The town of Redlands, California, was platted by the Redlands Water Company in 1887 and incorporated in the following year. In the early 1890s, Redlands was considered just another thriving orange-growing city. By the 1920s, however, it was known as the most charming and lovely city in San Bernardino County, due largely to the many fine estates built by Eastern capitalists. Redlands was a desirable destination for many affluent families seeking an escape from the winter doldrums of the Midwest and the East Coast. Indeed, Redlands became a winter haven, much like Palm Springs would become in later years.
Redlands benefited from two significant events. First was the arrival in the community of two brothers, Alfred and Albert Smiley, in 1889; second was the founding of Redlands University in 1907. The Smiley brothers purchased 200 acres on the southern ridge overlooking the town. There they built their homes and proceeded to develop the land into a semi-tropical Eden. Eventually, they expanded their real estate to 400 acres and planted more than a thousand different kinds of trees and shrubs. Their property became known as Cañon Crest Park and was a destination for lovers of all things botanical. Wealthy families who wished to settle in Redlands followed the Smiley brothers’ lead and built large estates along the hills south of Highland Avenue. Their beautiful homes and grand gardens overlooked the San Bernardino valley.
To the east of Cañon Crest Park, a New York leather wholesaler, TY England, purchased a thirty-nine-acre parcel of land. He developed his property into part orange grove and part botanical park. Though privately owned and privately developed, it was open to the public. England named his property Prospect Park. Adjacent to, and to the west of, Prospect Park was the property of Cornelia Ann Hill, a widow from New York. In 1896, she purchased 3.5 acres in the Belleview tract for $3,000. She hired the Los Angeles architectural firm of Dennis and Farwell to design her dream home, inspired by the castles she had visited in the Loire Valley in France.
It is somewhat of a mystery why the widow Hill decided Redlands was to be her new home. California was far removed from the climate of New York. One assumption is that she met the Smiley brothers, also from New York, at their resort, Mohonk Mountain House, which was only a short train ride from her home in Middleton.
Having “discovered” Redlands, the Smileys encouraged folks to either visit or invest there. Mrs Hill had lost her husband and six daughters to tuberculosis within a ten-year period. Perhaps the grief she experienced and the persuasion of the Smiley brothers led her to Redlands to build her own “castle” on the hill.
Cornelia Hill’s castle became an elegant grove home, with an expansive front terrace planted primarily in citrus and stone fruits. A formal garden filled the area behind the house. The plantings were selected for her by the renowned horticulturist Franz Hosp, who had also helped the Smileys and England choose trees and shrubs for their projects. Hosp was responsible for many properties in Southern California, including: Ganesh Park, Pomona; Victoria Avenue, Riverside; and Hosp Grove, Carlsbad. He is also known for developing the ‘Climbing Cécile Brünner’ rose, a classic and much loved rose worldwide.
Alas, Mrs Hill became disenchanted with her lovely castle. This is another mystery. One theory is that the “Victorian-French” style of the house did not fit with her passion for collecting Native American artifacts. For whatever reason, Mrs Hill decided to put the mansion up for sale and build a new home closer to downtown Redlands.
Alfred and Helen Kimberly, of Kimberly-Clark Corporation, based in Neenah, Wisconsin, had been wintering in Redlands for a few years. They were familiar with Mrs Hill’s spectacular home in the hills. When they heard it was to become available, they immediately purchased it as a retirement home. The purchase was made and contracts signed in 1905, and the wealthy couple moved to their “new” home. Some architectural remodeling was done to suit their tastes, and they christened their new home and property “Kimberly Crest.”
In 1908, Helen Kimberly, a keen gardener, decided to design and build a formal garden to enhance the front “yard” of the mansion, where the only semblance of a formal garden had been the beautiful Venus fountain that Mrs Hill had installed when the house was built.
The Venus Fountain
The Venus fountain had been purchased from the JL Mott Company catalog. They specialized in iron and “pot metal” ornamental garden pieces. We do not know who the original sculptor of the fountain was, but we know it was entered into many world expositions, including the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the Pan-American Exposition in Mexico City at the turn of the century. It was entered in many European expositions as well.
