The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1998, Volume 44, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

by Richard W. Amero
[Winner of the Bob Ward Horticultural History Award in the
1997 San Diego History Center Institute of History]

Photographs for this article are linked to speed loading.

Samuel Parsons, Jr In 1889, nursery woman Kate Sessions suggested that the City of San Diego should appoint a professional landscape architect to design City Park, a park close to San Diego’s downtown business section which, because of the presence of Russ High School and a Women’s and Children’s Home, was less than its often quoted 1400 acres.1 Three years later, in 1892, the city gave Sessions the use of thirty-six acres in the northwest corner of City Park on which she put a 10-acre nursery. Pursuant to her agreement with the City, she was to donate three hundred trees and plants to the City yearly for parks and streets and to plant permanently another one hundred trees.2 When she moved her nursery to Mission Hills in 1903, Sessions left a colorful array of plants on the northwest side of City Park from Palm to Upas Streets, including Monterey Cypress, Monterey Pine, Guadeloupe Cypress. Blackwood Acacia, and Cedar of Lebanon trees, Grevillea thelmaniana, Leptospermum, and Myrtus Communis shrubs, and Richardia africana, Watsonia ardernei, Watsonia augusta, and Vallota purpurea flowering plants.3

T. S. Brandegee, a botanist who had studied the flora of Baja California, and others joined Sessions in her campaign for a professional park design.4 However, she knew more than her supporters of what it took to develop a public park.5 She also knew that she could not do it, nor could the engineer and former mayor E. M Capps, who wanted the job.6

When in 1902, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce formed a Park Improvement Committee, the Chamber appointed Kate Sessions, Julius Wangenheim, Captain W. R. Maize, D. F. Garrettson, William Clayton, W. L. Frevert, E. E. White, Mrs. Ada Smith, and George W. Marston as members.7 Sessions convinced other committee members that a professional landscape architect should be selected to draw up plans for the City Park. She wrote to John McLaren, superintendent of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, asking for advice. In his reply, McLaren suggested that Sessions collaborate with local engineers in laying out the park, as he, a gardener, did in the design of Golden Gate Park.8 Rejecting this do-it-yourself approach, the Committee considered appointing other designers such as Guy Lowell, George Hansen, J. Clyde Powers, or Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and John Charles Olmsted.9

McLaren had second thoughts about his advice. While visiting San Diego, on September 20, 1902, he recommended the Committee appoint either the Olmsted Brothers, Warren H. Manning, or Samuel Parsons, Jr. to do the work. To get the project going, he drew up a plan for curvilinear roads on the west side of the park.10

Meanwhile the Park Improvement Committee had hired Mary B. Coulston, then living in Livermore, California, to be its secretary and to write articles for the newspapers supporting the improvement of City Park. Coulston, who had been an editor of Garden and Forest, possessed an extensive knowledge of parks in the United States and Europe. She urged the appointment of Samuel Parsons, Jr., whom she knew from her work with Garden and Forest. She arranged for George W. Marston, a San Diego merchant who had volunteered to pay a minimum of $4,000 and a maximum of $5,000 for the services of a landscape architect, to meet Parsons while on a business trip to New York City.11 The meeting was favorable and Parsons was hired.12

Landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. (1844-1923) had written articles showing that he was familiar with Calvert Vaux’s and Frederick Law Olmsted’s joint designs for Central Park in New York City and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and with Olmsted’s designs for Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” and for Mount Royal Park in Montreal.13 Parsons had worked as Vaux’s assistant from around 1879 to 1884 and as his partner from 1887 to 1895, the year Vaux died.14 When in 1881, Vaux became Landscape Architect for the Department of Parks of New York City, Parsons joined him in the unpaid position of superintendent of planting.15 He found Vaux to be a passionate believer in the value of naturalistic parks, but reticent about pushing himself forward.16 Despite his subdued disposition, Vaux was as involved in the development of public parks as was his friend Frederick Law Olmsted.17

Vaux came to the United States from England at the invitation of American landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, for whom he designed buildings and fixtures for the grounds of Hudson River estates and from whom he absorbed egalitarian social principles he would later put to use as an independent landscape architect.18 The knowledge Vaux brought with him to the United States of the royal (former hunting) parks of London and of the asymmetrical, country landscapes that Lancelot (“Capability”) Brown and Humphrey Repton created in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries19 was more transferrable to the sequential spaces in public parks than the cramped lawns, artificial flower beds, and scattering of specimen trees Downing planted on the estates of his Hudson River clients.20 “To civilize and refine the national character,”21 Downing wanted to equip the “ideal” public park he never had an opportunity to design with statues, monuments and buildings, a tropical garden under glass, a zoological garden, and with labeled exotic trees and plants.

