Parsons Report and Plan ~ SD Union, September 15, 1905

September 15, 1905

Samuel Parsons & Co.
Landscape Architects, New York

New York City, New York
September 15, 1905

To George W. Marston, Esq.

Dear Sir:

We have the honor to submit, together with the map of drives, walks, lakes, and plantations of the City Park of San Diego, a report, or explanation, of the motives of our design in order that the spirit of it may not be violated through misapprehension.

Having fixed the general design in conformity with the boundaries of the park, the problem of entrances to it, conforming to conditions without and within, presented itself as one of the first importance.

Adjustment to the needs of the general public was, first of all, to be considered, and as the number is not fixed, or its possible increase easily determined, the exact number of entrances must be left an open matter.

During fifty years — since the completion of the celebrated “Greensward” plan of Central Park — pressure of increasing population has compelled eight additional entrances.

Originally, entrances from avenues and streets of a hundred feet in width — twenty in number — were thought to be enough, and each additional one has been allowed with reluctance for they reduce the apparent size, disturb the solitude, and add difficulties in maintenance and protection of the park.

The problem of determining entrances to San Diego Park was the more difficult in that a great part of its boundaries to the east and west [north] are so sparsely populated that streets are only partially laid out, and in some sections to the east none now appear even on the city map.

Along the populated part to the west we have fixed a number of entrances from important streets leading into the city.

Peculiarly varied canyons bar entrances at several points where they would be convenient. For instance, at Fir street, on the west side, a small canyon renders it impractical to fix an entrance.

At the north head of the two main canyons, a needed entrance is out of the question because possible grades would be too steep, and, even if possible, “grades”, “cuts”, “fills”, or any violation of natural conformation, in itself beautiful and desirable, should in every instance be avoided unless they can be made to conform, through art that conceals art, to the form and spirit of surrounding nature.

This essential principle of design applies with unusual force in the case of San Diego Park where nature has so beautifully and perfectly modeled slopes and sides of canyons. Hollow inclines and narrow gullies of as subtle beauty as the most perfectly sculptured forms of the human figure, need no touch of art, which at best would disturb a peculiar charm that is in such perfect harmony with its setting of surrounding country, where canyon and canyada, at certain seasons of the year, draped only with a light covering of thin growth of flowering shrubs, give the impression of fold on fold of most beautiful grayish green.

So valuable have these convolutions of surface seemed to the designers that they have conserved with all possible care the lovely low native growth, which, while it clothes with color, still leaves defined the character of the surface.

Through regard for this principle of design, which uses all natural conformations to the end of accentuating the dominant quality of the landscape, roads have been ordered with this in view. None have been carried through artificial depressions at any place, and this, in view of unusually steep grades in and out of canyons and of other difficulties.

It may be interesting to state the way in which difficulties were overcome. First a contour map of the territory embraced in the park was secured; made to a scale of fifty feet to the inch and covering in all sixteen feet square. On this map studies were made of the entire park, during many months, to locate entrances, drives and walks. As imperfections are incident to the best of surveys, it became necessary to test and prove roads, walks and plantations, by fitting them to the ground. Surveys and tests were accomplished in a year.

One who has not had a like problem to solve can hardly conceive the magnitude and difficulty of adjusting plans to actual conditions.

After correcting the map, and noting thereon grades and road distances; the matter of paths, and general arrangement of planting was taken up.

To explain more fully the conception of the general plan of these roads, paths and plantations, we must consider in detail the various features as worked out in the completed design. The road entrances were devised to give such frequent access to the park as the character of the ground would admit and the necessities of visitors demand.

On the west side — where in all probability a large number of persons will always seek access — the roads are introduced at Kalmia [Date], [Juniper], Quince, [Maple], and Upas streets. Broken ground and several deep canyons finding exit there make it impracticable to carry streets into the park on the south side, except at Eight, Eleventh, [12th}, Thirteenth, Eighteenth, Twenty-fifth, and Twenty-seventh streets.

On the east side, which the city has not at this time developed, entrances are limited to three — Amherst and William streets and an unnamed street 1200 feet south of the northeast corner of the park. As this region has not been entirely laid out, even on the city map and as territory outside the boundary is undeveloped, it was thought unwise to fix an exact number of entrances. In any case, the topography of this section makes more than the above mentioned entrances almost — if not quite — impracticable.

