Rudolph Ulrich’s Arizona Gardens

Dasylirion, Opuntia, Agave, Yucca, and various columnar cactuses in the restored Arizona Garden at the Naval Post Graduate School (formerly the Hotel del Monte) in Monterey. Photograph by William Grant

Dasylirion, Opuntia, Agave, Yucca, and various columnar cactuses in the restored Arizona Garden at the Naval Post Graduate School (formerly the Hotel del Monte) in Monterey. Photograph by William Grant

Rudolph Ulrich . . . created exuberant, almost outrageous horticultural extravagences for three of the state’s major resort hotels. . . . he was an extremely competent horticulturist, capable of orchestrating complex arrangements of shrubs and trees that had bright flowers and highly varied textures.

David Streatfield, California Gardens: Creating a New Eden

In 1880s California, there existed a distinct and exotic type of garden known as the “Arizona garden.” Laid out formally and composed of a combination of desert and subtropical plants, these gardens were the creation of the noted nineteenth-century landscape gardener, Rudolph Ulrich. His two most elaborate Arizona gardens, at Monterey and at Stanford University (near Palo Alto), have been restored and can be visited today. A third one, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, has also been restored; it sits immediately east of the recently renovated Conservatory of Flowers.

Of German descent, Rudolph Ulrich immigrated to America at the age of twenty-seven in 1868. By the early 1870s, he was working on various estates built on the San Francisco Peninsula, among them Millbrae, Thurlow Lodge, Linden Towers, and Palo Alto. He also received commissions in other parts of the Bay Area and points farther south. His most significant job in California was as landscape superintendent of the Hotel del Monte (now the Naval Postgraduate School) in Monterey. This famed seaside resort hotel had been built in 1880 by Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Collis P Huntington, owners of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, to stimulate a passenger trade. It was justly renowned for its extensive and beautiful grounds.

Ulrich spent his entire adult life working as a landscape gardener, adopting the title of landscape architect in the latter part of his career. Landscape architect Stephen Child considered him to be “one of the best trained men of his day” and gave Ulrich full credit for the splendor of the Del Monte grounds. Educated in Saxony, Italy, Belgium, and England, Ulrich worked on several European estates before coming to America.

Ulrich was particularly known for creating extravagant formal landscapes, comprising  both native and exotic plants. He utilized a gardenesque style for many of his estate and hotel designs, displaying diverse botanical specimens in large areas of velvety turf. He used fountains, urns, and statuary as focal points in his landscapes, and often included artificial lakes and hedge mazes as additional design elements.

Historic view of the entire Hotel del Monte Arizona Garden in Monterey. Photograph by Isaiah West Taber

Historic view of the entire Hotel del Monte Arizona Garden in Monterey. Photograph by Isaiah West Taber

Hotel del Monte

Ulrich was hired by Charles Crocker to design the Hotel del Monte grounds (126 landscaped acres) at some point between mid-1880 and early 1881. The first specific mention of his name in connection with the hotel appeared in the Monterey newspapers on November 3, 1881:

Restored Arizona Garden at the Naval Post Graduate School (formerly the Hotel del Monte) in Monterey. Author’s photograph

Restored Arizona Garden at the Naval Post Graduate School (formerly the Hotel del Monte) in Monterey. Author’s photograph

Mr. Ulrich, the head gardener at the Hotel del Monte, returned on Wednesday last from a trip to Mexico, where he has been to purchase plants indigenous to that country. One carload of cactus and other tropical plants have already arrived and three more are expected next week.

The plants gathered on this trip (and others like it) were used to create what Ulrich called an “Arizona garden.” To obtain as many plants as he needed to generously fill the garden, he had been given the use of a locomotive and several boxcars, along with a crew of eight men and six teams of horses. He made his way by rail to the Arizona Territory and farther south into Mexico, where he collected and purchased plants of the Sonoran Desert. Several years later, he would write to Frederick Law Olmsted: was delighted with my success, materially and financially, not remembering however all the trials I had to go through.”