When he joined Calvert Vaux to create the prizewinning “Greensward” design for Central Park in 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted’s knowledge of parks was limited to observations he had made of Birkenhead, a 120-acre park of meadows, groves, lakes and paths near Liverpool, England, designed by Joseph Paxton in 1844,22 which was distinctive because of its separations of through and inner park traffic of carriages and pedestrians. As residents of Birkenhead had paid to build the park with tax money, the Town’s Commissioners dedicated the land to public use. Following the example of Regent’s Park in London, Birkenhead Commissioners amortized the costs of developing the park by selling home-building lots surrounding the site.23 One of the chief reasons for developing public parks from that time onward was that they would enhance property values and increase city revenues. Vaux helped to increase Olmsted’s understanding of the informal elements of English-park design. Knowing he had much to learn, Olmsted revisited Birkenhead Park in 1859 and consulted with Adolphe Alphand, designer, between 1853 and 1870, of a modified English-style Bois de Boulogne in Paris.24


Having been given the title of “Architect-in-Charge,” Olmsted was theoretically Vaux’s superior, a fact he impressed upon Vaux, a man whose skills in the laying out of landscape elements were equal to his own. Vaux and Olmsted and most of the landscape architects who learned their profession by working with them — including Samuel Parsons — opposed putting buildings, monuments, statues and restaurants in the parks they designed as these reminders of urban life would “make patchwork of the essential features of the natural landscape.”25 Possessed with many well-placed friends and an easy fluency in speaking and writing, Olmsted so overshadowed Vaux that commentators referred to Olmsted as the designer of the parks that he and Vaux created together.26 Having been Superintendent of Planting for Central Park in 1892, Superintendent of Parks from 1894 to 1897, and Landscape Architect for Greater New York from 1901 to 1911, Samuel Parsons appreciated Vaux’s and Olmsted’s designs for Central and Prospect Parks.27 He induced the Park Board to reappoint Vaux as Landscape Architect,28 and carefully approved additions to Central Park’s design to avoid injuring the harmony and unity of the scheme Vaux and Olmsted had created thirty years before.29 Through gentle persuasion, he persuaded the family of Ulysses S. Grant to put General Grant’s tomb in an isolated plaza off Riverside Drive rather than in Central Park.30

Unlike the Civil War and post Civil War years, when an elite class determined what should go into public parks, politicians and working class people at the beginning of the twentieth century wanted more active recreational facilities in public parks. Parsons understood that the layout of parks had to change to reflect changes in fashion and social conditions, and he designed small parks in New York City — Seward, De Witt Clinton, and Jefferson — to accommodate active and passive recreation.31 But he clung to the ideal of a park consisting of broad meadows, sinuous paths, calm pools of reflecting water, and scattered groves of shady and screening trees that Vaux and Olmsted had instilled in him.32

Vaux’s and Olmsted’s concept of a park that would combine placid pastoral elements and rugged, varied and energetic “picturesque” elements was simple. A pastoral park consisted of wide expanses of comparatively level grassland on which sheep grazed, bordered by clusters of trees placed to create an illusion of indefinite space. The interplay of pastoral and arboreal elements provided city people with views of nature they could not find in neighborhoods where they lived and worked. By offering them free, open, clean and beautiful spaces that were the opposites of the squalid, congested, polluted, and monotonous spaces in nineteenth-century cities, public parks gave people a measure of solace and enjoyment. When available, picturesque elements, such as mountains, rivers, valleys, canyons, crags, pinnacles, panoramic views, waterfalls, and ruins of castles and temples brought to viewers a sense of the overwhelming majesty of nature.33

Like Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, Samuel Parsons, Jr. embraced the ideals of the Romantic movement accepted by artists and intellectuals in the early half of the nineteenth century. Parsons thought parks were poetic in the images they presented and in the emotions they inspired. He quoted approvingly Frederick Law Olmsted’s words in praise of the English nature poet William Wordsworth.34 Downing, Vaux, Olmsted, and Parsons shared Wordsworth’s belief that natural scenery through its beauty and power could enrich the lives of people.

Not wanting to change the parks he had inherited, Parsons fought those who would. He did not like to compromise with people who put their special projects ahead of the parks’ romantic image.35 He deplored the deterioration of Vaux’s and Olmsted’s parks caused by negligence and false economy.36

When in October 1902 Parsons accepted the commission to design San Diego’s City Park, his landscaping firm had more than enough business. Due to his prior training at Yale University and the education he had received from his father, Samuel Parsons, Sr., a noted horticulturist, he had a firm grasp of the identity and nature of many plant species and he was confident that his abilities as a landscape architect were as good as or superior to those of his competitors.37 While he idolized Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., he was less charitable toward John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the stepson and natural son of their father. The Olmsted firm was receiving considerable applause at the time for its contribution to the 1901 McMillan Commission’s plan for a landscaped mall and park system in Washington, D.C. whereas the U.S. Senate had initially chosen Parsons to draw up the plans.38

As he had shown in the articles he wrote for publication, Parsons would not be repeating the formulas used by his predecessors. He would adapt the ideas and principles of Downing, Vaux and Olmsted to new conditions. San Diego Park Improvement Committee members were getting a flexible designer who would cooperate with them, but who would also differ with them when principles of good design were at stake.39 The most likely source of conflict would hinge on what should go in a public park. How “accessory” were the “accessories” that would inevitably be added to Parsons’ plans?40

Parsons became lyrical in December 1902 when he described his first impressions of City Park. He was fortunate enough to see the park after the winter rains had brought forth a mantle of wildflowers, including native Yellow Poppies, Tidy-Tips, Bearia chrysostoma, Brodiaea, Golden Violets and non-native Mustards, Oxalises, Foxgloves, and Brome Grasses.41

The keynote of the treatment of the park is to preserve the natural beauty that exists, by simple treatment, and to avoid marring grand and impressive scenery by introducing sensational and startling effects.42

Parsons knew he had been given an opportunity to create a park that would be “a successful rival in some particulars of the parks of the world.”43 Like Riverside Drive in New York City44 and Mount Royal in Montreal,45 but on an even wider scale, City Park opened such amazing views of the horizons that it called for a reversal of Vaux’s and Olmsted’s approach, which was to exclude evidences of the outside world. As with the park in Silesia designed by Prince Puckler von Muskau,46 the outside world would be incorporated into City Park as an extension of its scenery. If the park would not become a complete antithesis to the city, the views it afforded of mesas, oceans and mountains were natural and they were not obscured by smog and by construction.

