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Category Archives: History
The Federal Prison on Alcatraz was meant for the ‘worst of the worst’. Inmates only got sent to Alcatraz because they were behaving badly at another prison; in a way, they had to earn their way to Alcatraz.
But what if you are a plant? And you are misbehaving? And you are already on Alcatraz?
This seems to be the case with our Agaves.
While the island was operating as a military fortress to protect the Bay, and later as a military prison, Agave americana were brought to the island in the early 1920s in attempts to landscape the island. The plant proved to be ideal for growing in the dry, rocky soil with little water or care. But this plant has a defense mechanism of its own. Perhaps it is not commonly known, but Agaves can cause skin irritations when the sap comes into contact with people’s skin.
While not everyone is afflicted, a few of my volunteers have had reactions to being poked by the thorns or have developed a skin reaction with itching and blistering because of the sap. The sap contains calcium oxalate crystals, acrid oils, saponins, and other compounds, but it seems the calcium oxalate is responsible for the irritation.
A quick search on Wikipedia found that – “The juice from many species of agave can cause acute contact dermatitis. It will produce reddening and blistering lasting one to two weeks. Episodes of itching may recur up to a year thereafter, even though there is no longer a visible rash. Irritation is, in part, caused by calcium oxalate raphides. Dried parts of the plants can be handled with bare hands with little or no effect. If the skin is pierced deeply enough by the needle-like ends of the leaf from a vigorously growing plant, this can also cause blood vessels in the surrounding area to erupt and an area some 6–7 cm across appear to be bruised. This may last up to two to three weeks.”
There are three types of Agaves on the
island – Agave americana, which has established itself on hillsides and needs minimal care, while in the gardens, we have introduced Agave attenuata and Agave parryi. The Agave attenuata is my favorite! Not surprisingly, it has smooth leaves and no thorns. The Agave parryi, has a different story. This low growing blue leaved succulent has black spines along the margins of the leaves and the tip – very nice to look at, but not nice to weed around.
Like a bad sibling, this plant has been cursed at more often than any other plant on the island, and is one step away from the compost pile after pricking the volunteer that stewards the succulent slope. Instead of being sent to ‘D’ Block aka, the compost pile, Agave parryi will be isolated on a slope outside of the rec yard, far away from any well-meaning hands. With a view of the Golden Gate and city, Agave parryi, can think long and hard about what it has done! Or perhaps, it will think ‘alone at last, now I can enjoy the view’.
Even though Alcatraz is a rock, greywackle sandstone to be exact, erosion is taking its toll.
Originally, the island had two summits that were blasted down by the military when the island was used as a fortress and later a military prison. Steep cliffs were created and the roadways that we walk today were carved into the hillsides. The Commander of the Army, and later, the Warden of the Federal Prison, picked the best vantage point to build his home on Alcatraz, of course, he picked the top of the island overlooking the Parade Ground.
The cliff that the Warden’s House is perched upon has been slowly crumbling over the past few decades. This month, work was started to stabilize the cliff with placing shotcrete, to preserve the cliff and the historic home. Shotcrete is a mortar that is more dense, homogenous, stronger and waterproof compared to concrete. Shotcrete is sprayed onto the cliff, usually over a mesh, through a hose at high speed, so it can even be applied to vertical surfaces – making it a great choice to stabilize cliffs.
Workers first dangled over the cliff to remove vegetation and loose rock. A huge pile of Agave americana soon accumulated. These plants are truly amazing to cling to rock.
This week, the crew color coded the locations for placement of dowels that would be used to secure the mesh and bond the shotcrete (white) to the cliff face, weep holes to provide drainage (blue) and the locations of deeper rock bolts (orange).
The work to stabilize the cliff will continue to the end of January. Visitors can watch the work progress and it is pretty interesting to see preservation of this historic landmark in progress.
I’ll let you in on a little secret – now is the best time to visit Alcatraz. The Thanksgiving crowds have gone home and the holiday season hasn’t started yet. The ferries are not packed, which means you can buy a ticket the day of. And even better, the island is lush and green, the daffodils are blooming and the hummingbirds are zipping around.
The island feels almost tranquil, especially the gardens. Normally quiet, even during the summer, the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island typically only sees visitors when the weather is particularly beautiful. In the winter, it is possible to work for hours in the gardens without saying hello to anyone. So, I had a bit of a surprise while working yesterday on the west side – the gardens actually felt busy. I wondered what was going on and then I realized – people were on the wrong side of the gate – in the CLOSED area!