Just adjoining the eastern boundary the country is comparatively level; however, in a westerly direction within the park, the canyons are of increasing steepness, and of a width so great that it has been found feasible to make only four entrances on the north, namely, entrances at Choate street, Florida street, Park Boulevard, and a street [Ninth?] leading from the north end of Pound Canyon to the University Heights settlement.

An essential thing in the ordering of a park is a road along and outside its boundaries, to prevent abutment of private or other buildings upon it. In this case, however, it has been found impracticable to establish such a boundary avenue because of numerous canyons and other steep declivities, but wherever possible such an avenue has been provided. As, for instance, from Upas to Kalmia street [?], from Sixth to Ninth street, from Eleventh street to Russ High School and, on the north side, from Bryant to Tenth street and from Seventh to Sixth street.

Another general principle, which cannot be too urgently insisted upon, is that from the beginning no building should be allowed within a park’s boundaries that does not subserve the legitimate purpose for which a park was ordered. Public comfort, rest and shelter stations should mark the limit; however, even these may become so numerous and obtrusive that they disturb the restful beauty of nature.

These are some of the reasons which have moved us to set apart for quasi-park purposes the entire lower part between Pound Canyon on the west and the boundary of the park on the east and, within the northern limit, a projection of Date street across the hills eastward, parallel to the boundary.

In this territory stand, at present, the Russ High School with its athletic field and the Woman’s Home with its playground. All these quasi-park features may be grouped at a level lower than the rest of the park, whence the vision may pass over them to the Bay, and large masses of trees may be made to shut off and isolate their alien character so that they may in no wise distract the contemplation and enjoyment of some of the noblest and most beautiful scenery in the world.

In the general adjustment of roads we have been governed primarily by the consideration of reaching view points from which interesting scenes within and outside the boundaries of the park may be seen to the greatest advantage. In making these roads easy to traverse, we have made them as trails have been made, producing thus a way that fits its place, and has, in addition to the beauty of fitness, one of gracefulness.

A primarily essential object in designs of parks in most great cities is to shut out as thoroughly as possible all sense of feeling of the city, with its multitudinous activities and noises and buildings, laying without and around it; so that the restfulness of nature may be uninterruptedly enjoyed, as in the New York City’s Central Park.

In the San Diego park it is different. Upon entering it the vision is compelled by the noble scenery which girdles the horizon with uninterrupted majesty. The purple slopes of snow-capped mountains, from forty to eighty miles away, dominate half the horizon; the shining bay and the Coronado islands, and, greatest of all, the Pacific Ocean, with the long, low ramparts of Point Loma jutting far out into the strangely placid waters, hold one for a while with compelling force. Then the vision seeking rest, in nearer and more intimate scenes, finds the park at first a little place by comparison, but presently its loveliness asserts itself and holds the imagination. Purple, changing shadows of clouds move in deep canyons, and fold on fold of minor canyons cut into the wall of greater ones. The soft curves and undulations of these greater canyons — beautiful under all conditions — have a special and enticing charm in the glancing light of the morning and evening sun. They lend refinement to the general effect of the park so subtle as to quite our mastery of words to express. Much of the beauty undoubtedly comes frrom the thin garment that clings like a diaphanous Greek gown, giving a charm of color without obscuring the loveliness of form. As that great master of landscape making of the last century, Prince Puckler Muskau, says of an analogous situation: “From this place of beauty the surrounding of picturesque, luxuriant nature is idealized, and makes an environing work of noble art limited only by the horizon itself.”

In the matter of walks or paths, a method of treatment has been adopted similar to that of roads, namely, making the easiest routes to the most attractive points, but steeper grades are allowed, and a more winding course, with quicker curves, so that walks may readily reach places inaccessible by roads. For example, the most charming of rambles in the park may be made by walks that creep along the brink and then down and across slopes of canyons. The convenience of vehicles, and the easy agreeableness of their movement along drives, is enticing enough, but a realization of the deep-seated, charm of the place may be had only by loitering along edges of great declivities, and losing oneself in the inner folds of canyons, where roads may not be made to go.