Next to sweeping views that he claimed lifted man’s imagination into vaster spaces than he had ever known before, Parsons was captivated by spring flowers as plentiful as stars over the desert on a moonless night, not realizing that after a few months the flowers would be gone and the land would become brown and sere. Canyons with a variety of contours and shades of colors vied with the flowers for attention. Parsons said the canyons should not be scarred by grading, not realizing that the slopes had already been scraped and the bottoms excavated for construction fills. Parsons did not mention the pound in Pound Canyon, the powder magazine in Powder House Canyon, and the rifle range in today’s Gold Gulch Canyon. He was, however, aware of the presence of these intrusions and they do not appear in his map of suggested park improvements.

Parsons’ literary comparisons sometimes kept him from accurately seeing and doing justice to his subjects. Consequently his descriptions had an incongruous quality as when he compared the Coronado Islands, visible on clear days from the heights of City Park, to “the stately pleasure dome of Xana Du [sic] decreed by Kubla Khan and seen by Coleridge in his opium dreams”47 and the morning and evening mists in the canyons to “a thin garment that clings like a diaphanous Greek gown, giving a charm of color without obscuring the loveliness of form.”48

As is usual whenever an outsider is appointed to give San Diego his advice, local politicians, business people, gardeners, and clients for the work objected. Prominent among the objectors was G. P. Hall, an inveterate writer of letters to the San Diego Union, who claimed local people knew the climate, soil conditions and plant life in San Diego better than anyone coming from the EastÉthis, although most people living in San Diego at the time had come from the Mid-West and the East. Hall thought the City should issue bonds for park improvement, hire local people to do the work, and dismiss the Park Improvement Committee.49

Parsons remained above the fray. During his four visits to San Diego, he stayed briefly in the city and gave the execution of his plans to George Cooke, his assistant, who remained in the city for weeks at a time between 1903 and 1907.50 In 1907 he moved permanently to San Diego to take on the jobs of park consultant for the City of San Diego and road engineer for the County of San Diego.51

Parsons did most of his work in his New York office using contour maps sent to him by the San Diego Bureau of Public Works.52 No matter how loud grumbling in San Diego became, he could not hear it. When local carping became too loud, Kate Sessions, George W. Marston, and Mary B. Coulston emerged to defend Parsons’ plans.

While attending a summer school at the University of California in Berkeley, Mary B. Coulston died on July 17, 1904.53 Kate Sessions buried her ashes under a Cedar of Lebanon tree in the park in whose bright future she had so fervently believed.54

In the spring of 1905 property owners wanted to widen the boulevard Parsons planned for the southwest side of the park and to extend it along the sides of their lots, thus making a jog in the boulevard and usurping park frontage. Seeing a threat to the hospitable entrance Parsons planned for this area, Kate Sessions defended the park plans.55 She repeated the argument in January 1906 when the same property owners, having obtained their irregular boulevard alignment, now wanted to eliminate the low- lying shrubs Parsons intended to plant at the southwest entrance to the park. In her bluff manner, Kate challenged San Diego City Councilmen to prove their manhood by preparing an ordinance to permit the shrubs to remain.56 Whatever the status of their manhood, the Councilmen sided with the property owners.

While Parsons was working on plans for the park, George W. Marston, George Burnham and the administrators of the Children’s Home, Russ High School, and the State Normal School called on him to produce plans for their estates and grounds. More people began promoting the improvement of City Park. The Fraternal Orders of the Woodmen and Foresters planted six hundred eucalyptus trees at the south end of Pound Canyon on July 4, 1903.57 They were followed on March 17, 1905 by the school children of San Diego who planted sixty cypress and pine trees on the upper west slopes of Pound Canyon in a well-publicized Arbor Day Ceremony.58

Besides George W. Marston’s clandestine donations, the Park Improvement Committee raised $11,081 in subscriptions for park improvement, after which the San Diego City Council, on April 17, 1905, replaced the Committee with an officially appointed Board of Park Commissioners.59 So that the work of the new Board would not be in vain, the Council, on June 17, 1905, amended the City Charter to provide between five and eight cents of each $100 of assessed property valuation for park improvements and maintenance.60

Parsons prepared directives and two formal versions of his plans, the first in 1905 and the second in 1910. There were minor differences between the two versions. Like the English landscape painters John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, Parsons thought a natural landscape was beautiful in proportion to the number of elements the artist left out. To back up this belief, he quoted John Ruskin’s dictum that there should be nothing in a natural landscape made by man “that does not contribute to the effect of the whole.”61

Guided by a principle enunciated by the poet Alexander Pope that each landscape or garden has a special genius that must be respected, Parsons anticipated the theories of present-day ecologists. Like ecologically-oriented contemporary landscape architects, he insisted that landscape architects should follow nature’s lead by making high hills higher, rugged slopes more rugged, and deep valleys deeper. He warned that when landscape architects created streams and lakes where there was no natural flow of water or when they filled in valleys and canyons formed by nature the results would be disastrous.