One can readily imagine what these trials consisted of. Travel through the Sonoran Desert in the late nineteenth century could only be scheduled during the fall months, in order to avoid the worst of the region’s killing heat. Ulrich would have been limited in how far he could venture from the railroad tracks. Driving their wagons through shifting sand on nonexistent roads, he and his crew then had to grapple with mature and wickedly thorned plants, some of which reached heights of ten feet and more.

Once back in Monterey, Ulrich cut down several trees (the hotel had been built within a natural grove of pines and oaks) to create a broad sunny area for the garden. He laid out a complex series of fifty-seven raised beds in four symmetrical quadrants radiating around one large central bed. The site he chose (southwest of the hotel) was not close to the main building, but could only be glimpsed from the veranda through the surrounding trees and shrubbery. Whether he deliberately sited this most unusual garden as one might a magnificent rose garden—behind a hedge or around the corner, as a prize to be discovered by the more intrepid hotel guests—is open to conjecture. The positioning of a hedge maze, another popular landscape feature of the day, in the exact opposite area of the grounds (southeast of the hotel) makes it seem likely that both of these horticultural curiosities were placed by Ulrich for optimum effect.

All of the Arizona Garden beds were densely planted to provide an impression of spiny lushness, and many were adorned with intricate plant arrangements known as carpet bedding. These particular beds provide a true reflection of Ulrich’s reputation for placing plants together in a complex and elaborate manner. He used several kinds of plants in each bed and worked out flowing lines of rocks or shells throughout the design. He also used serpentine rock to outline each of the beds. This particular style of carpet bedding (or mosaiculture) was a traditional feature of gardens in Germany, where it was known as teppichgartnerei. Ulrich employed it liberally throughout the hotel grounds, in addition to featuring it in the Arizona Garden.

Tall columnar saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) were a signature of the original Hotel del Monte Arizona Garden in Monterey. Photograph by CWJ Johnson

Tall columnar saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) were a signature of the original Hotel del Monte Arizona Garden in Monterey. Photograph by CWJ Johnson

While it is true that cacti, particularly the much-prized saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), were featured prominently in the Arizona Garden, it was not a cactus garden per se. As a high Victorian landscape gardener, Ulrich was  interested in using the widest possible variety of plants available to him. Garden historian Mac Griswold wrote that Ulrich “made gardens where the plantings were meant to look like a cornucopia of the world’s flora,” and the Del Monte Arizona Garden was no exception to this approach. In addition to over sixty species of cacti, the garden was planted with numerous other succulents (notably agaves, aloes, and yuccas), palms, conifers, ornamental grasses, and flowers. Two Victorian classics, monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) and pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana), featured prominently in several beds. No type of plant would have been considered out-of-place in this garden.

Ulrich was not concerned with today’s issues of water conservation or low maintenance, nor was he interested in grouping plants by origin or even by similar water requirements. Instead, he placed plants precisely and specifically to create dramatic visual effects, with texture and color his primary concerns. He worked in an environment of relatively limitless resources; his wealthy clients could easily afford the labor it took to maintain such gardens, and were willing to do so. Ironically, the Del Monte Arizona Garden likely resulted from an initially limited water supply. Ulrich’s use of desert plants in a formal design answered the need for an impressive public garden with minimal irrigation.

Ulrich deliberately mixed together plants with dissimilar water requirements. All of the beds that were not carpet bedded were edged with flowers or small cacti and succulents; Ulrich was able to get away with this by using a combination of excellent drainage and judicious hand watering. Despite his eclectic choice of plants, the Del Monte Arizona Garden was touted as an example of an appropriate garden for California’s dry climate by the horticultural journal Garden and Forest in 1888. The editor focused on the “harmonious planting” of the saguaros, palms, and Monterey pines that surrounded the garden.  Another writer, Charles Henderson, felt that Ulrich’s creation was the ideal subtropical garden, and featured it in his Henderson’s Picturesque Gardens and Ornamental Gardening Illustrated, published by Peter Henderson and Company in 1908.

