July 1, 2000
In Old Monterey
Historic gardens of Monterey, California
The pepper tree in front of the Francis Doud House in Monterey is so massive and gnarled that I’m tempted to plunk myself into the crook of its weighty arms and pretend that I’ve fallen back in time. Inside the picket fence, where the faint chocolate smell of viburnum mixes with the perfume of Philadelphus, it’s easy to imagine the landscape architect, Florence Yoch, raking the walkways of this compact garden, as she did just two days before her death in 1972 at the age of 81. Yoch designed the landscape for Tara in Gone With the Wind, the olive groves of Romeo and Juliet (the 1936 version with Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard), and the gardens of such Hollywood estate owners as George Cukor and David O. Selznick. The Doud garden is a far cry from these elaborate creations, yet it bears her dramatic signature. Wisteria climbs the columns of a pergola, twining with languorous ‘Belle of Portugal’ roses, black velvet salvias border the paths, and slender stalks of Gladiolus tristis shoot up daintily. At night you can smell the fragrance of these gladioli a block away.
The garden at the Doud House, an 1860s clapboard house built in New England style by a wealthy entrepreneur, is but one of the city’s twelve historic gardens. Some are so hidden away behind adobe walls that the locals refer to them as “secret gardens.” They’re smack in the middle of the city, part of a public park system that runs through old Monterey, but you would never find them without a map.
Most of the gardens belong to the state of California, bequeathed by descendants of their original owners. Years of neglect had left them looking bedraggled and withered until four years ago, when a group of passionate local gardeners—under the aegis of the Historic Garden League—committed itself to the work of restoring some of these spaces. They began with the Doud House, where ivy so completely shrouded the L-shaped garden that you could hardly see the double stairs leading up to the little back porch with its expansive views of Monterey Bay. For several long weekends they came with their gloves, rakes, pruning shears, hoes, and garbage bags, and when they were finished, they had taken out six truckloads of ivy. Now you can enjoy a formally pruned yew and an old almond tree, planted, as was the wisteria, by Yoch. Around the corner, an olive jar from Italy, large enough for a child to climb inside, stands by the wall.
Today, Al Graham, a volunteer docent for the Historic Garden League, smiles at the memory of all that work as he guides me around town to see the Doud House, the Robert Louis Stevenson House, the Pacific House, and the Cooper-Molera Adobes. I couldn’t want a better escort than Graham, a sixty-something local historian, amateur horticulturist, and natural-born teacher. His family has lived in Monterey since 1800, when his great-, great-, great-grandfather arrived as a corporal with the Spanish Mission and was awarded an eight-mile-long land grant for his service. Given this legacy, it’s not surprising that almost every street in Monterey yields a harvest of immediate and ancestral memories for Graham. “This was once the governor’s house,” he tells me, peering through the window of the empty Alvarado adobe. “His wife lived in a house across town and he installed his mistress here—she was one of my relatives. One day, he took her to a party and people were so outraged that they threw him out of office.”
Graham’s stories helped guide my meanderings through the various gardens, as we followed the trail of bronze medallions that, like Hansel’s bread-crumbs, define the “Path of History.” A map is free at the visitor’s bureau.
My favorite garden turned out to be the half-acre retreat behind the Robert Louis Stevenson House, an old boarding establishment named for the author who stayed here for six weeks in 1879. According to local legend, his descriptions of Treasure Island were inspired by the landscape of Point Lobos, about six miles south of Monterey, with its rocky cliffs and cypress trees.
The peaceful garden is not small by any means, yet it feels intimate with lots of nooks and private spaces, benches and birdbaths. Laid out in the 1940s by a local gardening group, the design is a Victorian fantasy with narrow winding paths looping around free-form beds. These beds overflow with masses of Icelandic poppies, cineraria, and Iochroma and give the garden a lush, flowery look quite different from Spanish-style court-yards, where wide-open plazalike spaces are planted only around their perimeters. The Stevenson garden has as its centerpiece a forty-foot-tall dawn redwood, an unusual deciduous variety of sequoia brought back from China sixty years ago by botanists from the University of California at Berkeley. Every few weekends, the volunteer gardeners march in to uproot invasive hebe and agapanthus.