In his working instructions and his 1905 formal plan, Parsons proposed that peripheral roads and bands of trees should define the park’s borders. In contrast to straight peripheral roads that would carry through traffic, paths and roads within the park would wind around natural contours, would open surprise views, and would pass along highlands at the edges of canyons. Recognizing that rainfall was scant in Southern California, Parsons advised planting water-consuming grasses in small plots at park entrances. He suggested naming these entrances after trees grouped there, such as Pepper Tree, Blackwood Acacia, Monterey Pine, and Torrey Pine. To accentuate wild flowers and to dramatize vistas, he proposed keeping trees on mesas low. Nevertheless, to provide enclosure and to frame views, he would allow eucalyptuses at strategic points on the mesas. Because cuts and fills would mar the contrast between mesas and canyons, he cautioned against them. To intensify the sense of depth in the canyons, he would plant trees in the canyons rather than on the mesas. These trees would become taller as they approached the canyons’ rims. While claiming that lakes would become stagnant and that San Diego had enough water for recreation in its harbors, he acknowledged that lakes would provide water for irrigation and supplement the scenery. Without naming species, he advocated preserving native plants where “they made the best display.” Sensing that gardens of specimen cacti would be artificial creations, he, nonetheless, proposed placing them where they would not interfere with the design of the park as a whole. Because of their incompatibility with a park planned to bring spacious country scenery into the city, he emphasized that flower beds and buildings should be few and that they should be located in the southern portion of the park.

Not all of Parsons’ proposals were reconcilable. For example, it is difficult to see how indigenous plants could be preserved while new plants and trees were added to the canyons or how high roads at the crests of canyons related to contour roads within the canyons. By “preservation” Parsons did not mean that existing conditions would stay as they are. Rather the landscape architect would intensify existing natural beauties. Contemporary landscape architects concerned with maintaining native plants would interpret this dictum to mean that new plants would be added and some existing plants removed to create more pleasing aesthetic effects.62

An omen of what was to happen to Parsons’ plans occurred in September 1903 when George W. Marston and T. S. Brandegee tried to persuade Gifford Pinchot, of the U.S. Bureau of Forestry, to establish a eucalyptus forest on the east side of the park. Eucalyptus was mistakenly thought to have commercial value for their medicinal properties and for use as railroad ties. Pinchot informed the naive park advocates that his department was concerned with preserving forests for commercial harvesting on the high slopes of watersheds.63 Marston, usually a champion of professional planning, chose in this instance to stray from the path.

George Cooke’s dissolution of his partnership with Samuel Parsons in 1907 and his acceptance of the position of park superintendent and of commissions from private and public clients in San Diego may have been the result of the Park Commissioners trying to eliminate a duplication of landscaping services.64 By persuading Cooke to move to San Diego, Commissioners separated him and themselves from further connection with Samuel Parsons. The development of the park was thus left in Cooke’s hands. While Cooke did not depart entirely from Parsons’ plans, he planned roads through Pound and Switzer Canyons and a diagonal road heading in a northeasterly direction from 18th Street on the south to the vicinity of 28th and Upas Streets on the north. He also promoted a plan to put deer and caribou in the canyons.65 These projects did not appear in Parsons’ 1905 report. Cooke appears to have been more of an engineer than a landscape architect. His speciality must have been plotting roads as the County of San Diego hired him for that purpose. For a road to be efficient and economical, it must be direct and it must be straight, the opposite of roads Parsons wanted in City Park.

Ephraim W. Morse, who in 1868 urged the Board of Trustees of San Diego to set aside land for a city park, and George W. Marston noticed Cooke’s tendency to run roughshod over existing terrain with a through park road from San Diego High School to University Heights that entailed the removal of trees and rocks from the Howard Tract, an area of the park landscaped in 1890.66 George Cooke died on August 6, 1908, while on a road surveying expedition for the County of San Diego, the result of injuries sustained after the horse hauling his carriage bolted and he was thrown into a ravine near Alpine.67

At the urging of Kate Sessions, the San Diego Board of Public Works planted a double row of Cocos plumosa palms on each side of Park Avenue (today Sixth Avenue) between Juniper and Upas Streets in 1912. The Cocos plumosas were coming into vogue as a signature tree for Southern California. Sessions appears to have acted on her own without seeking the consent of the park’s appointed landscape architect.

In response to a commission from Marston to prepare a plan for San Diego parks that would parallel John Nolen’s 1908 plan for the City’s harbor and highways,68 Parsons returned to San Diego in June 1910.69 Marston may have chosen Parsons instead of Nolen for the task because he realized that designing parks was not Nolen’s strength or he may have thought that Parsons had a better understanding of Southern California’s soil and climate than Nolen.


Parsons expressed his pleasure at the road building done in the park, so perhaps there was no disagreement between Cooke and himself on the matter. He repeated his view that eucalyptus trees should be planted around the park to frame views of the ocean.70 When used in this manner, their height would be an attribute rather than a defect. He suggested putting a playground near Kalmia and Maple Streets, advocated the planting of pepper trees, and hoped a means could be devised to secure water for the park at low cost. To the chagrin of palm fanciers, he recommended planting only conifers and deciduous trees, adding that these should not be mixed.71 He also rejected coastal live oaks, except a small grove between Pound Canyon and the Central Park Boulevard that he approved planting as a memorial to the late George Cooke.

