Nature Has Already Done Much ~ SD Union, March 20, 1903
SAN DIEGO UNION
March 20, 1903, 6:3-4
SAN DIEGO PARK
Plans for Improving a Tract for Which Nature Has Already Done Much
The Problem and Its Solution
by SAMUEL PARSONS, JR.
In a recent issue of the New York Evening Post, Samuel Parsons, Jr., the landscape architect, who recently went over the site of the new park and now has the matter in charge, has given his opinion of the same, in the form of a letter to the editor. The following is the letter, which no doubt will be of interest to all San Diegans.
Sir—One of the most notable developments of the enterprise and intelligence of the Pacific coast is to be found in the interest taken in parks, from Portland, Ore., to San Diego, Cal. It is hardly necessary to point out the wonders that have been accomplished in Golden Gate park, San Francisco. The rich and varied flora gives great charm and interest to the park, but the astonishing feat in its establishment is the securing of the site by fixing shifting sands along the sea shore. Wild sea grass, pines and acacias have been used for this purpose, and grow on the apparently sterile beach with greater rapidity than any shrubs or trees do in the east, under more favorable conditions of soil and situation. Climate is a friendly factor in this unusual park problem. Other conditions, however, besides climate, have had to be considered and met in this extraordinary reclaiming of land, by the able superintendent of Golden Gate park, Mr. John McLaren. Much has depended on knowing properly how to apply the work of planting and shaping the ground under the peculiar conditions of the soil and climate of the region. Many difficulties have certainly been overcome, and Golden Gate park stands today the most notable example of park making on the Pacific coast, and one of the few really great parks in America. Certain features of its treatment may be criticized, as in some degree may be done in every park in the country. Even Central park, New York, which is perhaps, taken all in all, the greatest park in the world, has its weak points both in design and in construction. But Golden Gate park has a marvelously rich flora planted on a broad scheme of design and abounds in natural and picturesque effects. It will doubtless remain for a long time, an unexcelled instance of park making on the Pacific coast, having been in active process of construction for twenty years and occupying more land than Central park, New York.
My special object in writing this letter is, however, to give the readers of the Evening Post some idea of another great park, which is now being developed in San Diego, Cal. So rapid is the growth of plants in that favored region that this new park bids fair, in the next decade, to be a successful rival of the parks of the world. To understand what seems to be a sweeping statement, the favoring conditions for a park in San Diego must be considered.
The park tract is nearly square, and measures a mile and a half across. The skyline from the north to the southeast is outlined by chains of mountains some miles distant, the San Jacinto range, 10,000 feet high being eighty miles away and snow covered at this season, as is Cuyamaca, fifty miles in a straight line. Mountains in Mexico, cone shaped and flat topped, lie to the south. To the southwest, looking over and beyond the city, far out to sea, loom the weird and fantastic forms of the Coronado islands, floating, as it were, between the sea and sky, and leading the eye over the illimitable spaces of the ocean. Off to the northwest lies Point Loma, a long neck of land with an elevation of several hundred feet, with glimpses of the Pacific beyond, the beautiful San Diego bay covering twenty-two square miles in this wonderful landscape.
There is nothing theatrical about this scene. It does not seem to be a grouping of stage-like effects of brilliant color and striking form, such as may be seen in some parts of the west and along the Mediterranean, but the sweeping landscape of hundreds of miles of land and sea is simple, grand, and quietly impressive. The sense of human interest in the lives of men and women is consequently felt, for the town is close at hand, but we look over the city into weird, mysterious regions of ocean and mountain and cloud pictures and the imagination is lifted into vaster spaces than we have ever known before. The table land on which we stand merges with a farther scene, so that the mountains and sea become actually a part of the park. The land surface is almost treeless, and the line of vision is uninterrupted throughout this great expanse, making it all a harmonious, unified picture, composed on magnificent lines. The simplicity and unobtrusive naturalness of the park add to the effect of this impression.
The great high plain or mesa which constitutes the park is cut into in three general directions by wide canyons from fifty to one-hundred feet deep. The modeling of the slopes of the canyons, the graceful contours, the quaint, refined , comparative sparse plant clothing, are seductive and charming in a high degree. It is difficult for anyone accustomed to eastern parks to conceive of a city park without grassy stretches. In San Diego, nestling masses, dainty flowering plants close to the soil, such as white forget-me-nots in great sheets, and lace-like foliage plants, alltlerta (?), make a unique, varied and beautiful soil covering. One of the most effective of these plants is pepper-grass, with delicate little heads of flowers and pinkish foliage which gives a delightful tint to considerable areas. Low-growing shrubs, as artemisia, rhus, and audibertia (?), with many others, produce delightful silvery, gray-green effects which we would not wish changed for anything different. At sunset, when the shadows settle in the canadas, as the ravines on the hillsides of the canyons are called, the soft tones are fascinating.
