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.
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.
The Most Heavenly Place
Now, Fraser, I want you to make for me the most heavenly place on the face of the earth. Use your best judgment and all the skill you have. Hire all the men you need, go to all the expense you wish, send the bills to Lockwood. But understand, I must have the most beautiful gardens, the most artistic grounds and the most attractive park to be found anywhere in the world. I don't want any imitations of other parks or grounds. This place must be original, must be unique and must be par excellence.--Adolphus Busch, 1910 1
I know Adolphus Busch very well and I wonder if he would like to turn these gardens over for a golf links. I would like to play golf here and sit down under those beautiful trees when I got tired.--President Taft, while visiting Busch Gardens, 190922
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's sunken gardens were one of the sights for visitors this season, and if the present ideas are carried out, another year will see the crest of Arroyo for a mile or more transformed into a sylvan paradise. Not only will great lawns be put in, but rare trees will be brought from foreign lands and delicate shrubs and vines will be planted to lend color to the landscape. Floriculture and arboriculture have received an impetus during the last year that augurs well for the artistic appearance of Pasadena.3
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.
At times it seemed that every walk in both gardens were crowded with sightseers, in addition to this every seat was filled the greater part of the time. The day was delightful and almost everyone was out of doors. In addition to this the street cars were crowded. Thousands of people came from points outside of Pasadena to see the beautiful spots which are more charming this year than ever before... The California street car line was crowded all the time. In addition to the cars, hundreds of people availed themselves of the public carriages and automobiles with signs on them that said Busch's Sunken Gardens. Considerable complaint was made by the out of town visitors on account of the inconvenience they went to in finding their way to the beautiful place.4
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:"
From this hill the entire Busch estate can be overlooked, the sunken gardens in the immediate foreground; to the north the beautiful "blossoms" flower gardens; to the west the gardens on top of the old hill; to the south the small orange orchards and on in the distance the Arroyo Gardens which lie beyond Grand Avenue. 6
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.
A Fairy Bower of Flower Land
A series of steps lead down from the main entrance into a fairy bower of flower land. Trees, shrubs, flowers, blossoming vines and singing birds all act together to complete the charms cast upon every lover of the outdoors. Here and there are little shady dells connected by winding pathways which seem to wander aimlessly about, crossing streams, climbing hills and leading finally to some sheltered resting place where comfortable rustic seats invite one to tarry a bit.7...None seemed more real or more domesticated than figures of the "little people" who looked as if they might have just stepped out of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, nodding as one passed, pointing, whispering, and in many instances holding mugs of foaming fluid.8
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.
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.
The shadows of trees collected from distant parts of the earth will continue to cast entrancing shadows on the ponds and the lawns, the elfin plaster and bronze figures of Mother Goose lore will still smile and smirk, but from the standpoint of George W. Copping, 85-year old Civil War veteran, who has patrolled the estate for 25 years, "The gardens are sure dead without kids and folks in them. The thing that hurts me is that thousands of people who live right here have never seen that tree in the gardens which grew from a slip cut from a rare weeping willow tree on the grave of Napoleon at Longwood, St. Helena. And children now being born will never see the Banbury Cross Mill on the east side of the gardens... 9
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
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.
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
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