In the mysterious charm of these weird indentations of the surface of the earth, lies the distinctive quality which makes this park unlike any other in the world. It has been our constant effort to conserve, and in all allowable ways of art, help the eye and the imagination of the beholder to find it.

To this end, paths, where roads will not go, lead to places worth the seeing. The width of these paths has been made to vary from the merest trail to ten feet, and the widths should be regarded as flexible quantities, to be changed in accordance with changing needs.

The use of water in the form of lakes, as shown on the map, has a two-fold purpose. First: the usual one, in such cases, is the use of beauty, and second: the beauty of use; that is to say of irrigation, an important matter in Southern California. Given an adequate source, like reservoirs in a big city, these lakes may be constantly filled, and, by power of gravitation, made to trickle down slopes of canyons with beneficent effects. Until ample water may be had to fill these lakes, and do the work of irrigation, smaller ones may be constructed within water areas on high places shown on the plan, so that their shining surfaces may be seen from afar, making unique and pleasing features of a picture. Hidden in valleys, as lakes generally are in parks, they do not have the value of such comprehensive outlooks as are found in San Diego Park. The arid appearance of slopes during the greater part of the year, when rain seldom falls attests to the need for water.

In the matter of planting, experience deepens the impression that none but trees, shrubs, vines, and flowering plants that are indigenous, or that will grow readily, should be used. And particularly here, where there are long seasons of dry weather, only such growths as may be reasonably expected to withstand periods of dryness and scarcity of water should be used even after ample means of irrigation are attained. For instance, while there can be no doubt the general charm of grass sward is so great that it will be sought here with the coming of irrigation; yet a more artistic and economical sward may be made of Lippea ripens, which readily adapts itself to this climate; consequently, we commend its general use as, in all respects, desirable.

In pursuance of the principle of planting only such growths as will thrive, belong to the soil, and will look like a part of it, we adhere to the essential obligation of landscape making to respect existing natural conditions. Our planting, therefore, accents dominant and distinctive natural qualities and has the charm of spontaneity rather than of forced and artificial growth. It should not be surprising, therefore, that we use only a few kinds of trees, shrubs, and perennial plants.

There are not many deciduous trees that do well in Southern California, and such of them as do only tolerably well are not in keeping with the dominant evergreen effect.

Trees have been planted a good distance apart, fifty, thirty-five, twenty-five, and fifteen feet, according to size, and shrubs from six to ten feet.

Plantations have been restricted to precise locations. Trees are used as foreground for vistas of splendid distances.

While the use of small shrubs may be extended further than is shown in the plan, it should be always done with reference to the far views. It may be suggested, however, that if proper care is taken of the native shrubbery now growing in the park, there will be comparatively little need of adding more than is indicated in the plan.

To explain more fully our scheme of planting, attention is called to the important entrance at the northeast corner of the park — at Upas and Sixth streets — where a large number of Monterey pines and Monterey cypress are relieved on the front, next to the drives, by such shrubs as Acacia Latifolia, Coprosma Brewerii, and Laurustinus. A little southeast of them, hidden by masses of eucalyptus, a [flower] garden is arranged on comparatively level ground with winding walks and planted with carnations, peonies, roses, and other native and exotic flowering plants. To the south, Sixth street, from Upas to Juniper streets, is to be an Avenue of Palms, and, as the street is to be 100 feet in width between these points, there will be plenty of room for their development. It is felt that palms need for good effect, places where their tropical character may not be contrasted with the native subtropical foliage. In spite of the fact that many palms are used in San Diego, we are convinced that — if used — they are best behind other trees or in secluded gorges. In most cases, the low, bluish-green Chamaerops Humilis is especially useful when employed in large quantities with other kinds.

South of Juniper street, in a small canyon or canyada, a lot of low-growing evergreens have been planted, such as Cupressus Azoricum, Rhus laurina, Pinus cambra, Pinus pinea, and other pines. On the eastern bank, a wild garden without walks, containing flowering plants, has been located to accent the charm of this attractive glen.

