. The earthquake of 1906 destroyed all of San Francisco’s City Hall’s records and this became an opportunity for established immigrants to invite family members to America. Officials became wise to the sudden influx of immigrants and soon changed the rules – now extensive interviews were required and family member’s answers must match each other in closed interviews. Angel Island became a holding facility while the interviews were being carried out. Stays could last anywhere from a couple of weeks to 20 months. Today, the immigration station is open for visitors and it really is moving. Alcatraz was a place where inmates were imprisoned for behaving badly, whereas Angel Island’s detainees were imprisoned for wanting a better life. Poems were inscribed in the wooden walls, many are in Asian languages, to release the anger and frustration felt. Our ranger described how the officials filled in the carvings with
wood putty and painted over the repair to erase the ‘graffiti’, only to have more poems take their place. In their efforts to erase the poems, the wood putty actually preserved the writings! Many of the poems have been translated and a few of them speak of being surrounded by green fields. It turns out that the original paint had been a jade green. In Chinese culture, jade brings luck and good fortune, so it must have been especially cruel to be held in a green holding room uncertain of your future.
I was especially interested in the plant life on the island. Alcatraz’s topsoil actually had been imported from Angel Island and the ranger joked that we have their soil. Initially, the military chopped down all the trees on Angel Island to use for construction and then
realized that perhaps a few trees would look much better. Eucalyptus groves were planted, much like on Alcatraz and in the Presidio in San Francisco. As well, around Officers’ homes gardens were planted. Today, the gardens are suffering from neglect with lack of funding for garden staff to revitalize them. With deer constantly grazing, it will be a challenge to restore them (I’ll take my 2000 seagulls any day).
The gardens around the Bake House were very interesting. The pathways were set with brick edges with the stamp of the brick maker – I noted some C.H. (from city hall) and Carneige that we have on Alcatraz too. There were also a few plants in common with Alcatraz – chasmanthe, calla lilies, a few rambling roses, Echium, Agave and daffodils in bloom. One of the more interesting plantings was a row of Monterrey cypress trees planted by the hospital. The row had actually been maintained as a high hedge!
I hope Angel Island will someday have the good fortune that Alcatraz has had with the gardens being restored and the garden story being told. I really do think the gardens are the icing on the layered cake of history.