The garden caused a great sensation once it was planted, and was featured prominently in Hotel del Monte literature and marketing. Hotel pamphlets pointed out with great pride that the Arizona Garden was not “under glass” as it would need to have been in the eastern United States; this was proof, indeed, of California’s “superior” climate. The large size of the garden (30,625 square feet), the variety and rarity of the plants, and the use of formal design was absolutely unique in California at the time. Guests of the hotel came from all parts of the United States, as well as England and Europe, and were suitably impressed by this seaside desert garden, often posing for photographs amongst the plants.

Ulrich was to spend almost a decade at the Hotel del Monte (resigning his position there in 1890), but he spent a fair amount of that time away from Monterey. He worked for nearby cities, such as Santa Cruz and San Jose, and for wealthy and influential hotel guests who wanted their estates to resemble the famed Del Monte grounds. He also landscaped other resort hotels with railroad connections, such as the Hotel Rafael in San Rafael and the Hotel Redondo in Redondo Beach. His varied commissions took Ulrich routinely up and down the state.

Fashions suggest an 1890s date for this historic view of the Stanford Arizona Garden. Photograph courtesy Stanford University Archives

Fashions suggest an 1890s date for this historic view of the Stanford Arizona Garden. Photograph courtesy Stanford University Archives

The Stanford Project

Leland and Jane Stanford had an opportunity to view Ulrich’s early work on the San Francisco Peninsula (he was employed on several estates owned by close neighbors), but it appears that he did not work for them until after he began his sojourn at the Del Monte. As part owners and frequent guests at the hotel, they certainly were aware of what he had accomplished there and must have decided that they wanted a similar landscape for their 8,900-acre Santa Clara County estate known as Palo Alto. They hired Ulrich to design the grounds surrounding a new mansion they intended to build on the property. This landscape was to include an arboretum, an artificial lake, and extensive formal gardens; one of these gardens was to be an Arizona Garden.

A site for the proposed new mansion had been chosen as early as 1880, and a beginning had been made on the planting of the arboretum that was to surround it. Maps in the Stanford University Archives show that the Arizona Garden was planted immediately adjacent to the building site at some point between 1881 and 1883. Clearly, the Stanfords intended this barbed garden to be an extremely visible feature of their new landscape—a status symbol that reflected Leland Stanford’s great wealth and unique resources as a railroad man. Ulrich made another foray into the Sonoran Desert, this time returning with numerous saguaros, which were the chief design element for this particular Arizona Garden.

A variety of cactuses and succulents fill the beds in Stanford’s recently restored Arizona Garden. Author’s photograph

A variety of cactuses and succulents fill the beds in Stanford’s recently restored Arizona Garden. Author’s photograph

Like that at the Del Monte, the layout of this garden was formal, yet the two designs were quite different from one another. Although both featured a symmetrical, quadrilateral layout, the Stanford garden was bisected by a wide main axis, and the overall shape of the garden was elliptical. The Del Monte garden had no obvious entry points and was orbicular in outline. The Stanford garden was a private estate garden and was planted more sparsely, possibly to give it a more desert-like appearance. In later years, however, the garden was allowed to grow wild and the plants spilled out of the beds and crowded into the pathways. There were flower borders, as well as the conifers characteristic of Ulrich’s designs. There is no photographic evidence that any bedding was planted within the Stanford Arizona Garden, though it was utilized elsewhere on the residential grounds.

The Stanfords’ only child, Leland Stanford Jr, died unexpectedly in 1884, shortly before his sixteenth birthday. His grieving parents decided to build a university in his memory on their Palo Alto estate. Plans for their new mansion were abandoned. Today the only remnants of their ambitious landscape endeavors are the Arizona Garden and the Arboretum, which Ulrich worked on throughout 1884, planting some 12,000 trees. Construction of the Leland Stanford Junior University began in 1887 and the school opened on October 1, 1891. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the first campus landscape consisted primarily of the eight planted circles set within the center of the Inner Quadrangle. A number of plants (including thirty palms) were dug up from the Arizona Garden and transplanted to these circles, along with plants taken from other areas of the Stanford estate. Additional palms were brought by rail from Santa Barbara. Many of these original trees can still be seen standing within the circles today.

