History, Landmarks, Local

Exploring Kaiser’s Rooftop Garden

As Monday got underway in our household, my son asked if we could go to Fairyland.  While I know how blessed I am to be home with both my children on Monday and Tuesday, it is critical to all of our sanity to keep them moving and out of the house.  Unfortunately, until summer officially hits and the school year fades into memory, Fairyland is closed on these two days.  So as my brain churned away on how to spend the morning, I thought, “maybe we can SEE Fairyland from the Kaiser rooftop garden.”  The garden has been on my radar for quite some time.  The overcast morning would be perfect for snapping pictures.  I had to pick sometime up downtown.  So, why not go look?  The answer to my question turned out to be no, you can only see the Fairyland sign.  Yet we had fun exploring, snacking, and watching the family of ducks come and go.  Once the largest rooftop garden in the world, this oasis amidst concrete gave us a fun family park trip to kick off the week.

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While rooftop gardens have become a bit more popular in recent years, the Kaiser version was one of the first when it was completed over 55 years ago in 1960.  The largest in the world when it was finished, this bit of paradise surrounded by buildings was the brainchild of Edgar Kaiser Sr., the son of local shipbuilding magnate Henry J. Kaiser.  Perched atop a 5-story parking garage, with just 10 inches of shale and soil separating it from the actual roof in many places, the garden is not only beautiful, but designed and engineered with weight and drainage in mind.  The 8,800 square foot pond gives the illusion of depth due to a dark bottom, but is in fact only 16 inches deep.  The 42 specimens of trees, which include olive, holly oak, Japanese maple, and Southern magnolia, are strategically placed in the gardens design so they sit atop support columns in the garage structure below.  Soil mixes are lightweight blends, pathways and structures are lightweight concrete, and all rocks and boulders are porous pumice stone.

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Kaiser 10As the kids explored, looking at ladybugs and watching bees buzz around, I enjoyed the color on display, the site of the duck “teenagers” waddling after their mom, and appreciated how quiet and peaceful it was.  A handful of employees came and went, taking a shortcut through the garden.  Casual meetings were underway.  A pair of friends chatted on a bench by the pond.  I wound up pulling out my phone to learn more about Holy Names University after a commemorative plaque caught my eye.  The school was founded in 1868 at this spot along the lake, later sold to Kaiser in 1956 when they moved to the Mountain Blvd. campus.

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As the kids wound down and took a break on the wooden bench that crosses the pond, I was once again in the mindset of how much Oakland amazes me.  While we couldn’t spend our morning on the Jolly Trolley or watching a puppet show, we found another midcentury treat to enjoy; a way to spend time together outdoors, right in the middle of the city.  Thank you Mr. Kaiser.



The Kaiser Rooftop Garden is located on top of the 5-story parking garage at the Kaiser Center.  The address is 300 Lakeside Drive Oakland, CA 94612

PS: a note on parking – we did chose to park in the Kaiser Center garage.  However, it is not cheap.  The rate is $4/30 min.  I wound up paying $12 to park.  However, parking in this section of town can be tricky, unless you are willing to walk.  Just something to keep in mind.  There are signs to the garden inside the garage, and you chose “RG” as your floor.

nearly 150 years in Oaklandwww.hnu.edu
American Roof Gardenshttps://books.google.com/books

Photos by Adrienne Schell

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  • Reply Eric December 4, 2018 at 12:48 pm


    As we both know, this rooftop garden is an absolute GEM. The perfect place to have a midday break or unwind after work.

    Love the images .


  • Reply Davida Hartman May 12, 2016 at 8:34 am

    Adrienne—I love all of your posts and the one I just finished reading–Kaiser’s Rooftop Garden—is so beautiful–crisp, clear, informative writing, inviting photography–and ALL. Your Mother’s Day essay reminded me that I need to explore Walden Pond Books and Toast and the Urban Wine Trail. This blog is exemplary–and your pleasant, cheerful, informed spirit makes it so. Thank you!!

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