Following the stream of people, I entered the Laundry Building and spoke to the National Park Service Intern, Nora. It seems like the Park decided to open the building doors and let visitors experience this normally ‘off limits’ shortcut.
This additional visitor access is pretty special – not only do visitors get to see more of the island, but now they can walk around the island through the Laundry Building instead of backtracking. The visitors are also walking in the steps of the inmates – walking through the gardens and seeing the city in the distance while on their way to work in the Laundry Building.
The cliché of being so close yet so far, probably never had a better example.
Even though you will not need to book ahead to visit during the winter months, don’t leave it until the last minute. This area will close for February 1 as Brandt’s Cormorants return to nest in a nearby area.
This week the Garden Conservancy celebrated ten years of our West Coast Council programs. We also gathered to honor Antonia Adezio, our President, who is stepping down in December.
We reflected on our goal of having a bigger impact on West Coast gardeners. Looking around the room Wednesday evening at the close-knit community of gardeners, the Garden Conservancy has certainly excelled at this. In a way, it reminded me of what Freddie Riechel, the first secretary to the Warden challenged himself with when he took on caring for the gardens on Alcatraz back in 1933. Riechel reached out to expert horticulturists to keep the tradition of gardening on the Rock going. The Garden Conservancy has done the same, seeking advice from the West Coast Council and professionals to create educational programs to connect experts to local gardeners and to further develop preservation project gardens.
Antonia joined the newly founded Garden Conservancy in 1989 at the request of Frank Cabot. With the organization firmly established on the East Coast, the board of directors determined that in 202, the organization was ready to have a regional office based in San Francisco. Shortly after, the Garden Conservancy was enticed by the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to form a partnership to restore the Gardens of Alcatraz. The neglected historic gardens quickly became a passion for Antonia. As part of the evening’s ceremonies, I had the honor to present a brief history of our work on the island and to highlight our accomplishments with bringing the gardens back to life.
Antonia’s leadership throughout her time with the Conservancy has shaped the success , especially with Alcatraz, and her vision will be continued as we carry on. I like to think that every garden holds onto some characteristic of their caretakers, even as the caretakers move on. I see this especially in the old gardens on Alcatraz – the surviving apple trees that still bear fruit, the inmate built terraces, and perhaps the greatest mark left – the decision by the Garden Conservancy get involved to restore the gardens for the future enjoyment for all.
Gardens are all about change – hopefully for the better, but they are never still. With any change, it can almost be expected to face challenges; and this is especially true when you are gardening on Alcatraz.
This week, the gardens saw the installation of a new pipe railing, albeit a pipe rail that was historically there, but had long ago disappeared. The Officers’ Row gardens, opened to the visitors on mid-day Wednesdays suddenly had the new addition seemingly overnight. The approval and installation of the pipe rail was the easy part; getting the pipe rail to the island proved to be the real challenge.
The pipe rail is evident in several photos from the Federal Penitentiary days, and with the obvious hazard, it was approved by the National Park Service review board fairly quickly.
The metal pipe rail was assembled off-site by Heavy Metal Iron and was planned to be brought to the island on an early morning boat. However, at the last moment, the 14’section was denied passage and another plan had to be drawn up. A second attempt was made. This time, the railing was scheduled to be on the early morning barge; but was hampered by the landing at Pier 33 being repaved. The third attempt took advantage of the monthly barge that sails out of Pier 50 and the railing was delivered safe and sound. Success!
Once the railing was on the island, it still had to be hauled up the switchbacks to the gardens. The guys had planned ahead and had brought a dolly to support the railing as they walked up the hill, and the exercise proved to be a good workout.
Installing the railing was pretty simple – coring the concrete to sink the posts, double checking that the railing was sitting level, filing the metal to have a snug fit and then a quick set mortar was used to hold the railing posts in place.
The railing looks like it has always been there and I’m sure the seagulls will be happy to christen it when they return in February.
Instead of being asked gardening
questions, a common question visitors and locals alike have been asking is ‘What is that white covered tower on the island?’ The tower in question is the water tower that has been wrapped in protective plastic while repair work has been done.
The water tower was first built in 1940–41 primarily to hold fresh water that would be used for laundry services. The Federal penitentiary provided laundry service for the Army and inmates were put to work doing laundry. The sea air and wind have been punishing the tower ever since.