Once the university opened, the Stanfords’ Arizona Garden assumed a public campus identity. It was soon adopted by generations of students as a favored courting spot, despite, as the first campus registrar noted in 1896, the “bristling cacti and other uncompromising specimens of Nature’s pessimistic moods” that made strolling in the garden something of a challenge. The University Archives contain many photographs of students and campus visitors posing in the garden. Art classes were assigned to sketch or paint the garden, and, recently, an English class was given the task of writing newspaper articles about the garden’s origins and history. (See Pacific Horticulture, July ’03 for more on the campus gardens.)

Postmarked in 1909, this historic postcard view of the Golden Gate Park Arizona Garden features the Victorian stairs. Photograph courtesy San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department

Postmarked in 1909, this historic postcard view of the Golden Gate Park Arizona Garden features the Victorian stairs. Photograph courtesy San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department

Golden Gate Park

The most atypical Arizona garden is one that was planted in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, adjacent to the Conservatory of Flowers. There has been no confirmation yet found that Ulrich planted this garden, although there is evidence pointing toward this conclusion. First of all, he mentions bringing back plants for the park in an 1887 letter to Olmsted. Secondly, Crocker and Stanford both participated in arranging for the Conservatory to be bought from James Lick’s San Jose estate and set up in the park in 1879. Crocker donated $10,000 for repairs when the Conservatory was damaged by fire in 1883. Stanford also served on the Park Commission in the early 1880s. It would be a logical assumption, knowing that the Hotel del Monte’s Arizona Garden had made a big impression, that either one of these gentlemen might offer the park Ulrich’s services, both in gathering plants and designing the garden.

The Golden Gate Park Arizona Garden was planted on either side of a Victorian-style wooden stairway that was situated close to the eastern end of the Conservatory. Known as the Golden Stairway, the Grand Stairs, or the Terrace, the gingerbread staircase enabled park visitors to walk down to the valley floor from a roadway that ran above and behind the Conservatory. The top and mid-point platforms of the zigzag stairway provided a view of the entire valley.

A variegated agave highlights current plantings of aloes, aeoniums, Opuntia, and Cotyledon orbiculata (in the foreground) at the Golden Gate Park Arizona Garden. Photograph by RGT

A variegated agave highlights current plantings of aloes, aeoniums, Opuntia, and Cotyledon orbiculata (in the foreground) at the Golden Gate Park Arizona Garden. Photograph by RGT

Its siting and design are the most prominent differences between this garden and the other Arizona gardens. While the others were invariably formal and laid out on flat ground, this garden was planted in a naturalistic style that was, perhaps, better suited to the site’s sloping terrain. Illustrations and photographs of the garden suggest it did not appear to have had the variety of desert plants found in the other Arizona gardens; the vegetation seems to have been largely confined to agaves, yuccas, and dracaenas. The close proximity to the Conservatory would have been the ideal placement for a garden displaying the ultimate in exotic species. It is certainly possible that it initially contained more botanical variety, but that only the most adaptable plants survived San Francisco’s damp and foggy climate. Photographs of the garden in 1887 show a heavy snowfall that may have killed off some specimens. Plant loss through vandalism is another possibility. There clearly was evergreen shrubbery and some sort of herbaceous plantings, in addition to the aforementioned species, and this mixed plant palette was in keeping with the other Arizona gardens. This garden, like the Hotel del Monte Arizona Garden, received favorable notice in the local press.

It has been falsely written that the Golden Gate Park Arizona Garden was created for the Mid-Winter Fair of 1894. An engraving of the garden and stairway was published in the 1888 edition of John Muir’s Picturesque California and the Region West of the Rocky Mountains, from Alaska to Mexico. Another photograph, dated November 5, 1883, is found in the Redington Album, which is housed at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. This photograph shows the Golden Stairway in place, but it is impossible to tell if the Arizona Garden had been planted yet. If Ulrich did indeed plant the garden, the most likely timeframe would have been sometime between 1881 and 1883.