The statue is representative of Greek mythology. Astride two dolphins are cherub-like Tritons—“Trumpeters of the Sea”—both sons of Poseidon and Amphitrite. A sea nymph—“Venus”—stands atop the Tritons, cradled in a clamshell. The fountain’s title is “Venus Rising from the Sea.” The similarity to Botticelli’s painting, “Birth of Venus” is plainly evident.
Apparently, the Kimberlys were never enamored of the Venus fountain but decided to let it remain and design a proper landscape around it.
A Proper Landscape
The Kimberlys needed a professional landscape architect to design their landscape. Helen wanted a garden reminiscent of those she had seen around hillside villas in Italy. They decided to ask their son-in-law, George Bergstrom, to implement their desires. Bergstrom was a prominent architect, but had never designed a landscape or garden before. He had designed many large commercial buildings throughout California and in the Midwest, but landscape design was not his discipline.
We can imagine the family discussions that ensued, with Bergstrom kindly resisting at first; ultimately, at the urging of his wife Nancy and his mother-in-law Helen, he agreed to tackle the project. His design is a wonderful example of an Italian hillside villa garden, with all the elements present: a large flat terrace enclosed by concrete pillars, topped by urns or finials; concrete balustrade and exedra; pools and ponds lush with plants, koi, and goldfish; pergolas; and long sets of steps used as a central sightline through the garden. Again, Franz Hosp was enlisted to help plant the new garden, which had now expanded to 6.2 acres, two of which were planted in citrus.
Hosp chose many exotic trees and shrubs for the Kimberly’s new garden. As he had done at Cañon Crest Park and Prospect Park, he planted specimens from all around the globe. Plants from the five mediterranean-climate regions thrived because of the similar climate afforded in Redlands. In addition, many plants beloved in the gardens of the Kimberlys’ home state of Wisconsin were tried and performed beautifully despite the different climate. Spireas, wiegelas, peonies, elms, and maples comingled with palms, eucalypts, watsonias, and agapanthus. Roses were used to tie together the diversity of plants into a big garden bow!
The contract was signed in November 1908; work began that winter and was completed by the following winter. The cost of the project was contracted at $3,000. Taylor Bros Brick Company of Redlands and Redlands Plumbing Co won the contracts for construction and irrigation.
Bergstrom eventually moved to Washington, DC and became one of the two architects chosen to design the Pentagon, the world’s largest office building.
The Garden Grows
In 1929, Helen’s grandchildren decided to honor their grandmother with an expansion of the garden around the lower pool. They hired famed Los Angeles area landscape architect Edwin Huntsman Trout. He proposed an allée of tree roses leading to a heart-shaped border of boxwood containing a colorful array of tea roses inside. Helen loved the new garden so much she had one of her favorite sculptures, ‘Shy Girl,’ installed in the center of the heart.
Helen Kimberly kept a detailed journal of monthly tasks in the garden. This journal endured for many years after her passing in 1933. Her daughter, Mary Emma Shirk, used the timely advice noted by her mother and updated it through her years at Kimberly Crest.
Mary Emma Shirk, the youngest of seven Kimberly children, was widowed in 1920 and came to live with her aging parents. She lived in Kimberly Crest until her passing in 1979. She was a beloved and respected Redlands resident. She helped save Prospect Park from development and helped form a nonprofit association to administer Kimberly Crest House and Gardens as a museum and semi-public garden.
Kimberly-Shirk Association now owns and maintains Kimberly Crest House and Gardens. Tours of the garden and support for the preservation efforts are provided by a devoted group of volunteers, The Kimberly-Shirk Association Docent Auxiliary.
Since most of the construction was done in 1909, 2009 has been designated as the Kimberly Crest garden’s centennial year.
If You Should Like to Visit . . .
Kimberly Crest House and Gardens is located at 1325 Prospect Drive, Redlands, CA 92373. The garden is open without charge from 1 pm to 4 pm. For more information, visit www.kimberlycrest.org.