At the junction of Date and Eighth streets an imposing entrance has been laid out, two hundred feet wide, on either side of the fifty-foot drive as it enters. This space is intended to be open with the exception of a couple of pepper trees already planted there, and is to be covered with grass; thus preserving the dignity and breadth that should characterize such an approach. Near this entrance, and just north, a playground for children has been located and further north still, alongside the road, a drinking fountain, close to a plaza where people can enjoy the best view from the park of the City, Point Loma, and the Pacific Ocean.

Across the entire hillside here — extending to Pound Canyon — a broad belt of that most beautiful of California growths — the Pepper tree — has been established and sustained by the almost equally beautiful trees — the Monterey cypress and pine. At the extreme southwest corner, on either side of a walk that leads to the plaza and fountain, are planted masses of Araucaria Bidwillii.

Across the foot of Pound Canyon, as far as the drive which enters at Thirteenth and Ash streets, a territory has been reserved in which members of the Forester’s Society may plant different kinds of eucalyptus for purposes of commemoration.

(George W. Marston’s copy of the Report and Plan has lines drawn through the above paragraph.)

Masses of eucalyptus, Monterey cypress, Pepper trees, and pine around the Russ School and Woman’s Home are so arranged as to exclude these buildings from the general view of the park. Immediately to the east a field for athletics is of considerable size.

Somewhat further to the east, just off the main drive, on high ground above a large canyon, is a place for stables, yards and sheds, that is sequestered by masses of Eucalyptus rostrata. To the west is a mass of Pinus canariensis, the most beautiful of pines.

(George W. Marston’s copy of the Report and Plan has lines drawn through the above paragraph.)

Planting indicated in this part of the park may seem sparse, but we have been obliged to take into consideration the mass of trees already growing on what has been known as the Howard Tract, and the fact that more would only serve to shut out the mountains, which would be a misfortune.

Westward, near the course of this drive, straggling along the sides of several canyons converging there, are two great groves of palms, which, though not particularly noticeable from the drive, are intended to be of great extent and effectiveness when approached from the path leading from the north and when viewing them from up or down the sides of the canyons. At the southeastern end of the group, the palms widen out into a circle, which suggests the placing of seats or a summer-house here from which views of the palms may be had. A lake nearby adds interest and picturesqueness to this section.

The ground becomes more and more broken as one goes eastward from this point. Indeed, except in the vicinity of the Park Boulevard entrance, along part of the west boundary between Juniper and Upas streets, and in the Golden Hill region, from Twenty-fifth to Twenty-eighth streets, on the southern boundary, scarcely any even comparatively level ground may be found. Hence the difficulty of finding easy grades for drives and paths, and in planting so as not to interfere with views of the mountains, east and north.

The eastern portion of the park consists of wide canyons, which in places have a depth of a hundred feet. Planting here has been done on higher levels, to intensify the sense of depth, adding value thereby to the slopes and bottoms of the canyons in which grow low indigenous shrubs.

A garden on Golden Hill has been planted, surrounded by groups of palms with walks and roads leading through them. Here also, on the edge of the steep side of a canyon, is a summer-house from which one may look into the canyon for more than a hundred feet, and also at wide views of Powder House and Switzer canyons.

While the growth of the city and increasing use of the park will, of necessity, multiply the number of summer-houses, comfort stations, and other structures beyond the provisions of this plan, it should be done with due appreciation of the primary and essential quality of a park, and so sequestered as not to disturb the harmonious arrangements of nature.

The summer house on Golden Hill is left in the open for the purpose of affording unimpeded views of charming scenery; therefore, because it has the beauty of use, it is not incongruous and offensive interpolation.

Throughout this region of canyons, ample provision, has been made for lakes in high places, for purposes of irrigation. In order to give varied effect to walks through this place of wide canyons, large quantities of eucalyptus, cypress and pine have been used. Paths have been laid across causeways on some of the lakes that are bordered by trees, so that reflections of dense foliage may be the better enjoyed.

Most effective use may be made of the cactus family, a considerable variety of which are native to the park. It should not be made into formal gardens, but helped to grow in its native places along sides and in nooks of canyons. Through processes of elimination and transplantation, the varied existing cacti may be made to appreciably accentuate the strange enticing charm of these declivities.

