History in Bloom

Visit the Berkeley Rose Garden via the slide show:

by Susan Ives
As development marched toward the Berkeley hills in the 1920s, the ravine carved by Cordonices Creek was considered too steep for houses. A street car trestle was constructed to span the gap. With panoramic westward views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, the 3.6-acre canyon captured the imagination of park advocates.

Renowned Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck designed a terraced amphitheater with a redwood pergola, and landscape architect Vernon M. Dean and Charles V. Covell, founder of the East Bay Rose Society, finalized the plan. The City of Berkeley applied for federal funds available under New Deal public works programs.

Construction on the Berkeley Rose Garden began in 1933. Hundreds of men employed by Civil Works Administration and, later, the Works Progress Administration, worked over four years to install the garden. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) also built the adjacent tennis and handball courts at Cordonices Park.

Native rock quarried in the Berkeley hills form the amphitheater walls and terraced rose beds. Paths wend through the garden and native woodlands. A footbridge spans Cordonices Creek where it emerges at the canyon floor to form an oval pond. Maybeck’s redwood pergola serves as a trellis for climbing roses. Along the six curved stone terraces are more than a thousand rose bushes, at their most spectacular in mid-May.

The garden was officially dedicated on September 26, 1937. According to newspaper accounts, on hand were the Berkeley Municipal Legion Band and “the full staff of the park department, to assist in managing the crowds.” 

The garden was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1995.  Since then, the original sign was replaced with a replica. The entrance to the garden was reconstructed in 2002. The pergola is currently undergoing renovation.

The rose garden remains one of the city’s most cherished public spaces.  It is open from dawn to dusk and is wheelchair accessible via a pedestrian tunnel under Euclid Avenue that connects the garden to Cordonices Park. 

Read more:

Bay Area cities were quick to claim their share of public improvements. Built by FDR: How the WPA Changed the Lay of the Land

Map of Berkeley parks

Berkeley and the New Deal

Harvey Smith’s Berkeley and the New Deal is an eye opener. Like many of Arcadia Publishing’s books, its focus is on local history, richly illustrated with photographs. But Berkeley and the New Deal tells a bigger story. Smith has written a primer on the New Deal itself—its underpinnings and aspirations—with Berkeley the exemplar. His intent is to show not only how the New Deal affected one city, but to highlight the New Deal’s relevance to today’s social, political, and economic realities.

Today it may be caricatured as Berkzerkely, but in the 1930s Berkeley voted Republican. Yet, like other small cities hard hit by the Depression, Berkeley benefitted immensely from the New Deal—in the number of jobs created and the infrastructure those workers left to future generations.

David Slivka’s relief celebrates postal workers.

Berkeley Post Office Relief
David Slivka’s relief celebrates postal workers.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Smith describes such projects as Tilden Park and its Botanical Garden and the amphitheaters, hiking trails, golf courses, and tennis courts meant to make recreation available to everyone. He details the distinctive design of New Deal buildings—many embellished with murals and relief sculptures; and points to government’s emphasis on education, made manifest in beautiful schools and libraries.

Smith laments the loss of historic buildings like the Berkeley Hall of Justice, completed in 1939 with city and federal funds. The building was demolished in 2002 to make way for a parking lot. The Downtown Post Office though itself not a New Deal building, houses New Deal artworks. Like many of the nation’s post offices, Berkeley’s is up for sale—a trend that Smith points to as privatizing what the American people built and paid for.

The former Farm Credit Building, completed in 1940 now serves as Berkeley government offices.

Berkeley Civic Center
The former Farm Credit Building, completed in 1940 now serves as Berkeley government offices.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

While the legacy of the New Deal is often unrecognized, in Berkeley, as elsewhere, there’s growing appreciation for New Deal art and architecture, and the public spirit it embodies. The city recently restored the Mediterranean-style North Branch Library built in 1936; the Berkeley Rose Garden, built in 1937, was commemorated on its 75th birthday; a long-shuttered printing plant built by the Public Works Administration, will soon reopen as the UC Art Museum and Film Archive.

Smith also introduces the reader to Berkeley residents that took part in the Federal Writers’ Project, the California Folk Music Project, Federal Theater Project, and other cultural programs.

The Whittier School, dedicated in 1939, is today a magnet school for the arts.

Berkeley Arts Magnet School
The Whittier School, dedicated in 1939, is today a magnet school for the arts.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Those who know Berkeley will be stunned by how much the New Deal shaped the city. But more than a guide to just one place, Smith’s book is an invitation at large to open our eyes.  We are likely to find the New Deal’s hidden history looming large wherever we live.

Reviewed by Susan Ives