To wander through these miniature mountain passes, where nature has wrought a quality of park making which the hand of man would find it hopeless to emulate, is an experience which is not only novel, but restful, and at the same time particularly inspiring. It is strange how the natural scenery of the park affects one. The soft, mild sunshine and almost cloudless atmosphere have a distinct quality of their own. The air is pure and invigorating, at once balmy and bracing, coming in the gentlest of steady breezes from the Pacific. One looks out to the horizon, and the spirit is uplifted, or down the long canons, with their infinite variety of contour and light and shade, and mind and body are rested. There is something absolutely unique in the effect of the place, which is not tropical; and yet there are more tropical impressions than are usually found in sub-tropical regions, and withal nothing enervating in the climate. And all this genial warmth and brightness and variety of landscape effects are open for enjoyment the year through, where the main difference in the seasons is that it is cool in summer and warm in winter, and the country is more verdurous in January than in June.
A generation ago the park territory of 1,400 acres was set aside by the city. From time to time the improving of the park has been discussed. But funds were scarce, and nothing was really done until last year, when a special Park Improvement Committee was appointed by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. Public sentiment was strong in favor of developing the park, and about $12,000 was contributed by citizens as a fund for first improvements. A positive advance in the project was effected when Mr. George W. Marston of San Diego decided to secure a plan for the entire area, to be made by a competent landscape architect, and this purpose was carried out last November. At the present time the general theory of the plan and some of the details are worked out. The primal or basic idea is to keep as close as possible in all the improvements to the present character of the park. The actual and supreme beauty of the park in its natural condition suggests the wisdom of this course. Grass will probably be used only in limited quantities near the entrances to the park, and elsewhere the beautiful low growth of shrubbery and vines will be encouraged by culture and irrigation, supplement by plants of a similar character. The few trees, now standing on the upland, make it clear that the wide, sweeping noble outlook is thereby marred. Tall trees will be used only in limited numbers at carefully selected locations, where the outlying views are not affected. The miles of canons will afford ample room for plantations of trees if this is managed so as to maintain the beautiful modeling of the slopes and given an impression of the depth of the ravines.
The entrances, as vestibules to the park, will be planted with large groves and masses of trees, each entrance being characterized by one particular sort of tree, or by those of allied species: as pepper trees at one entrance, eucalyptus trees at another, and acacias at still another. Among the trees to be used in this way are Magnolia grandiflora, Ceratonia siliqua or St. John’s bread, Grevillea robusta, the historically interesting Torrey pine, Araucaria excelsa, all of which grow luxuriantly in this climate. It is intended to used only native trees and shrubs, or those which come from similar climates, as from Mexico, Chile, and certain parts of Australia. All the flora of the Eastern coast is unsuited to the climate and scenery of San Diego: indeed very few of the trees that thrive in Southern California do well on the Atlantic coast north of Florida. It is curious to note that nearly all the satisfactory trees of the California coast are evergreen, though the majority of evergreen trees here are not coniferous trees, as is the case in the Eastern States.
It will be readily seen, therefore, that when a few more roads and paths have been built along the top and bottom of the canons, to bring their slopes into view, when access is established to the best viewpoints of mountains and sea, and some line of enclosure marks the outer boundaries, there will be a park already made, of very simple elements, and little changed from its original character. Nature has already done the modeling in incomparable fashion, and indicated the most suitable plants. There will be a few unobtrusive bridges, but the various buildings that will be incorporated in the plan, and such features as a botanical garden, will all be kept apart at the lower end, adjoining the main part of the city, where their presence will not mare the charm of the main body of the park.
It is pleasant to think of a city of the moderate size of San Diego, having 20,000 inhabitants, setting out in earnest to build a park of the first class, not only assuring the first need of a park, namely a plan, but raising a comparatively large sum of money through individual subscriptions, and undertaking for the same purpose to bond the city for a still larger sum. How many more populous cities in the country, with greater resources, have never dreamed of starting out on such an enterprise. But this is also true, that in no other place in the United States does such a magnificent park territory serve to tempt the enterprise of citizens. The chief need is water for irrigation; this problem it is possible to meet successfully, and it is wonderful to see how little water is needed to produce four-fold the annual plant growth of the East.
SAMUEL PARSONS, JR.
San Diego, 1903.
Return to Samuel Parsons and Balboa Park.