Of trees — the Pepper, Monterey cypress and pine (not to mention others of almost equal value) — the possibilities are quite beyond what nature affords in the East. It is doubtful if a Californian who has not lived much on the Eastern side of the continent or in Western Europe can have a due appreciation of them, so prone are we to look afar for the kingdom of heaven.

The white oak is beyond doubt a noble tree with its tonic qualities of rugged, enduring strength, but in these three trees of Southern California are elements of positive, alluring beauty.

The Pepper, growing with surprising rapidity to a height of from thirty-five to forty feet, is of a luminous yellow-green dense feathery foliage or —to be more exact — of dense feathery plumage that makes an arrangement of light and dark that, possibly only the trained eye of the artist can duly appreciate.

The Monterey cypress, also growing quickly to forty feet or so, is most effective. Taken altogether, it is possibly the most satisfactory of all the trees on the Pacific coast. Its growth is hardy, as well as quick, and it has drought-resistant powers beyond even those of the pepper tree, which is saying much.

Of scarcely less value, is the Monterey pine, dark green with lustrous long needles, similar in a general way but superior of form to the White pine. With still longer needles of silky texture and sheen, the Canary pine has a clean and most satisfactory surface quality.

If with such subject matter as these trees afford, the landscape maker fails to compose groups of unusual beauty of form and color, the fault is with him.

Of vines, the variety is also great and the value high. The showy Bougainvillea may be used on steep declivities, to drape faces of cliffs, and on summer houses, but sparingly because of an exceeding luxuriousness of growth that amongst trees would crowd out less prolific but more valuable growths.

In this vast domain of 1400 acres — twice the size of New York’s Central Park — are long, undulating hills whose treeless lines cut against the sky with an effect of vast loneliness that should be partially left for values of contrast and of restful solitude, especially appealing after the eye has had its fill of the drooping golden plumage of the pepper tree with its vermilion pods, of the cypress, and of the dark green and shining pines.

Enough has been said of the planting to show that it has been done for the purpose of enhancing the weird charm and wonderful contours of canyon sides and of affording now and again from favorable points far vistas of the incomparably vast distances from the 1400-acre rectangle in which this park has been set: a gem of solitude and charm, unlike any other park in the world.

Where the soil has been denuded of its growth, it takes a long time for unaided nature to come by her own again, as many barren parts of the park have evinced for many years; but, with a little judiciously ordered help, the covering of these bare places may be made more pleasing than ever by the introduction of analogous growths which may be found to do as well as those that have grown spontaneously.

Care should be taken — even when trees are set out forty or fifty feet apart — to leave the natural growth of shrub and vine and all else alone, thinning it only as the growing needs of trees require.

As a matter of economy and convenience, adequate nurseries should be part of every public park, and we respectfully suggest to the City of San Diego that it, may with profit to itself, establish in this way a precedent of value to older and larger cities, that may help them to the same intelligent forethought and economy in the ordering of public matters, as distinguishes American management of corporation business, great and small.

Nurseries in the San Diego Park would afford abundant opportunity for experiment with different kinds of growths, helping to better development and to a closer knowledge of how much the flora and fauna of the tropical and temperate zones may thrive in this subtropical region. It would afford, also, means of setting out with much greater likelihood of success, trees, shrubs and vines, because days and times of days best suited could be used. The planting that will in time have to be done and that will be constantly doing in this great 1400-acre park will eventually compel the establishment of a nursery. If done at once, much in manifold ways will be conserved.

Some adequate system of police protection should be devised, as soon as may be found practicable to safeguard young growths from the vandalism which exists in San Diego, as well as in older cities. No one should be allowed to disturb or strip the strangely treeless plains of their garment of greenish-silvery gray.

Places for gardens of flowers in this picturesque aggregation of wild hills will be hard to find.