Parsons’ new preference for tall trees on mesas rather than in canyons and valleys is so contrary to his original advice, an observer might conclude he had forgotten his former position. He would surround eucalyptus trees with pepper and camphor trees to hide their stems, not realizing that plants cannot grow near eucalyptuses because of the toxicity of the soil. He said there should be no fixed distance between eucalyptuses which corresponds to his previous advice to keep them a good distance apart, according to their size.72

While sufficient time had not elapsed to assess the capabilities of all the new trees planted in the park, Parsons claimed the Grevillea, Blackwood Acacias, Monterey Pines, and Monterey Cypress had proven to be brittle and messy and their shapes did not harmonize with the character of the park.73 Not only should no more of them be planted, he said, but those in the park should be “eliminated.” Bluegrass was also undesirable as a ground cover because of the expense involved in its maintenance. Where ground cover was needed, native grasses, such as Lippea repens, vines and ice plants should be used. The park still lacked enough contour roads and paths to lead people to recreation areas and view promontories.74

Parsons got in a complaint about the upcoming Panama- California Exposition; however, it was so muted that people who read his report probably missed its impact.

A world’s fair, astonishing and impressive as it may be, with its effective showing of the accomplishments of art and science, could never in the end satisfy a city with its permanent results as would a fully developed park like that of San Diego.75

In the most controversial section of his 1910 report, Parsons advocated the planting of a small rather than a large number of trees, which harkened back to his 1905 recommendation to keep the uplands open so that distant views could amplify the park’s scenery. He concluded with a statement sure to rile members of the San Diego Floral Association.

The park is not a botanical garden or experimental station, but a spot of great natural beauty, which it is desired to make accessible by roads and paths, and to ornament with trees and shrubs in the most economical and effective manner possible.76

As might be expected, members of the San Diego Floral Association (but not Kate Sessions) expostulated over the rejection of a botanical garden. Their reasoning that Parsons was a foreigner who could not understand San Diego had its humorous aspects when L. A. Blochman and A. D. Robinson wrote that because they were residents of San Diego, they were able to know that the plants of the Arctic and the tropics could grow side by side in the city.77 This contention was so absurd that Kate Sessions publicly refuted it.78

Parsons’ suggestion to rename City Park in honor of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the only recommendation in the 1910 report that city officials took seriously.79 Cabrillo, sailing for the flag of Spain, landed at San Diego on September 28, 1542, thus becoming the first European to visit the coasts of California. While this choice of a name was not to be, Parsons’ advocacy of a new name led, on November 1, 1910, to the San Diego Board of Park Commissioners giving the park the name of “Balboa,” after Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who, on September 29, 1513, saw the Pacific Ocean from a hill in Panama.

San Diegans were so caught up in preparations for the Panama-California Exposition that they paid scant attention to Parsons’ plans. The Exposition was to be in a southern portion of the park, in an area Parsons had said was suitable for buildings, though of a more modest character than the flamboyant and massive buildings required by an exposition.

On November 9, 1910, the Panama-California Exposition Corporation appointed John Charles Olmsted landscape architect for the Exposition and for the park as a whole instead of Samuel Parsons, primarily because Olmsted had experience in and a reputation for laying out successful expositions. While Olmsted’s responsibilities for planning and planting the park were not listed in his contract, Olmsted and James Frederick Dawson, his assistant, prepared tree planting programs for the east side, details of which are on file at the Olmsted Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts. Dawson occupied his spare time grading land for the roads and paths George Cooke had planned for the northeast side.

Olmsted expected that his east side plants would harmonize with the plants Parsons and Cooke had laid out on the west side of the park. He hoped, however, to leave the undeveloped canyons in their native condition “as much as possible.” If he used grass at all, it would be near the buildings or in formal gardens. Main exposition buildings would be on the terraced slopes of Inspiration Point, north of the San Diego High School.80

An amusement section, at the south entrance to Pound Canyon, would do away with the eucalyptuses planted by the Woodmen and Foresters on July 4, 1903.

Olmsted changed the name of Pound Canyon to Cabrillo Canyon, as it is called today. Contrary to his stated intention of letting the canyons alone, he planned to put a terraced “Spanish” (more accurately Italian) garden in a canyon between the mesa and the south exposition site, currently the planned site of a Japanese garden, with a reservoir at its north end. He found space for a Greek theater in a ravine on land west of the San Diego High School. Olmsted must have consulted Parsons’ plans. However, except for the road systems, a today unknown number of carriage and pedestrian bridges spanning canyons on the east side, paths and plants on the west side, and pepper trees on the central mesa, so little had been done to carry out Parsons’ plans that Olmsted had a nearly clean slate with which to work.

