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Pasadena the Beautiful: Blossoms in Bloom at the Original Busch Gardens

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Busch Gardens in Pasadena | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

I am a big opponent of hyperbole in journalism. But I have never seen any residential neighborhoods remotely as beautiful as the ones in Pasadena and San Marino behind Orange Grove Boulevard. I have a hard time believing there are many areas in the world as lovely and refined. The homes are exquisitely-crafted and elegant, moneyed without being distasteful. There always seem to be children in Catholic school uniforms riding bikes, and couples strolling together in brightly colored sweaters. And the grounds -- the manicured green lawns, the tall stately trees, the sweet smell of flowers forever in bloom -- ah, be still my-Architectural Digest-aspiring-currently-rented-studio-dwelling heart.

California's Gold: Busch Gardens
Watch Huell Howser explore the remains of Busch Gardens.

At the corner of Arroyo Boulevard and Busch Gardens Drive, I stop my car in the midst of another affluent neighborhood. I am in search of the ruins of the once world famous public gardens of Adolphus and Lilly Busch, of "Budweiser" beer fame. The weeping willows and jacarandas, which dip down to the mostly dry riverbed of the Arroyo Seco, are a living testament to the park's legacy. There are little bits of magic all around -- the old metal fence, a concrete water fountain made to look like a log, and part of a pergola. There are sweeping stone terraces (the stone sourced from the Arroyo) that have been repurposed by homeowners as outdoor eating spaces and play spots. In one lucky yard, there are trickling stone pools that once stood in front of a long gone attraction known as the "Mystic Hut." The famed Old Mill (a recreation of the Banbury Cross Mill in England) still stands, but it is hidden away on private property, a fairyland for a lucky few.

From private to public, and back to private -- this cultivated land has been admired by millions of people in the last 110 years. Simply drive down the streets and you will sit up a little straighter, breathe a little deeper, and reflect on what a magic Eden California can be.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

 

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

The Most Heavenly Place

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Gilded age baron Adolphus Busch made his fortune quenching his adopted country's thirst. Born in Germany, he came to St. Louis as a young man. In 1861, he married another German native, Elisa "Lilly" Anheuser, and went into the brewing business with her father. He introduced the process of pasteurization to brewing, which meant that his beers could travel cross country. In 1878, he created "Budweiser," a pale ale palatable to the American masses that was named after a Bohemian town. The company flourished, as did the Busch family. Adolphus and Lilly (known as "Lady Bountiful" for her generosity) had thirteen children and were, by almost all accounts, a happy and devoted couple. They loved nature, children, and the Germanic fairytales of their youth. The family lived part of the year in their mansion at One Busch Place outside St. Louis, and often travelled to Villa Lilly, their palatial lodge near Wiesbaden, Germany.

As part of the new American aristocracy, it was only natural that the Busch family should make their way to Pasadena. By the turn of the century, Pasadena was the wintering spot of the upper crust, with grand hotels like the Hotel Greene and the Hotel Raymond filling up every "season." In the spring of 1904, Lilly and Adolphus decamped to Pasadena for the winter, arriving in their lush private Pullman car. They purchased "Ivy Wall," an 1898 English style manor covered with creeping vines on Orange Grove Boulevard. Families like the Wrigleys and the Gambles would soon join the Busches on Orange Grove, leading it to be called "the mile of millionaires." For the next few years, Adolphus would continually buy up more and more land around "Ivy Wall" and the Arroyo Secco River. Luxury realtor E.H. Lockwood acted as his agent. It is said that Lockwood had long envisioned a grand garden in this area, and the Busches were enthusiastic partners with a fat pocketbook and dreams of creating a private fairyland for their extended family.

Work on the approximately 14-acre formal "upper gardens" began almost immediately. Robert Gordon Fraser, a landscape architect originally from Scotland, devoted much of his life to the project and lived in a cottage on the property for many years. In 1906, work began on the informal, 16-acre "lower gardens." By 1906, the Busch Gardens were the talk of Southern California and informally opened to inquiring visitors.

Busch Gardens Postcard
Busch Gardens Postcard

 

Busch Gardens Postcard | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Busch Gardens Postcard | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The gardens' construction also began a somewhat fierce competition for "horticultural supremacy" among the millionaires of millionaire row. In the spring of 1906, the L.A. Times looked forward to an "exciting battle of millions," quoting one neighbor's vow to try to outdo Busch's rapidly expanding gardens. Much of the big work was often held off until the winter season, since Adolphus took "active interest in the work" and liked to "have it done under his personal direction." A great "sea wall" was constructed, boxing in the Arroyo Secco, which picturesquely wound through the lower gardens. In the summer of 1909, the gardens' gates were officially "thrown open to the public" free of charge. To control the crowds, the city furnished two patrolmen -- one for the upper garden, and one for the lower. The gardens quickly became one of the must see attractions in Southern California. In October of 1910, it was reported "fully 5,000 people" had jostled in the park on one day.

