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Saturday, November 19, 2011

One Man's Vision: Exposition Park Rose Garden

The Exposition Park Rose Garden is a seven acre sunken garden located next to the California Science Center, and across the street from the University of Southern California.

Last January I took my kids and their cousins to the California Science Center.

The rose garden was actually closed for it's annual maintenance (January - March) so these photos were taken from around the perimeter with a zoom lens.

Walking along Exposition Blvd, the northern edge of the park, I came across this informational kiosk (is that the right word?). The City of Los Angeles has set up dozen of these around the city. While - like most people - I normally just walk by, I had a few minutes and read what this had to say about Exposition Park. As Mr. Spock from the old Star Trek series used to say: "fascinating."

I look photos of the text, which is transcribed below:

From Sin to Science, A Park For The People

For decades into the 20th century, Los Angeles not only fed the world’s imagination with films and television – it fed the world’s bellies, too.

Los Angeles County prided itself on its farming abundance, and beginning in 1872, the place to show off its rich and varied crops was at the 160-acre Agricultural Park.

Here, beneath a pair of pyramid-like towers bearing the name “Agricultural Park,” growers brought produce, from asparagus to zucchini to vivid displays to citrus. And here, the crowds came to browse the exhibits and to watch the races – horses, camels, dogs, bicycles and eventually automobiles.

After cheering itself dry at the races, the sporting set could get a drink at a vast bar set up below the four-story brink grandstand. Daring gentlemen could repair from there to one of the city’s more stylish brothels-a white clapboard house in the middle of Agricultural Park, intended as a hotel for visiting racing fans and big gamblers.

In time, the enticements of sex, speed, and cold beer began to crowd out the agricultural attractions. A young reformer who took a particularly dim view of sin and corruption decided that the twin pyramids that bore the name “Agricultural Park” might more accurately bear the labels “Sodom” and “Gomorrah.”

One afternoon in 1898, that man – a stern, sharp-eyed 37-year old attorney, USC law professor and devout Methodist named William Miller Bowen – ended his boys Sunday School class at the nearby University Methodist Church, then quietly followed his students to see where they were going.

They headed for Agricultural Park. Pushing his way though a jostling crowd, Bowen saw the horse-racing track and a separate course where greyhounds chased rabbits. According to another website: “At times rabbits were torn apart by the dogs as delighted spectators looked on. Between the races and dismemberments, Bowen saw open drinking, gambling and prostitution.”

It became clear in a very short time,” Bowen said in a speech, “that the vicious influences here were more than undoing the work we were trying to do in our Sunday School class.” Thus began Bowen’s decade-long campaign to clean up Agricultural Park.

In 1901, Bowen was elected to the City Council, where he prevailed on his colleagues to end gambling and racing altogether at the park.

But for thrill-crazy Angelenos, it remained a speed haven - on four wheels, not four legs. In 1903, the nations most famous race car driver, Barney Oldfield, stormed his Winston Bullet around a mile-long dirt oval at the park in a world-record 55 seconds, before a delirious crowd of thousands.

Anything on wheels was good enough for the park. For weeks before the event, advertisements had enticed spectators. Two hundred policemen were hired for crowd control. And on September 10, 1906, some 25,000 people watched a real demolition derby: two steam locomotives, huffed and puffed on a mile of track before a shattering head-one collision at a rocketing 50 miles per hour.

In 1909, under pressure from Bowen, the California 6th District Agricultural Association and the City and County of Los Angeles all agreed to redevelop Agricultural Park.

By 1910, the saloons and brothels had been torn down. Plans were laid out for a trio of impressive buildings: the State Exhibition Building – now the California Science Center; the State Armory Building – now a science school; and the Natural History Museum, whose domed center made it the most beautiful of the three. By 1913, because of those three buildings, the park became known as Exposition Park.

Originally a “sunken garden” with a few trees and a walkway that met in a central circle, the Exposition Park Rose Garden opened in 1928 and had 15,793 bushes, all donated by local nurseries. Operated by the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks every since, it’s the second largest garden of its kinds in California and is listed on the National Registers of Historic Places.

From a place where farmers displayed their produce, to a thrill-seeker’s paradise, the park has become a center of culture and education – and a spot where Angelenos can now literally stop and smell the roses.

A few observations:

- life in American cities (including Los Angeles) 100 years ago wasn't some sort of Disney-fied fantasy "Main Street USA."

- William Bowen was an attorney, a university professor, and a Sunday School teacher. As a Christian, he also didn't fall into the trap of compartmentalizing his faith to Sunday mornings or simply keeping it "private."

- Bowen worked within the system to enact change, which took over ten years. Rather than simply bemoan the public vice in his community, or move from the area, he envisioned something better.

- 80 years later, even the city of Los Angeles, often know for celebrating outrageous behavior or lifestyles, saluted Bowen and his transformation of an area from vice to virtue.

- Bowen's public vision and legacy is still around for Angelenos to enjoy.

In the 1980's, the city actually considered tearing the rose garden out - and turning it into an underground parking garage. The Raiders professional football team (remember them?) also wanted to turn this public park into a practice field for the team. Huh?

Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and in 1991 the Rose Garden was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Looking through some older photos, I found this one that I took inside the Rose Garden in December of 2004 (the year before we moved to L.A.). Love the rose bushes with the palm trees in the background.

Meanwhile, I continued back to the California Science Center. If you've never been, this is a MUST SEE - especially if you have kids (or nieces/nephews).

The architects did an outstanding job preserving the original facade, and building a much larger building behind it.

Admission is free, although there is a suggestion donation $5 at the entrance. Here's a link to a previous post when I took my kids and their cousins there.

The Exposition Park Rose Garden opened in 1928 thanks to the work one man's vision.

Here's a link to a previous post celebrating the work of one woman's vision: Christine Sterling and the 1930 restoration of Olvera Street just two years later.

Both part of experiencing Los Angeles.

© 2011



Anonymous said...

Cool story -

mike90405 said...

interesting backstory - like it

OCJose said...

This is SUCH a great story!