As the Olmsted firm had experience preparing sites for expositions, going back to the World Columbian Exposition of 1893, John Olmsted was more adaptable to the Exposition Corporation’s ideas than Parsons would have been. But, when the leaders of the Exposition decided to move the fair onto the central mesa, Olmsted could not countenance what he predicted would be the ruination of Balboa Park and, on September 2, 1911, he resigned his firm’s commission.81

While he left San Diego before final Exposition plans could be carried out, Olmsted prepared a scheme to connect Park (Sixth) Avenue from Date to Juniper Streets that involved the filling in of 38,000 cubic yards of dirt.82 The area was the site of Mulvey Canyon, named after James Mulvey who lived next to it. Parsons and Cooke had planned this section as a sylvan retreat with vines, flowers, trees, and rustic bridges. The consultants left the selection of plants to Kate Sessions, who chose the exotic, water-sparing plants she had planted so successfully in the northwest corner of the park.83 Park enthusiasts regarded Mulvey Canyon as a harbinger of what the entire park would become. Enthusiasts and property owners adjoining the canyon objected to the canyon’s destruction. In this case, Kate Sessions, who regarded plants with the tenderness mothers have for their children, seconded the owners.84 The Superior Court of San Diego dissolved a restraining order against the canyon’s destruction on March 3, 1913,85 after which Frank P. Allen, Director of Works for the Panama-California Exposition, supervised the completion of a through north-south Park (Sixth) Avenue connection that would take visitors to the Laurel Street entrance to the Panama-California Exposition, using park improvement bond money approved by the voters on August 9, 1910.86

Hearing of John Charles Olmsted’s resignation, Parsons, on September 20, 1911, wrote to George W. Marston inquiring about being made the landscape architect of the Exposition.87 As an Olmsted supporter, Marston had lost his influence. Therefore, he could not have secured an appointment for Parsons even if he so desired. Parsons’ motive in asking for the appointment was not clear. Perhaps he wanted to salvage what he could of his plans or perhaps he wanted to gain one on his competitors.

Parsons’ September 1911 letter to George W. Marston marked the end of his involvement with San Diego. He probably looked back with regret over the collapse of his plans. If his poetic schemes had been carried out, San Diego would now have a coherent park with distinctive natural features, with a circulation system that would allow visitors to go from one side of the park to the other without going outside, and with sufficient open space to allow for active and passive recreational facilities. Due to high-rise construction along the Silver Strand and in downtown San Diego most of the panoramic views from the park have disappeared, and along with them the logic behind many of Parsons’ road schemes. Even with the minimal grading and the less minimal dynamiting of hardpan that had taken place during Parsons’ seven-year custodianship of the park, the fragile wildflowers had begun to disappear. As Parsons feared, today the park is split into a thousand and one gimcracks that have defiled the regional scenery Parsons hoped to leave as his legacy.

As a professional, John Charles Olmsted was not going to cry over spilt milk. After his resignation, he put Balboa Park behind him and went on to design other public and private parks. The City of San Diego hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. in 1947 to recommend the disposition of surviving Panama-California Exposition buildings on the central mesa, a location both he and his half-brother had opposed. Not surprisingly, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. said that most of them should be demolished.88

Balboa Park at the close of the twentieth century has come a long way from the romantic natural park Parsons planned at the beginning of the century. Vestiges of his plans remain in the road systems of the park. Major traffic arteries, nurseries, park maintenance and city operations yards, park department administrative offices and buildings, public schools, a zoo, a velodrome, golf courses, privately operated tennis and frisbee courts, theaters, cultural institutions, gift shops, restaurants, and a Naval Hospital — not foreseen by Parsons — absorb money from park budgets and so much space that out of a Balboa Park total of 1172 acres about 263 acres remain that are free and open. Trees and shrubs planted by Parsons, Cooke, Olmsted, and Sessions have fallen to disease or are past their prime.89 Native plants Parsons wanted to retain grow only in a small section of Florida Canyon. Except in the 125-acre zoo, planting is subsidiary to institutions. Whatever planting takes place comes from nursery stock. It is not always appropriate for the site nor of rare and premium grade. The 65-acre former rubbish dump in Florida and Switzer Canyons is not planted at all. Grounds receive minimum irrigation, pruning, soil conditioning, and tree thinning. To get rid of transients, shrubbery has been cleared from slopes on the west side. Instead of a complementary arrangement of trees and grass, formal gardens and playing fields, scattered piecemeal, create a confused sequence of open and closed spaces.

Unlike subsequent landscape architects who made plans for Balboa Park to promote the interests of occupants of buildings,90 Parsons followed nature’s lead. He made high hills higher, rugged slopes more rugged, and deep valleys deeper.91 His choice of plants conformed to local conditions and restrictions. His paths and roads followed natural contours. They were not imposed brutally on the land. True to his predictions, engineers in charge of the sanitary fill in Balboa Park designed against nature.92 Their attempt to create level land by dumping rubbish in canyons diminished “the genius of the place.”93

If Balboa Park is to be a park with trees, shrubs, flowers and grass as major components, Parsons’ intentions should be revived. That people benefit from green, open parks is shown by the popularity of landscaped parks in cities in the United States and Canada. No less than people in these cities, people in San Diego can appreciate free, carefully-planned, and exhilarating landscapes.

Photographs from this article:
George Cooke
George Marston
Kate Sessions
Calvert Vaux, Parsons’ mentor and partner
Arbor Day, Balboa Park, 1905
Arbor Day, Balboa Park, 1905
Cabrillo Canyon, now Highway 163, looking south in 1903
Mulvey Canyon, today’s 6th Ave, filled in before 1915 Exposition
Road building in Balboa Park, 1903


1. San Diego Weekly Union, 7 September 1889, 5.

2. William Smythe, “The Story of City Park” in The History of San Diego (San Diego: The History Co., San Diego, 1908), 619.