Although the gardens became a public place, they were still a very personal, private endeavor. Lilly added statues of characters from the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen to delight her grandchildren, and hosted local orphans for Easter egg hunts that included poultry dyed the same color as the eggs. Adolphus also built many things on the property especially for the grandchildren's enjoyment. According to the L.A. Times, the construction of the working reproduction of the Banbury Cross Mill and its surrounding waterfalls came about thusly:

Nothing is undertaken, no plans are made, without due consideration for the grandchildren. Their happy laughter and the prattle of their nursery rhymes are his especial delight... Said one of the grandchildren last spring while playing around his grandfather's chair, "Where is Banbury Cross? I would like to see it," said the child. "That settles it," said Mr. Busch, "We will have a reproduction of Banbury Cross built right here on the grounds. There is nothing like it to be found anywhere and we will have it. Send for Fraser! 5

The mill held another attraction for Busch. From his private den on the upper floor of his house, he had a view of all that had been created in the name of "beauty:"

On Oct 10, 1913, Adolphus Busch died at Villa Lilly in Germany. The grand gates to Busch Gardens were closed the day of his funeral. But they soon reopened under Lilly's care, and new statues appeared -- Cinderella in her kitchen, Little Red Riding hood in a gingerbread house, and Snow White with her seven dwarves. The fairytale would continue, at least for a while.

Old Mill in Busch Gardens | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Old Mill in Busch Gardens | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

 

Statues of Snow White and seven dwarves | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Statues of Snow White and seven dwarves | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

A Fairy Bower of Flower Land

The gardens continued to be a place to see and be seen, free of charge. In 1915, it was reported that 1,500,000 people had visited the gardens in a single year. Over 50 gardeners were on the payroll.

Lilly continued to spend winters at Ivy Wall and to take a keen interest in the gardens, especially the fountains, aviaries, and bronze and marble statues. But the outbreak of the First World War changed all of that. Though Lilly was an American citizen, two of her daughters had married German nationals. She was visiting her daughters when the war began, and the difficulty of wartime travel and ill health kept her in Europe for longer than she had intended. In the spring of 1918, while Lilly was in Havana on her way home, it was announced that the government had seized all of her properties, including Ivy Wall and its famed sunken gardens. In December, the matter was cleared up. She proved she was a citizen of the United States and not a secret supporter of Germany. She returned triumphantly to Ivy Wall, telling the Los Angeles Times: "I am delighted to return to Southern California...I know I shall have a happy season here."

With prohibition came more headaches for the Busch family. The Busch Gardens' elves had to drink "Bevo," the Anheuser-Busch Company's version of non-alcoholic beer, instead of Budweiser. The gardens, which had been open to the public seven days a week since 1912 at a cost of around $50,000 annually, were temporarily put up for sale and closed. Although some of the gardens were sold to developers, Lilly found a way to keep her husband's dream alive -- but the days of free fun were over. In 1920, the Pasadena Hospital Association was given the use of the remaining gardens for the year. From 1921-1928, the American Legion of California was given charge of the gardens. In return for helping run the gardens, the Legion received proceeds from the new entrance fees, which were still incredibly cheap. The booming film industry began to use the beautiful grounds as an ideal outdoor set. A working farm also operated on the property, supplying those who worked there with holiday turkeys and fresh eggs.

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Lilly's death in 1928 threw the gardens into fresh turmoil. She had forgotten to make provisions for the "most artistic and extensive privately-owned parks on the western continent." The gardens were closed again. The last day they were opened, a reporter walked the grounds before the gates shut at 5 p.m.

But ironically, the Depression gave the gardens a third and final chance at life. In 1933, the gardens were again given over to a charity -- this time the Unemployment Relief Group. Over 10,000 people attended the reopening, which featured pony rides, boxing, circus performers, movie stars and a fashion show. In 1935, the Legion again took control of the park. The venue was still a popular spot, playing host to the Pasadena Flower Show, local dog shows, and even more Easter egg hunts. The park finally closed for good in 1937, but it continued to be used in countless motion pictures. These films include classics like "Gone with the Wind," "Citizen Kane," "Frankenstein," "The Barrett's of Wimpole Street," "The Adventures of Robin Hood," 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and "Saratoga Trunk." In 1939, Hedda Hopper recounted an amusing incident during one such film shoot:

At Busch Gardens location Clark Gable waited in his car with his stand-in. When the garden gateman, who's been on that job for years, walked over to Gable's car, peered in, and saw them, he asked "which one of you guys is Gable?" 10

Shaped cypress tree inside Busch Gardens | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Shaped cypress tree inside Busch Gardens | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

 

Busch Gardens, shortly before it was sold off in 1943 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Busch Gardens, shortly before it was sold off in 1943 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

A Legend Reborn

After the gardens were closed to the public, the Busch family continued to sell them off piecemeal to high end developers, many of whom made a point to utilize the leftover beauty of the place in their design. Ivy Wall was sold in 1948, and is now a well-kept apartment complex. In the 1960s, Anheuser-Busch reimagined Busch Gardens -- opening theme parks in Van Nuys, Houston, Williamsburg, VA, and Tampa, FL. Today, only the Williamsburg and Tampa locations remain. As a child, I went to the Williamsburg Busch Gardens several times and was delighted by the cheesy magic I encountered there. But now, I think I much prefer the ruins of the original Busch Gardens, or better yet, a home on the land, with stone-terracing winding though my property. Now that, my friends, would be a real adult fairytale come true.

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1 "Half million more just spent by busch" Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1910
2 "Pasadena 'heaven' to the president" Los Angeles Times,October 13, 1909
3 "Busch starts competition: millionaire revives interest in gardening" Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1906
4 "Lose way to Busch Gardens: many persons disappointed in the search" Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1910
5 "Half million more just spent by busch" Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1910
6 Ibid.
7 "One of our quaintest show places" Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1926
8 "Enchanted gardens" Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1928
9 "Busch gardens gates closed" Los Angeles Times, September 1928
10 "Hedda Hopper" Los Angeles Times, March 23, 1939

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