Love of gardens with formal walks and cultivated flowers is common to all — by nature or heredity — and must even be recognized here to some extent in the San Diego Park; but for gardens, level places are needed, and if not found, must be made. To force a system of terraces for level places to any appreciable extent would do violence to the spirit of this incomparable scene and strip it of its distinction. So such places as have been chosen for gardens — and many more could be chosen if needed — are on naturally level ground near houses of the city and are screened by trees so that they may have the intimate quality that should characterize them and may not make discordant notes in the larger harmony. A great danger, always, in parks is found in the desire to add beauty though extravagant, spectacular, and ugly displays. In the illusive, subtle charm of this bit of nature, it would be peculiarly unfortunate.

As to the making of roads, after the course of them has been fixed with regard for use and beauty which, of necessity, go together, crude petroleum can be used to advantage by applying it in thin layers over thoroughly pulverized and graded surfaces which have been rolled into compact form. One great advantage of this method in San Diego at nearly all seasons of the year, is freedom from dust. The occasional rains that fall here as deluges, washing the sand and gravel into great heaps to the utter disarrangement of made roads will eventually necessitate the placing of a scientifically devised drainage by tile pipes of various sizes and iron basin heads or gratings, as well as certain forms of bridges.

Roads, therefore, have been ordered with a view to minimizing in natural ways this artificial, but in some places inevitable, feature of the park.

In regards to methods of irrigation: it should be said that although the scheme of locating lakes as reservoirs on high ground will obviate the necessity of pumping stations, eventually a well-ordered system of irrigating pipe will have to be established throughout the park.

Another problem of considerable difficulty will be found in treatment of the soil which is possessed of a wonderful quality of fertility with the aid of water alone; but will need a little help to get out of it the best that it can give.

The excellent results obtained in the city gardens of San Diego prove the value of artificial fertilization.

To the end of fostering the high culture of plants, regional needs differing from those of Eastern states and of Europe should be considered.

For instance, the soil here should not be broken unless for a purpose, such as the planting of a tree and then a four-foot diameter hole should be made and water and fertilizing matter applied in the hole.

The best and most economical method of obtaining fertilization is from compost heaps, where the many kinds of vegetable matter that may be gathered will decompose, including soil and ordinary manure, the latter of which should constitute the largest part of the compost. The heap should have drainage ditches around it and a vat or cistern over it to facilitate turning of the compost. Compost heaps should be placed in secluded parts of canyons and hidden by trees agreeably arranged for the purpose. To maintain sources of fertilization for the entire face of the park, an abundant supply of water will be needed throughout the long dry season.

In such places as have not been marked on the map for plantations, great and small wild plants growing there should not be helped by liberal watering, and, otherwise, left undisturbed. The results, will surprise even Californians who are accustomed to growths that seem marvelous to people in the East.

In conclusion, we wish to admonish those who come after us in the work of carrying out our design to a nearer state of completion and who will add such things as future needs may demand, to work always with an eye for the conservation of the unusual beauties which nature has so peculiarly and richly endowed this spot of earth.

To know what to do and when to stop is about the last thing an artist learns, and not many learn it at all, perhaps, only the great ones. In the matter of public parks, there are so many of the public to whom parks belong who, being unable to comprehend for just what purpose they are made, try constantly and with good intention to divert them to uses altogether apart from their original and true purpose that constant pressure of sane public opinion is needed to save parks from people who would misuse them.

In order to do what we may in giving such saving public opinion a right direction and a good start in San Diego, we have dwelt with what may seem a good deal of iteration upon what we have tried our best to do; namely, to preserve and accentuate natural beauties of a very unusual kind which we trust may be kept forever free from the interjection of all foreign, extraneous and hurtful purposes or objects.


Samuel Parsons, Jr.

(Edited by Richard W. Amero to eliminate excessive and erratic punctuation, prolix and repetitious prose, and to ensure ease of comprehension.)


In conclusion, we wish to admonish those who come after us in the work of carrying out our design to a nearer state of completion, and in adding such things as future needs may demand: to work always with an eye single to the conservation of the unusual beauties with which nature has so peculiarly and richly endowed this spot of earth.

To know what to do and when to stop is about the last thing an artist learns . . . In the matter of public parks, there are so many of the public to whom it belongs, who being unable to comprehend for just what purpose it was made, try constantly, and with good intentions, to divert it to uses altogether apart from the original and true purpose . . . that constant pressure of sane public opinion is needed to save it from them.

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