3. Samuel Parsons, “City Park” (graphic), 1905, San Diego Public Library, California Room.

4. Elizabeth C. MacPhail, Kate Sessions: Pioneer Horticulturist (San Diego: San Diego History Center, 1976), 67.

5. As Superintendent of Central Park, Parsons was aware that the landscape gardeners who worked for him had an extensive knowledge of plants, but were unable to place the plants according to designs prepared by landscape architects as modified by the contours of the ground and the size and shape of the plants as they grew. If left to their own devices, the compositions of landscape gardeners were crude and their effects were formal, stereotyped and ineffective. Naturally, Parsons kept such opinions to himself in his conversations with Kate Sessions and the San Diego Park Improvement Committee. Memories of Samuel Parsons, edited by Mabel Parsons (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926), 40.

6. Smythe, History of San Diego, 619.

7. Mary Gilman Marston, George White Marston: A Family Chronicle (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1956), 2: 11.

8. George W. Marston Papers, collection no. 219, Box 1, File 16, San Diego Historical Society, Research Archives.

9. Ibid.

10. Marston, George White Marston, 2:12.

11. Samuel Parsons to George W. Marston, October 21, 1902, Marston Papers, Box 1, File 16. The full amount of George W. Marston’s contribution to the development of City Park will never be known as he did not release the figures to newspapers. In addition to the fee for Parsons’ services, he agreed to pay his hotel and railroad expenses up to a total of $5,000. Mary Marston stated that bankbooks showed her father paid $20,982.14 with $23.45 refunded to him, in addition to the amount for the plans in “the first two years” (1902?-1903?). Marston, George White Marston, 2:16.

12. Samuel Parson to Mary Coulston, 10 October 1902; Parsons to Marston, 21 October 1902, Marston Papers, Box 1, File 16.

13. Samuel Parsons, The Art of Landscape Architecture: Its Development and Application (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915); Parsons & W. R. O’Donovan, “The Art of Landscape Gardening,” The Overlook, (22 September 1906): 223-232; Parsons & W. R. O’Donovan, “Design as Applied to Cities,” North American Review, (16 August 1907): 862868; Parsons, “Central Park and Its Destroyers,” Harpers Weekly, (1911) (exact date unknown).

14. M. M. Graff, Central Park/Prospect Park: A New Perspective (Greensward Foundation, 1985), 68; Charles A. Birnbaum, Samuel Parsons Jr.: The Art of Landscape Architecture (monograph prepared in conjunction with an exhibition organized by the Catalog of Landscape Records in the United States at Wave Hill, Bronx, New York, 1994), 5-6.

15. Birnbaum, Samuel Parsons Jr., 5.

16. Parsons, “The Art of Landscape Gardening,” 230.

17. Roy Rozenzweig & Elizabeth Blackman, The Park and the People (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1992), 123-126.

18. Parsons, “The Art of Landscape Gardening,” 264-268.

19. Ian McHarg, Design With Nature (Garden City, New York: Natural History Press, 1969), 72-73.

20. George Chadwick, The Park and the Town (New York: Frederick J. Praeger, Publishers, 1966), 164, 183; Rozenzweig & Blackman, The Park and the People, 29-30.

21. Chadwick, The Park and the Town, 181.

22. Laura Wood Roper, FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1973), 71.

23. Norman T. Newton, Design on the Land: The Development of Landscape Architecture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 225-232.

24. Newton, Design on the Land, 233-245.

25. Parsons, The Art of Landscape Architecture, 290, 294.

26. Parsons, “The Art of Landscape Gardening,” 230; Rozenzweig & Blackman, 122-123.

27. Henry Hope Reed & Sophia Duckworth, Central Park: A History and a Guide (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1972), 39.

28. Parsons, Memories of Samuel Parsons, edited by Mabel Parsons (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926), 26.

29. Parsons, “The Art of Landscape Gardening,” 230.

30. Parsons, Memories, 37; Birnbaum, Samuel Parsons Jr., 12.

31. Birnbaum, Samuel Parsons Jr., 20-24.

32. Parsons, “Central Park and Its Destroyers.”

33. Parsons, The Art of Landscape Architecture, 268-269.

34. Ibid., 273.

35. Graff, Central Park/Prospect Park, 62-68.

36. Parsons, “Central Park and Its Destroyers.”

37. “Parsons, Samuel,” National Cycloaepedia of American Biography (James T. White & Co., 1937), 26:308.

38. Samuel Parsons to Mary Coulston, 5 September 1902, in Amero File on Samuel Parsons, San Diego History Center Research Library; Chadwick, The Park and the Town, 214.

39. Parsons, “The Art of Landscape Gardening,” 232.

40. Parsons, The Art of Landscape Architecture, 289.

41. San Diego Union, 25 March 1945, B-1; Philip A. Munz, California Spring Wildflowers (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961), 1-4.

42. San Diego Union, 1 January 1903, sec. IV, 25.

43. Ibid., 20 March 1903, 6.

44. Ibid., 1 January 1903, sec. IV, 25.

45. Parsons, The Art of Landscape Architecture, 278-279.

46. Newton, Design on the Land, 237.

47. San Diego Sun, 1 January 1905, 10.

48. Samuel Parsons, Report and Plan of City Park, 15 September 1905, in Amero File on Samuel Parsons, Jr., San Diego History Center Research Library.

49. San Diego Union, 6 October 1902.

50. Ibid., 25 July 1903, 6; 12 February 1904, 6; 16 December 1904, 8; 10 March 1905, 6; 10 January 1906, 5; 24 March 1906, 10.

