History, Landmarks, Local

Oakland Landscape…Gilkey’s Vertical Grandeur

Who was Howard Gilkey?  He was a little boy from Iowa who loved to collect seeds and bulbs.  He was a California teenager who worked for a famous botanist, cross pollinating plants as a “bumble bee”.  He was a U.C. Berkeley student who sold gladiolus bulbs to pay his tuition.  He was a City of Oakland payroll clerk who designed Lakeside Drive in his spare time.  He was a landscape architect who designed the Cleveland Cascade in 1923.  He conceptualized the grounds of Highland Hospital.  He consulted on the landscape and gardens of Mills College.  He designed projects such as the Woodminster Cascade and Amphitheater, the original Lake Merritt Wild Duck Refuge, and the Arboretum at Knowland Park.  He produced the annual themed California Spring Garden Show for 23 years.  Are you surprised you haven’t heard of him?  I know I was.

Furthermore, I can’t recall where I first heard of Howard Gilkey.  I believe it was during my research about the Schilling Gardens that his name popped up on my screen.  When I saw the list of iconic Oakland landmarks his name was attributed to, it seemed fitting that I share his story.  Born in 1890 in Iowa, his family moved Santa Rosa, California in 1902.  His interest in horticulture was fostered through work with the famous botanist Luther Burbank as a teenager.  It was acceptance to U.C. Berkeley that brought him to the Bay Area.  The majority of his work in Oakland was completed in the 1920’s and 1930’s, two years spent as the acting city planning engineer, and later as a consultant in private practice.   In a way I found his legacy ironic; a young man fascinated by nature in its tiniest forms, seeds, became a landscape architect who designed grand vertical landscapes.  I suppose his return to nature in a smaller form is evident in his involvement in garden shows during the later years of his career.  First held in 1930, the California Spring Garden Show were some of the biggest on the West Coast during the time.  From what I have read, he brought grandeur to these as well, constructing waterfalls and rebuilding redwood trees “bark chip by bark chip”.

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The Cleveland Cascade was designed by Gilkey in 1923, during his tenure as acting city planning engineer for the City of Oakland.  A series of bowls in cascade form, adorned with shells and illuminated at night, allowed water to flow in a display reminiscent of water features in Italy.  Its deterioration began sometime prior to 1950 when the water feature fell into disrepair and was turned off.  Over time components of the cascade were dismantled; the basins filled in with dirt and rosemary bushes.  In 2004, The Friends of the Cleveland Cascade, inspired by the only known photo of the original water display and with volunteer support and donations, began extensive work to excavate the original structure and to restore the surrounding landscape.  The ultimate goal at the time was to restore the cascade’s waterworks to their former glory.

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Jim Ratliff, Chair of The Friends of the Cleveland Cascade, told me that no active fundraising is currently underway to restore the water display.  When researched many years ago, the price tag was a hefty $1.5 million.  Jim estimates it would likely be over $2 million today.  In 2006, with a grant awarded by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the group was able to recreate the accessories for the cascade.  The water bowls, their support structures, and the ornamental shells have been produced and are currently sitting in storage in South San Francisco.  If anyone is looking for a local cause to get behind, this is one looking for a champion.  I know I would enjoy sitting on the steps during a summer evening listening to the sound of water cascading towards the lake :o)

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Gilkey’s involvement in the Woodminster Amphitheater and Cascade is a bit more vague.  The idea for the theater and cascade is presumed to have been conceived by Juanita Miller, daughter of Joaquin Miller.  It is known that Gilkey was behind some of the early design work, likely teamed with lead designer Edward T. Folks and landscape architect William Penn Mott, Jr.  However, due to his fee expectation, he was not involved in the actual construction.  Known as the “Cathedral in the Woods”, the amphitheater was dedicated in 1941 as a memorial to California’s writers.  The cascade on the backside of the art deco structure allows water to flow down the hillside, over stacked stone and through a series of pools.  The water is currently turned off.  According to the gentleman I spoke to with the Public Works Department, it is not running due to the drought.  However, it is also rumored that it may be due to a leak in the recirculating system that cannot be located, or that the city does not have the funds to repair.

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Gilkey’s involvement in design was not limited to water cascades.  The grounds of the historic Highland Hospital and the Arboretum in Knowland Park also have Gilkey’s stamp on them.  While its hard to qualify what of Gilkey’s original scope and design remains today, its likely visible in the splendid old growth in both locations.  Vertical and grand in a different way, a beautiful remnant of his legacy.

The original Highland Hospital opened in 1927, a beautiful Spanish baroque style building set atop the hillside in the Highland Park neighborhood.  Gilkey orchestrated the layout of the grounds, while Henry Meyers, who was also behind the ornate entrance to the Posey Tube, designed the building.

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The arboretum at Knowland Park is an area that is a bit difficult to outline.  Karen Asbelle, a volunteer for the Friends of Knowland Park, was able to direct me to the large area of established trees to the left of the Oakland Zoo entrance, alongside Arroyo Viejo Creek, as this was likely the area of the park dedicated to the arboretum.  Defined as a “botanical garden devoted to trees”, I could sense that the variety of trees, along with their age, put me in the midst of the arboretum Gilkey designed.

While the trees are not marked, I did find one piece of evidence that I was in the right place.  As I walked back to my car I saw a sign tucked under a tree, dedication of a memorial grove to the Oakland Business Men’s Garden Club; Gilkey was one of the founding members.

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Gilkey 37So as I asked in the beginning, “Who was Howard Gilkey?”  I feel like I have learned a bit more about who he was.  He was a man who appreciated landscape; both in a grand man-made form, and in the smallest of seeds, which then grew to be grand.  He was a part of our local history; a person we don’t hear about alongside names like Merritt and Kaiser.  Yet what he left us are areas of Oakland that we continue to enjoy.  A staircase with a lake view.  A cascade in the redwoods.  A grove to wander.  A tree to give shade.  The list doesn’t stop there, quite frankly I just ran out of time.  A visit to see the ducks and a walk at Mills are on my to-do list; I hope I have inspired a visit for your list too.


Friends of the Cleveland Cascade, www.clevelandcascade.org.  Their website is a wonderful resource of information about the cascade and Howard Gilkey.  Special thanks to Jim Ratliff for his help and guidance
Woodminster Amphitheater, Local Wiki Page
Howard Gilkey, Local Wiki Page
An additional thank you to Karen Asbelle of the Friends of Knowland Park, and Kathy Kahn of the Woodminster Amphitheater Summer Musicals Series

Photo Credits:
Vintage postcard image of the California Spring Garden Show sourced via Local Wiki
All historical photos of the Cleveland Cascade sourced via www.clevelandcascade.org, used with permission
Photo of Friends of Cleveland Cascade member Jack Tabri with the recreated cascade accessories supplied by Jim Ratliff, used with permission
Historical photo of the Woodminster Amphitheater (1st image on the left of that section) sourced via City Homestead
1st image of Woodminster Amphitheater with water running – Ingrid Taylar via flickr
2nd image of Woodminster Amphitheater with water running in middle cascade – Gary Pope via flickr, used with permission
3rd image of Woodminster Amphitheater with water running into bottom pool – Gary Pop via flickr, used with permission

All other photos by Adrienne Schell


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