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The Story of Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden


Originally published 12:00 p.m., June 8, 2006
Updated 4:48 p.m., August 4, 2006

Alice’s Garden: Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden celebrates its silver anniversary this year.

by Virginia Hayes

Hot on the heels of the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens’ publication Trees of Santa Barbara, the garden has released another lovely book just for Santa Barbarans. Alice’s Garden, written by Anne-Marie Castleberg, is a tribute to the wonderful public garden in the heart of town affectionately known to many as “Alice.” Castleberg is a writer and consultant, as well as wife of the principal designer of Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, which is celebrating its silver anniversary this year.

Two chapters — one detailing the history of the property that eventually became such a fabulous horticultural treasure and another illuminating the life of the woman who made its purchase possible—form the bookends to a visual portrait of the garden through the four seasons. Castleberg skillfully describes the long and convoluted tale of ownership of this square block of prime real estate. In the early 1900s, the property was converted from a tasteful estate to a high-class hotel with private bungalows and lush landscaping. The hotel, called El Mirasol, existed until the 1960s when, no longer in its prime, it was damaged by a couple of fires and slated for demolition. The proposed nine-story replacement hotel met with enough opposition, even though it included a performing arts center, that it never left the drawing board. The next proposal, for an 11-story condominium project, also met too much resistance, led by the legendary Pearl Chase, but was dropped only after the bulldozers had flattened the old hotel.

Private citizens stepped in and contributed funds to purchase the property for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, but not in sufficient quantity. In the interim, the Community Environmental Council established an urban farm teaching organic methods to interested students of all ages at the El Mirasol Educational Farm. Yet another condominium project was proposed, but the SBMA received enough funds from an anonymous donor to purchase it and donate it to the city. This was accomplished with the caveat that it should remain a free public park and that the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden should be responsible for developing and overseeing the landscaping. At last, the future of the property was secured.

The history of Alice Keck Park herself was harder to elucidate. Castleberg thoroughly researched her life and sensitively described her early California connections. Introspective and prone to attacks of paranoia, Park ultimately spent much of her time traveling in Europe, before returning to Santa Barbara. It was her wish that her gift remain anonymous as long as she lived. Her identity was revealed in 1977 after her death. The park was officially dedicated in 1979.

Castleberg’s accomplished prose is the perfect accompaniment to the luscious photographs that fill the book. Ralph Clevenger, who shot all the contemporary images, has clearly spent lots of time looking at the garden through the lens of his camera. Clevenger is an accomplished photographer whose images of nature have been commissioned by the likes of National Geographic Books and appear in numerous other publications. His love of nature and ability to capture perfect close-ups of flowers, as well as framing the stunning panoramas this park affords, make this book a visual treat as well as a good read. Scattered along the margins are also inspiring verses gleaned from a variety of poets that complete the serene experience the photos induce.

One final section of the book lists the major plants included in the park. Preceded by a plan of the paths and beds, the short descriptive paragraphs of each species have numbers referring to areas on the plan, which make the book a useful guide to the garden. It may be a little unwieldy to carry around, since it is a large-format book more suited to the coffee table, but the information should be of use to plant lovers and gardeners looking for inspiration for their own gardens.

Grant Castleberg and Associates produced a visionary landscape that is filled with color and motion. From the golden koi slipping by in the large pond, to the bright bougainvillea billowing over sandstone walls, there is always something to stimulate and delight the visitor. A gurgling stream passes under a rustic bridge, while a large sundial on the highest hill formed of stone and brick forms the floor of one of the many popular gathering places. And now Anne-Marie Castleberg has ably and aptly written a tribute to both her husband and Alice Keck Park. Through the continued stewardship of the Botanic Garden and the parks department, “Alice” will be around for many more years providing a peaceful respite from the bustle of urban life.

411 The public is invited to a celebration of the garden on Monday, June 12, 5-6:30 p.m. at the park. For more information, call the Botanic Garden at 682-4726 x139.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to vahayes@lotusland.org.

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