51. Ibid., 17 January 1907, sec. II, 7; 1 June 1907, 14.

52. Ibid., 26 May 26 1903, 5.

53. Ibid., 19 July 1904, 6.

54. Florence Christman, The Romance of Balboa Park (San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1985), 32. During her nine-month stay in San Diego, Mary Coulston expanded her knowledge of San Diego flora. Even so, one of the last articles she wrote for the San Diego Union, 10 May 1903, displayed a hazy knowledge of genera and species. Her descriptions mixed botanical and vernacular terms. Botanists no longer recognize some of her identifications. She listed seventeen indigenous plants on the east side of the park. Today the native plant area has shrunk to a small strip in Florida Canyon. A list of plants in the canyon made by the San Diego Natural History Museum includes some 39 species, of which about 12 were listed by Coulston. Seven of the plants Coulston described . . . Mariposa lily, Canchalagua, Graphalium californium, Chorizanthe staticoides, Woodbine, & Eriodycton trichocalyx Éare not listed by the Natural History Museum.

The failure of these plants to make the Natural History Museum list lends support to the theory that changes to the topography and soil conditions in Balboa Park and the infiltration of competing species have brought many native plant species to the edge of extinction.

Coulston was more in favor of keeping native plants than was Kate Sessions, who imported many exotic, albeit drought-resistant plants that Coulston considered “tame and poor” compared to the wild plants that at one time covered the entire park.

55. San Diego Union, 29 May 1905, 5.

56. Ibid., 30 January 1906, 3.

57. Gregory Montes, “San Diego’s City Park, 1902-1910, From Parsons to Balboa,” Journal of San Diego History 25 (Winter 1979): 7.

58. Marston, George White Marston, 2:19-20.

59. San Diego Union, 18 April 1905, 3.

60. Smythe, The History of San Diego, 621.

61. Parsons, “The Art of Landscape Gardening,” 230.

62. Samuel Parsons, “City Park” (graphic); San Diego Union, 2 January 1903, 6; Marston, George White Marston, 2:13; Richard Pourade, Gold In the Sun, vol. 5 of The History of San Diego (La Jolla, Calif.: Copley Press, 1965), 29.

63. San Diego Union, 6 September 1903.

64. San Diego Union, 17 January 1907, sec. II, 7.

65. San Diego Union, 29 March 1908, 11.

66. Marston, George White Marston, 2:18-19.

67. San Diego Union, 7 August 1908, 8.

68. Ibid., 1 January 1909, sec. IV, 1.

69. Ibid., 23 June 1910, 6.

70. Ibid., 26 June 1910, 7.

71. In his “Report to the Park Commissioners,” (15 September 1905) Parsons was willing to keep the palms in the Golden Hill section where they had been planted and in “secluded gorges,” but he did not want them planted where their tropical character would clash with “the native subtropical foliage.” The only palm he mentioned by name was the low bluishgreen Chamerops humilis, commonly known as the Mediterranean Fan Palm; but he was indefinite as to where he would locate it.

72. San Diego Sun, 4 July 1910, 1.

73. Ibid., 5 July 1910, 9, 15.

74. Ibid.

75. Ibid.

76. Ibid.

77. San Diego Union, 18 July 1910, 8; California Garden (July 1910): 12-13.

78. San Diego Union, 27 October 1910, 8.

79. San Diego Sun, 4 July 1910, 1.

80. “Park Commissioners and Landscape Architect Tell Floral Association of Park and Exposition Plans,” California Garden (January 1911): 4-6.

81. San Diego Union, 10 September 1911, 8; Marston, George White Marston, 2:39.

82. Olmsted Brothers to Julius Wangenheim, 18 September 1911, Marston Papers, Box 2, File 25.

83. Samuel Parsons, “City Park” (graphic).

84. San Diego Union, 13 October 1912, 19.

85. San Diego Sun, 3 March 1913.

86. Ibid., 6 May 1913, 9.

87. Parsons to Marston, 20 September 1911, Marston Papers, Box 2, File 25.

88. San Diego Union, 6 July 1947, B-1.

89. Neal Matthews, “Color Them Gone: Balboa Park’s Future May Be in the Wrong Hands,” San Diego Reader, 3 September 1987.

90. See the following: John Nolen, Report and Plans for the Improvement of San Diego, 1908; John Nolen, City Planning for San Diego, 1926; Steve Halsey, Master Plan for Florida Canyon. Balboa Park, 1976; Harland Bartholomew & Associates, Master Plan for Balboa Park, San Diego, 1960; Pekarek Group, Balboa Park Development & Management Plan, 1983; Estrada Land Planning, Balboa Park Master Plan, 1989; Wallace, Roberts & Todd, East Mesa Precise Plan. Balboa Park, 1992; Pekarek Group, East Mesa Precise Plan, 1993.

91. McHarg, Design With Nature.

92. Ibid.

93. Parsons, The Art of Landscape Architecture, 15.

Richard W. Amero is a native of Gloucester, Massachusetts. He attended Biarritz American University, while serving in the U.S. Army, matriculated at Black Mountain College in 1946-47, and Bard College in 1947-50 where he received a B.A. with a major in literature. He retired from a 40-year employment with the San Diego Gas & Electric Company in 1992. Mr. Amero has written numerous articles on environmental and historical subjects and on Spanish and Mexican art for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times (San Diego edition).