Unfortunately, we’ve also managed to lose one of the crown jewels of those early private gardens that eventually became public: Busch Gardens in Pasadena.
A precursor to the brewery tour/amusement park experience in Van Nuys and a distant ancestor to the theme parks/water parks that still operate in Florida and Virginia, the Pasadena attraction focused specifically on the gardens. It didn’t need boat rides or exotic bird shows or rollercoasters – the gardens were that spectacular.
Created by beer baron Adolphus Busch (of the Anheuser-Busch brewing conglomerate) and once considered the “8th Wonder of the World,” Busch Gardens reimagined the landscape surrounding the dry riverbed known as the Arroyo Seco: The steep, cliffed, sloping, and unforgiving landscape were transformed into a showcase of art and beauty.
But now, all we have left are the postcards, a few movies that were shot there, and a jigsaw puzzle of remaining pieces scattered throughout private lots and yards and lawns. With all of the development that's occurred on those hillsides – and all the plots that have been subdivided between Orange Grove Boulevard (a.k.a. “Millionaire’s Row”) and the Arroyo Seco canyon -- it does take a little hunting to find what’s hiding in plain view.
Here are 10 points of interest where you’re most likely to find them, all within a two-mile walk, one-way from beginning to end (with some flat areas as well as gradual slopes).
1. Start your walk on the west side of Orange Grove Boulevard at Arlington Drive, where Adolphus and Lilly Busch spent their winters (escaping the cold of their native Germany and stateside home in St. Louis) on Millionaire’s Row at their English-style mansion, the so-called “Ivy Wall.”
When the gardens first opened to the public just after the turn of the last century, nearly everything was covered in ivy – but Ivy Wall was razed in 1952, and most of those crawling vines have largely given way to the shadows of a horticultural wonder of days gone by.
This was also the original front entrance to the formal, Victorian-style gardens in the easternmost reaches of the original footprint, known as the Upper Gardens.
These were the crowning glory of Scottish landscape architect and horticulturalist Robert Gordon Fraser, who was hired to work his botanical magic on Busch’s own backyard.
2. Walk north and hang a left down Orange Circle Drive, part of the designated Upper Busch Gardens Cultural Landscape Historic District and originally considered within the bounds of “The Annex,” which was only officially part of Busch Gardens from 1910 to 1917.
Here, the houses and garages themselves aren’t significant; but this is where you may spot the first of many decorative features secreted away in private backyards, invisible even to the most scrutinous eye of a passerby.
Look for rock planters and concrete railings made to look like tree logs (a style known as “faux bois”), a theme that will continue throughout your stroll.
3. Next, walk down Madeline Drive, past the former John S. Cravens Estate (occupied by the American Red Cross since the 1960s) and toward the Arroyo Seco (respecting the privacy of the residents by keeping your viewing to the sidewalk).
Now, it may take some finagling to get the most significant property in the historic district, known colloquially as “The Old Mill,” within eyeshot.
After all, you can barely see it from the street – and that’s because Adolphus and Lilly Busch didn’t build it for the public.
Rather, their grandchildren had heard about the one in Banbury Cross, England in one of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes and wanted to see it, so they got one all to themselves.
Although technically it could have worked as a mill (and was outfitted with a water wheel), it served no official function for the gardens other than as the Busch grandchildren’s glorified treehouse (and as a man cave for the Busch men).
It’s been privately owned as a residence for the last several decades, but to get a sense of it – and the fairytale spirit of the original gardens – look out for it whimsical entrance gate, which faces the sidewalk on Madeline Drive.
4. Just past the gate on the north side of the street you’ll find Stoneridge Drive, a residential side street that once served as a service entrance to the gardens.
Many of the properties here are roughly at the center of the historic district -- and, though the houses were built after Busch Gardens was subdivided, you may find some original concrete walkways, rock retaining walls, and benches scattered about.
5. Also on Madeline, you’ll see an original pergola that stands as a gateway to the gardens’ former natatorium, now standing guard in front of a private home.
6. Along South Arroyo Boulevard (known then as Arroyo Drive), you’ll find another, more contemporary house that was built in 1951 – right onto the “Grecian Pergola” (circa 1910).
This circular structure, with its iconic wood beams, once overlooked an area of the gardens called the “Camel’s Hump” and has been kept in its (more or less) open-air original state.
7. That’s also approximately where you’ll find a marker made of Arroyo rock at the former entrance to the Lower Gardens, where a ticket booth once stood (though admission to the gardens was free until 1920).
Look for the telltale V-mesh fencing that kept critters out and prevented horse hooves from getting caught in it, now rusted, but still there. And through the other side of it, you can see more of the original sidewalks and rock-lined paths (several miles of them!) for strolling through.
The Lower Gardens, added in 1905, were far more rustic than their neighboring counterpart up above – and so this is where you could find not only sheep out to pasture, but also an aviary and terra cotta fairytale figurines (including some garden gnomes imported from Germany).
8. The easiest place to orient yourself in the lower section – now designated as the Lower Busch Gardens Cultural Landscape Historic District -- is where Busch Garden Drive meets Busch Place and Busch Garden Court (which also meets Busch Garden Lane).
The street signs and the carved curbs will tip you off as to your location.
9. No swans swim in a pond here anymore, but this is where you’ll still find natural flowing springs and fountains built out of river rocks harvested right from the Arroyo Seco, as well as the once-picturesque, terraced “Cactus Wall.”
The “Mystic Hut” – a playhouse with a thatched roof – is long gone, too, but its foundation still stands on someone’s front lawn.
10. Perhaps the most obvious feature to find while roaming the grounds is some of the original landscaping – so look for some turn-of-the-century trees (like live oaks), cacti and other succulents, and maybe even some leftover ivy.
Much of our knowledge about Busch Gardens today owes a great debt to the research of Gary Cowles and Michael Logan, which formed the basis for the historic district nominations and designations. Nearly 40 boxes of Cowles’s collection – from binders of clippings, photographs, and postcards to glass plates, slides, DVDs, and CDs – now reside at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens Manuscripts Department. Access is granted to qualified researchers by prior application through the Reader Services Department.
Bonus: Anheuser-Busch Brewery / Busch Gardens, Van Nuys
If you’re also curious about the former Busch Gardens amusement park that operated next to Anheuser-Busch’s Van Nuys brewery for over a dozen years, you may be in luck. Although public tours hadn’t been conducted since the closure of the amusement park in 1979, Anheuser-Busch opened its brewery up to the public in September 2017 as part of its “Brewed Locally” campaign – and it may do so again. When you get in, look for the historical marker above a pile of rocks excavated from the original site, as well as the former monorail. It no longer moves people, but it does transport product.