The Story of Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden

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


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