Historic view of the Arizona Garden on the lower grounds of the Hotel Raymond in South Pasadena. Photograph  courtesy Pasadena Historical Society

Historic view of the Arizona Garden on the lower grounds of the Hotel Raymond in South Pasadena. Photograph courtesy Pasadena Historical Society

Hotel Raymond

There is ample evidence available of when Ulrich planted an Arizona garden at the Hotel Raymond in South Pasadena. It was reported in the Pasadena Chronicle, November 22, 1883, that Ulrich “will superintend and plan the landscape work of the entire tract and approaches and decorate the grounds” of the resort hotel, which was being built by Walter Raymond. Ulrich had arrived in South Pasadena by train from Monterey on December 7, and had “gone to Arizona” to collect plants a week later. He returned “from Mexico” two days after Christmas, delighted to have found twelve species of cactus that he had never encountered before.

The Hotel Raymond Arizona Garden was sited at the flat bottom of a sloping, landscaped terrace that fronted the hotel. It was a relatively small garden, consisting of one large circle surrounded by adjacent beds that were densely planted in a formal style. The texture and lushness of the garden were its most striking aspects, and the dry South Pasadena climate was probably the one best suited for an Arizona garden. Other desert plants were utilized at various points about the grounds.

Curiously, when the hotel opened for business three years later, Ulrich would write to official Hotel del Monte photographer CWJ Johnson, “Rest assured, the Raymond is no Del Monte.” Whether the meticulous Ulrich was dissatisfied with the level of grounds maintenance at the Hotel Raymond, or simply disappointed that the full extent of his original plan had not been implemented, is not clear.

All that remains of the Hotel Raymond’s grounds today is the groundskeeper’s cottage. It has been converted into a small restaurant and is surrounded by lush, subtropical foliage. There are no traces of the Arizona Garden.

Other Projects

It is not known when wealthy businessman Frank C. Havens had an Arizona garden planted on his estate in the Piedmont section of Oakland. Two photographs of it can be found in Elinor Richey’s The Ultimate Victorians (Howell-North Books, 1970). It certainly bears all the hallmarks of an Ulrich Arizona garden, but no other evidence documenting its existence has been found to date. The rock-edged beds appear to be of a formal layout similar to that of the Hotel del Monte Arizona Garden, and there is a wide variety of plants (desert plants mixed with conifers and herbaceous vegetation) typical of Ulrich’s designs. This garden was sited on a large sloping area near the house and was surrounded by trees and shrubbery. It no longer exists.

Ulrich was invited by Frederick Law Olmsted to become the landscape superintendent of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This commission involved over two years of preparation plus the six-month duration of the World’s Fair itself. The most noted landscape feature of the Columbian Exposition was the Wooded Island.

An Arizona garden was planted along the front of the Horticulture Building and this garden, unlike its predecessor at Golden Gate Park, displayed numerous species of cacti and succulents. A walkway ran between the building and the garden; the back of the garden was a straight line and the front was laid out in a large scalloped edge delineated with rock. Turf was planted between the scalloped edge and the roadway and hung with chain to keep people off of the lawn. The garden was completely jammed with desert plants, and enormous branched saguaros were placed at the main entrance to the building. This garden only existed for the duration of the fair; it is likely that the plants were returned to the suppliers or auctioned off once the fair closed. They certainly would not have survived a typical Chicago winter without the protection of a glasshouse. There is no corroborating evidence that Ulrich designed this garden beyond the facts that the formal design and wide variety of plants used exemplify his signature Arizona gardens. If he did not design it personally, it was certainly done by someone emulating his elaborate style.

There are many spectacular dry gardens to be seen in California today, including the Desert Garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino and The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, but these gardens are twentieth-century creations and both are laid out in a naturalistic style. The Arizona gardens are true Victorian gardens, unique in their time for their formal layout and for the many rare plants they displayed. To visit the restored Arizona Gardens at Monterey, Stanford University, and Golden Gate Park is to walk back through time into the flamboyant horticultural past of the Gilded Age.