For the past year, workers have been busy removing rust, safely removing lead paint, repairing the iron work, and painting the structure with a coat of primer (Macropoxy 646) and two coats of finish paint (Sher-Cryl), the same paint that is used for painting the Golden Gate Bridge, except the water tower is not done in ‘International Orange’.
The work began with the construction of the scaffolding last October 24, 2011 and it was amazing to just watch the ant-like workers build up the scaffolding. The scaffolding was then wrapped in a heavy duty white plastic tarp for a few reasons – reduce disturbance of nearby nesting seabirds, safety of the workers and lead abatement. In a funny way, locals that have gazed at the outline of the island for years suddenly forgot what was there before it was wrapped.
This past week, I was invited for a trip up to the top of the water tower, somewhere I had never been before on the island! Walking into the tent at the bottom, I had to smile seeing a clump of Chasmanthe emerging; ever resilient, this island survivor never gives up.
On a windless day, walking up the levels of scaffolding was easy and the plastic wrapping hid just how far off the ground I was. Apparently, on a windy day, the whole structure hums.
Kyle Winn, project superintendent for MTM Builders Inc. explained the more fascinating parts of the repair work.
How many workers on the crew? 11 to erect the scaffolding, 5 to do the steel repairs and 3 to paint the structure.
How much original metal is left on the structure? Approximately 85% of the steel is original.
Where did the new steel come from? Kentucky.
How many gallons of paint were used? 350 gallons.
How long did it take to paint? 2 months.
How much did the repairs cost? $1.541 million.
The catwalk around the top of the tower is still original and Kyle was impressed with the quality of steel used when the tower was first constructed. The walking platform is about ½ inch in thickness and solid, not showing any signs of rust. Kyle pointed out the name of the company where the original steel was made – Tennessee. New construction consisted of a new roof along with the supporting top one foot of the water tank itself.
The repaired tower will not hold any water,
but its reconstruction was important as the water tower contributes to the National Historic Landmark that Alcatraz is. The Native American graffiti is also an important part of the island’s history and has been repainted.
The scaffolding is already coming down and the new water tower will be unveiled!
Having local Bay Area residents visit Alcatraz is a pretty rare occurrence, and when it does happen, it is usually when they have out-of-town visitors in tow. Very seldom do locals take the 10-minute ferry ride out on the Bay to see their closest National Park.
But this is changing.
Obscura Society, hosts ‘unusual adventures for curious minds’, specializes in tours with unusual access, secret places and unknown history. The Gardens of Alcatraz definitely matches all of these criteria.
Annetta, from the Obscura Society, and her group came out this past Sunday for a tour of the gardens and then pitched in for a couple hours of volunteering.
The energetic group met me at Pier 33 and it was easy to tell it was going to be a fun afternoon. The group, many of whom were meeting for the first time, all had shared interests of history, plants and doing something different.
Beginning the tour at the dock, the group was asked the question “What do you think of when you hear the word Alcatraz”? The group spoke up with descriptive words of ‘prison’, ‘island’, ‘Al Capone’, ‘cold’; but no one said ‘gardens’, the very reason that they were there.
The hour and a half walking tour led the group through all areas of the gardens, including two closed areas, and finished on the west side of the island in the Prisoner Gardens. As we walked through the gardens, a group member really understood the importance of passing along family stories from one generation to the next, sharing with me how she asked her grandfather to tell her about his past before he sadly passed away. This sharing of history is part of what we are doing on the island – passing along stories.
Timely, the island’s Alumni Day is this coming Saturday, August 11; when past residents of the island come back and share with visitors their experiences and what life was really like on the Rock.
If you cannot make it to the island this Saturday, plan on checking out what you can learn about your own neighborhood, or even better, ask your grandparents to tell you a story.
This past Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the famous escape of the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris, as portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the movie Escape from Alcatraz. Cleverly arranging to be in cells next to each other, four men planned the elaborate escape. Back in 1962, seating at meal times was arranged by cell location – meaning that the foursome sat at their own table and had every meal to plan and update each other on their progress. Planning likely took a year and a half before beginning a six month dig out through the back concrete wall surrounding the air vents of their cells. Their route would take them up to the roof through the utility corridor. Unfortunately, all that planning could not have predicted that when Allen West dug through the back of his cell, he encountered a pipe that would let him go no further. The three remaining inmates fled to the water where they used homemade rafts to brave the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay.
