The Gardens of Alcatraz

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Alcatraz Island sits out in San Francisco Bay beckoning. And although I have been to San Francisco many times, for a myriad of reasons I had never been to Alcatraz, until last week.

The reasons why it was last week among all the others that was the day I went to Alcatraz is as varied as the reasons why I had never been. But I do know why I was very motivated to go this time – the gardens of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island has a long history, starting in the 1840s as the location of the first lighthouse on the West Coast, then a US military base and ending its tenure as a maximum-security prison. It is famous partly for housing Al Capone, partly for being ‘inescapable’ and partly because it is in San Francisco Bay. Throughout its history there have always been gardens,  and although they have never been as famous as their location the recent restoration project is bringing them their due attention.

Warden's Garden
Warden’s Garden

When Alcatraz was a maximum-security prison from 1934 – 1963 as many as 70 families of guards and staff lived on the island to service the prison. Under the unusual conditions of living on a desolate island along side a maximum-security prison, these families lived normal lives, including gardens. It is the gardens of this period of the island’s history, mainly the 1940s and 1950s, that are being restored. One warden had a garden and a greenhouse built for his wife, the officer’s had gardens along Officer’s Row, there was a Rose Terrace, the West lawn and Terraces and the Cellhouse Slope which faced San Francisco.  This slope was covered in iceplant, called “Persian carpet” by the inmates. The plantings served two purposes. One was erosion prevention and one was to soften the look of the island from the residents across the bay in San Francisco.

Officer's Row
Officer’s Row
Officer's Row
Officer’s Row
Officer's Row
Officer’s Row

 

 

Cellhouse Slope
Cellhouse Slope
Cellhouse Slope
Cellhouse Slope

In addition to working on the gardens of the warden and officers, the prisoners had their own garden at the end of the West Road. This garden was along the route that the prisoners took daily on their way to work in the prison industries. The soil was amended with garbage, a birdbath appeared, staff provided seeds and the prisoners gardened.

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Prisoner's Garden
Prisoner’s Garden
Prisoner's Garden
Prisoner’s Garden
Prisoner's Garden
Prisoner’s Garden

Alcatraz is an inhospitable place, known as “The Rock”. It is barren, windswept and sea splashed, not ideal garden conditions, but the residents – the voluntary and involuntary – created gardens for over a century. In the 1930s the warden’s secretary, Fred Reichel, contacted the California Horticultural Society and other western plant breeders to find out what types of plants would do well on the island’s harsh conditions and planted them.

Rose Terrace
Rose Terrace
Rose Terrace
Rose Terrace

The prison closed in 1963 and the island was abandoned. For 40 years the abandoned gardens were untouched. Beginning in 2003 the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service began a joint effort to preserve and restore the gardens. Remarkably, under the random growth of 40 years of neglect, the original gardens and hundreds of the original plantings, including those researched and used by Fred Reichel, were found to alive.

Geraniums planted to beautify the road to the cellhouse
Geraniums planted to beautify the road to the cellhouse
Alcatraz Geraniums
Alcatraz Geraniums

 

Today, 11 years after restoration began, but decades after planting, the gardens are there to be seen. They are still works of restoration, but easily distinguished as gardens, and remain, as all gardens, marvels of determination and survival.

12 thoughts on “The Gardens of Alcatraz

  1. Did you know about the gardens before going out there, or we’re they a pleasant surprise? Also, did you take the pics? I’m glad you were able to get a blog out of your recent trip to the left coast.

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  2. Fascinating Amy.

    I tried to post and having trouble with whatever wordpress account is associated. Have to do something — not sure what. But wanted you to know I tried to post!

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  3. I really appreciate your overview of the gardens of Alcatraz and your lovely photos. The care that has been put into those gardens, on that lonely rock, show just how important beautifying ones surroundings, where ever they may be, is for so many of us. I hope you enjoyed your trip to SF and thanks for the great post.

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    1. Perjoy, I totally agree that beautifying our surroundings is crucial. In fact, many prisoners talk about how important the Prisoner’s Garden was to them. Eventhough they may not have contributed to the growth or care of the garden, they walked through it every day on their way to work, and it improved moral.

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  4. Hi Amy. So glad you were able to visit Alcatraz. The photos are great. I’ve been several times, including just as the restoration was getting underway, so I saw it “before,” and also wrote an article for Landscape Architecture Magazine (“Gardening on the Rock,” Sept 2006). You’ve inspired me to return.

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