Tag Archives: garden art

piece o’ history

Here’s the latest addition to the garden, a small chunk of the House of Hospitality in Balboa Park, a small chunk of San Diego architectural history.

In the late 1990s the city rehabilitated the building, one of many historic structures built as temporary exhibition spaces for the 1915 Panama-PacificCalifornia Exposition. The exhibit halls weren’t really intended to be a landmarks to pass into time immemorial. But the city has grown attached to these examples of Churrigueresque architecture, and the buildings are actively preserved.

(“Churrigueresque” refers to the Spanish/Catalan architect José Benito de Churriguera, who developed a fairly elaborate Rococo style of ornament that was picked up in Colonial Mexico. Bertram Goodhue and Carleton M. Winslow, the architects who worked on the Exposition, studied the style in Mexico and brought it a few miles north of the border. The over-the-top plaster details made for dramatic and escapist exposition buildings, but the details are high maintenance and can begin to fail over the years. It got to the point that the ornamentation was falling off the buildings and threatening to ka-bonk passers-by.)

“Preservation” of the building went through several phases, and eventually employed the wrecking ball. The old House of Hospitality was demolished and a new one erected in its place. To make sure that the new building closely resembled the original the old ornamentation was removed from the buildings and casts made. The new ornamentation is now made of glass-fiber-reinforced-concrete instead of the original horsehair-reinforced plaster.

Rather than landfilling the old architectural ornamentation, the interesting chunks were sold off to benefit the preservation efforts. And it was on a frantic Saturday morning in 1997 where we were able to fight off some of the most aggressive shoppers I’ve ever encountered to pick up this piece of local history. I’m pretty sure that my chunk of history comes from the tower in the photo above, from around the arches.

The fragment was really cool, but it sat in various corners of the house and my studio as we decided what to do with it. Last month we finally decided to liberate the piece back to the outdoors. Here’s its probably final resting place, attached to a long blank stretch of fence above the fishpond.

I don’t typically go in for lots of garden art or pieces of fake Roman artifacts sprinkled around a garden. But I was happy with how this relatively small chunk of Balboa Park serves as a cool focal point for a part of the garden presided over by a long, plain fence.

In demolishing the original building and dispersing its surfaces the city has managed an odd sort of preservation. Zoos and botanical gardens sometimes have the sad burden of keeping alive species that no longer exist in the wild. And my back yard holds a piece of a building that exists only in a facsimile of the original.

all shook up

Visitors to this part of the UCSD campus won’t forget that California is Earthquake country. Set at the edge of a walkway next to the landscaping are these pillars that have undergone simulated tremors on a jumbo shake table that can deliver a massive series of movements emulating the Big One.

Another hint that this is California lies in the fact that these are pillars modeled on those that keep our freeways high in the air. The structures lab here has worked with transportation agencies to try to develop safer structural components for bridges and overpasses.

During severe shaking the tremendously strong yet fragile concrete disintegrates, leaving the supporting steel which has flexibility but comparatively little strength to keep structures aloft. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a freeway with compromised supports like this.

The solution the structural engineers came up with is to wrap the columns in a material that bandages the concrete and keeps it from pulverizing into gravel. It almost seems too obvious a thing to do, but it looks like it really works when you compare these two pillars to the first ones I showed.

So, here in the middle of clipped hedges and mounds of orange lion’s tail, you have these six pillars, standing around like decaying Grecian columns or remnants of a garden folly in an Eighteenth-Century English garden.

Temple of Harmony SE Facade

This image is of the Temple of Harmony, a folly on the grounds of Halswell House, Goathurst, Somerset, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons. (Image by Stronach, released to the public domain. Thank you Stronach!) Even though it’s far from this land with the shakes the Temple apparently has some trouble standing up. The Wikipedia description states that “it now has the addition of a tie bar, a long retaining bolt that runs through the structure from one side to the other, helping to keep it together.”

Maybe the Halswell Park Trust could take a clue from the clever Californians and wrap the Temple in fiberglass, though, yeah, it might look a little more like the work of Christo than that of Thomas Prowse, its original architect…

my new dudleya patch

Can you call a patch of dirt of about eight square feet a garden? I’m starting to consider my recent planting of succulent a miniature little dudleya patch. But a garden?

I’ve already shown off the new species I picked up at my recent native plant society’s sale. Recently I finally got around to giving them their place in the larger garden. The location is more shade than I’d like–maybe four to six hours’ sun with afternoon shade. Situated on the edge of a somewhat irrigated area devoted to fruit trees it might be more moisture than the plants really want. Most of what I’ve read about dudleyas suggests using an inorganic mulch like pebbles instead of the bark that you see here. Still, there’s an older clump of Dudleya edulis that you can see in the near-back of these photos. The clump has done well so far, so there’s hope for the new arrivals.

There are eight Dudleya species in this area of the garden, but they get to share space with a couple other other succulents, a blackish-purple aeonium and the blue chalk fingers plant (Selecio mandraliscae) that is getting to be pretty popular down here as a groundcover. The finger-shaped leaves play nice with the fingers of several of the dudleyas most easily seen in the upper left picture: edulis, viscida, and attenuata.

In the center of the space is this ornate column made out of cast concrete. The previous owners of the house must have gotten a good price on architectural molds because there’s this little column, and another, much larger, outdoor feature that looks like part of a Doric column. Either the owners were of…um, eclectic?…taste or they were postmodern two decades before Charles Moore designed the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans. The features are made of concrete, however, so it’s a little hard to do much more than try to live with them. Maybe one day I’ll bring the diamond-bladed saw to deal with this feature. Still, living with other people’s choices can sometimes push you towards a solution you never would have come up with yourself.

So, what to do with this column in the Dudleya Garden? One obvious thing would be to place on top of it a mirrored reflecting ball, sort of a garden gazing ball that was popularized in Victorian times. I want to be a little more subversive, though. How would a bowling ball hold up to the elements? I wonder. But for now I’m auditioning a couple of rocks, an irregular chuck of green stone that John picked up somewhere, and a rounded river rock of the sort that you dig up in gardens in my neighborhood, remnants from the days when this land lay many hundred miles to the south in what’s now Mexico, days when the land was lower and drained the big river that formed the area’s Copper Canyons.

In a rock wall about fifteen feet away I had space for a single plant. This will best represent how many dudleyas are found in nature: on steep ground, often growing out of what looks like no soil at all. This is Dudleya virens ssp. hassei, a species found only on Santa Catalina Island. While some dudleya species will form a single, perfect rosette, this single growth should before too long develop into an ever-widening clump of starry foliage.

This little planting in the rocks should soon look a little like something you’d find in nature. But the other patch of dudleyas with maybe a mirrored disco ball? Well, that’s definitely going to be a human-created garden.

a garden sun-catcher


Here’s a sculpture that sits outside the kitchen window. Made out of chunks of colored glass that have been mortared into a steel frame, it’s perky all day long. But when the light casts the perky shadows on the wall behind it, the sculpture turns into a bright celebration of the afternoon sunlight.

John used to work with Diane Dandeneau, the artist who created this sculpture as a prototype for a some outdoor objects she was interested in making.


Where you put a piece of art in the garden is almost as important as the piece you select. Diane’s sculpture is currently set against a greenhouse wall, which is a pretty busy background and doesn’t really do it justice. But until we find the perfect spot, we can still enjoy, either when we’re near it in the garden, or while we’re looking out the window.