Family of the Anglin brothers was on the island along with many members of the media to speculate if the trio made it or not. With the three still officially wanted by the FBI, the search continues.
There are a number of other escapees; however they get much less press coverage – the plants.
After the closure of the prison in 1963, the gardens were abandoned, leaving the plants on their own to either perish without the constant care of gardeners; or to thrive. These garden escapees chose to thrive and are well suited to dry windy summers, poor rocky soil and near constant wind. If a plant can cope with these conditions, it almost deserves its freedom by growing where it pleases.
High on the wanted list (or unwanted list as the case may be) are the usual suspects – ivy, blackberry, and honey suckle. A few other plants are more recognized as ‘garden plants’ – calla lily, Chasmanthe floribunda, sweet pea and Acanthus mollis. Nasturtiums try to sneak into most garden areas – sending their long tendrils cautiously at first, and then before you know it, the vine is 10 feet long and clambering over its neighbors. The most dramatic escape, almost comparable to the Great Escape of 1962, is Elliot Michener’s fig tree. In the forty years of the gardens being neglected, the fig was happy to spread out and take over a portion of the west lawn. This escape has a happy ending, as now the overgrown vegetation provides habitat for snowy egrets, which are back on the island, right now in fact, raising their chicks amongst the ripening figs.
The escapees give a glimpse of what introduced plants will do on an abandoned plot of land, and what other creatures will find opportunity with a new habitat created.
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.
This past Friday the Garden Conservancy hosted a meeting for the Bay Area Gardens Network (Bagnet). Bagnet is represented by all the major public gardens in the Bay Area. Gardens from UC Botanical Gardens, Cornerstone in Sonoma, Filoli, Mendocino Botanical Gardens, Presidio Trust, and Merritt Lake in Oakland, just to name a few, attended. Looking around the room, it was impressive to see the wealth of knowledge that was gathered. We started the meeting by introducing ourselves by stating 1) where we worked, 2) what we liked most about our work, and 3) what we least liked about our work. Going around the room, the common answers were for most liked – seeing visitors enjoying the gardens; while the least liked typically involved budget cuts and wearing multiple hats to get the job done.
The idea of a Bay Area garden group started in 1996 and was the idea of Richard Turner, editor of Pacific Horticulture magazine. Turner saw a need for Bay Area gardens, of all sizes and types, to keep in touch with each other and discuss various issues that everyone faces among gardens; as well as providing an excellent network for staff of all the gardens. With many unique gardens around the Bay Area, it is worth promoting and helping each other, instead of feeling the need to compete for visitors and resources.
The day’s agenda had a few topics of great interest; one being creating a more comprehensive website that lists all the Bay Area gardens and activities scheduled. Currently, a website does exist, www.bayareagardens.org, led by Pacific Horticulture. Updates are being planned for this website so stay tuned!
I had the pleasure to update the group on the progress of the Gardens of Alcatraz for the past five years – in 10 minutes! I had a lot to cover but I managed to fit in the highlights – accomplishing five garden area rehabilitations, logging 40 000 volunteer hours to date, noting our sustainability achievements of the water catchment and composting sites; and describing our outreach efforts – 8 new waysides around the island, the self-guided brochure, free docent tours twice a week and the ‘Ask the Gardener’ open garden on Wednesdays; as well as providing our garden t-shirt for purchase in the bookstore and receiving a royalty on each one sold, and our ever-improving website, including this blog! Whew! A lot has been done.
Chatting with members afterwards, many people commented on some aspect of my presentation that they had experienced themselves or were considering undertaking. In the afternoon, the group was toured through the Presidio by Michael Boland. We were fortunate to have him for the afternoon as he showed us the natural areas that had been rehabilitated, the community involvement taking place, as well as the infrastructure of the Doyle Drive bridge construction project, going through the historic Presidio.
Through the course of the afternoon, I realized that Alcatraz is not really an island. Michael’s history of the military in the Presidio linked Alcatraz to that key time period when the military landscaped their bases, when much of Alcatraz was planted. Island residents were focused on gardening and improving their home. Even today, Alcatraz is connected by being part of the garden network in the Bay Area. This of course, made me realize that even though I work on an island, I’m not isolated in my challenges, and that any success achieved benefits all the area gardens with the sharing of knowledge.