Graham and I follow the Path of History to the Pacific House, a former soldiers’ barracks across from the Monterey waterfront. The courtyard of the adobe barracks, called Memory Garden, was designed in Spanish colonial style in 1926 by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., son of the landscape architect responsible for Central Park in New York. After studying with his father, Olmsted the younger went on to design Washington’s National Mall. A seven-foot-high stucco wall encloses the courtyard, which is wide enough for 600 people to gather at one time. And they do, at receptions and barbecues, such as the Merienda, Monterey’s annual birthday party.
Four stately southern magnolias, each about seventy years old, mark the center of the main courtyard, and an enormous blue wisteria spills over a stucco wall. A hedge of eighty-year-old fuchsias and ‘Cecile Brunner’ roses separates the courtyard from a narrow, adjoining garden where a Mediterranean-style fountain made of 24-karat-gold tiles glitters in the sun, a ‘Ponderosa’ lemon tree yields fruit bigger than grapefruit, and a dwarf pomegranate bush blooms with orange crepe-paper-like flowers.
Olmsted’s blueprints for the garden still exist, and they were consulted during the recent restoration. But of all the secret gardens in Monterey, the most historically accurate is the two-and-a-half-acre plot within the 19th-century Cooper-Molera complex, a National Trust site on the Path of History.
Frances Grate gets credit for that. A slight woman, Grate is so strong-willed and determined that you don’t notice at first how small she is. With a master’s degree in history and a love of gardening, she was well prepared for the job. In 1985, when the state was completing the restoration of the Cooper-Molera, Grate looked around, saw precious little planting, and asked the superintendent of state parks if she could have a hand in creating a historic period garden for the 1830 house. Go for it, was the answer.
For the next five years, Grate consulted old paintings and drawings, tracked down 150-year-old seed and flower catalogues for a listing of what varieties were available and popular during the gold rush era, and visited libraries throughout the state to pore over horticultural magazines and books. She returned to her alma mater, Duke University, where a botany professor allowed her to copy The Botanical Register, an English publication with introduction dates of species worldwide. Her final plant list had one major premise: Everything on it had to have been introduced to California prior to 1865, the year John Rogers Cooper and his wife left Monterey for San Francisco. The fruit trees in the orchard, the tea rose and ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ rose bushes, the culinary and medicinal herbs are all horticulturally true to the time. “I have a love for the romance of where plants come from,” Grate says.
Most importantly, Grate researched the history of the family for whom the adobe was named. Cooper was a Yankee sea captain who first sailed his ship into Monterey in 1823 and soon after fell in love with the much younger Encarnacion Vallejo, member of one of California’s most illustrious families. In doing her research, Grate found herself increasingly drawn to Encarnacion. The deeper Grate delved, the stronger Dona Encarnacion’s presence became, until eventually one of her main goals was to create a garden where the 19th-century matriarch would be right at home.
“I feel her sometimes just over my shoulder,” Grate says. “If she were here, she would ask me, ‘Where is the Madonna lily?’ And I would tell her, ‘I tried, I tried many times to grow it, but it’s not happy in this garden.’ Being religious, however, she would want it.”
Since Catholicism was such an important part of Encarnacion’s life, Grate sought to include flowers with a religious connotation, like the passion-flower, a vine brought to California from Brazil by priests. Each part of the flower resonates with Christian symbolism: The fringe recalls Christ’s crown of thorns; the five stamens stand for the five wounds upon his body; and the three pistils represent the Holy Trinity.
Only one remaining apple tree planted by John Cooper still bears fruit, so Grate restocked the orchard with additional varieties: ‘Bellflower’, ‘Winter Pearmain’, ‘Red Astrachan’, and ‘Gravenstein’. She oversaw an herb garden with all the essentials, from calendula (once used for thickening gravy) to lemon verbena (which housewives would let boil in a pot of water to imbue their houses with lemon fragrance).
The garden exudes a serenity and charm that make it a haven from the modern world. Just on the other side of the adobe wall there’s a Safeway parking lot full of cars, SUVs, and shopping carts, but you’d never know it wandering through John Cooper’s orchard, pausing beside the hollow walnut tree, or stepping around one of the Minorca chickens. Originally from Spain, they too are historically accurate. Their ancestors came to California with the padres.
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