Historic Gardens of Old Monterey

David A. Laws
14 min readSep 16, 2019

“The soil seems well adapted to horticulture, and the climate produces a perpetual spring” — Captain George Vancouver c. 1792

The Spanish Revival Hotel Del Monte built in 1926. Image: Dudley Knox Library, Naval Post Graduate School

One of the oldest European settlements on the West Coast, Monterey served as the original Spanish and later the Mexican capital of California. The city also played an important role in the early political development of the modern American state when, in 1849, delegates to the California Constitutional Convention met in Colton Hall to adopt the state’s first constitution. According to the Public Works Department, “Monterey has preserved more original Mexican era adobes than any other city in California.” In 1970 the National Park Service declared Monterey’s Old Town Historic District a National Historic Landmark.

Since the late 18th century, many historical figures visiting the area commented on the natural beauty of the setting. In 1827, French sea captain August Duhaut-Cilly observed that the hills were “carpeted with green grass and shaded by great conifers and fine oaks. These trees are sometimes grouped so attractively that they may have been planted by a skilled designer.” American sailor and author Richard Henry Dana wrote in 1840 that “Monterey as far as my observation goes, is decidedly the pleasantest and most civilized-looking place in California. … The soil is rich as man could wish, climate as good as any in the world, water abundant and situation extremely beautiful.” Dana must have arrived in the wet season as water is far from abundant the rest of the year.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo. From: A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World Vol. 11 (pg. 37) By Captain George Vancouver. Drawing by Midshipman John Sykes. circa 1792

In her book Tangible Memories, garden historian Judith Taylor explains why, with such a wealth of venerable architecture in a spectacular, ocean-front setting, the Monterey Peninsula has few gardens that represent the horticulture of those times. “Garden lovers will find little distinctly Spanish in the Monterey gardens of today and very little that is early American … This is hardly surprising. [There were] very few resources for creating gardens, and water was always very scarce in the summers. If the civic groups in charge of restoring Monterey to its original condition had adhered to strict authenticity, the town would seem very dreary now.”

Many of the modern ornamental gardens on historic sites were installed relatively recently in locations where only fragments of the original hardscape and horticultural materials remained. However, as Frances Grate noted in an article for the annual conference of the California Garden and Landscape History Society (CGLHS), held in Monterey in 2000, “Although the gardens have all evolved largely during this century, each is an integral part of the house it surrounds.”

The late landscape architect Tom Brown, who presented on “The Landscape and Development of Early Monterey” at the meeting, was less charitable. He described what the “gardens really were like as opposed to the romantic twaddle palmed off on unsuspecting tourists.” As with the fountain and rose-filled courtyards of today’s Carmel Mission (Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo), many modern gardens owe more to Victorian visions of fictional characters like Ramona and Zorro than to the hardscrabble lives of the padres, pioneering settlers, and native American laborers.

Contemporary “romantic” garden at Carmel Mission

Whether truly “historic,” romanticized “twaddle,” or something else again, these gardens have provided inspiration and pleasure for generations of artists and residents.

The Hotel del Monte, Arizona Garden

The earliest significant landscaped garden on the Monterey Peninsula that retains much of its original design and appropriate plantings lies east of downtown on the federally-owned lands of the Naval Post Graduate School (NPS) (Del Monte Avenue at Sloat), the site of the former Hotel del Monte Be aware that the facility is off limits to civilians unless they are escorted by appropriate military personnel or are visiting during public open days

German-born landscape architect Rudolf Ulrich created the first of his signature Arizona Gardens as part of an elaborate plan for the 127 acres of the Hotel del Monte that opened in 1880 and was rebuilt twice following devastating fires. Ulrich’s Arizona Garden featured prominently in Hotel del Monte literature and marketing promotions. Fifty-seven raised beds edged with serpentine rock in a symmetrical geometric design covering over 30,000 square feet were filled with succulents and other species collected in Arizona and Mexico’s Sonora Desert. According to garden historian Julie Cain, “The variety and rarity of the plants and the use of formal design was absolutely unique in California at the time. Guests … were suitably impressed by this seaside desert garden, often posing for photographs among the plants.”

Victorian visitors pose in the Arizona Garden

After many years of neglect, in 1993 the U.S. Navy, which acquired the hotel and grounds during World War II, funded seeds and materials for “Friends of the Arizona Garden” volunteers to begin a restoration project. In 1995, U.S. Navy Lieutenant commander Sheri L. Smith noted that “The Arizona Garden today is not exactly as it was when completed in 1882. While a surprising number of the original plants did manage to survive the years of drought and neglect, there are no saguaros or Joshua trees, no herbaceous borders, no English ivy twining around yucca trunks, all of which are visible in historic photographs. Rather, we selected replacement plants which would be hardy in the Monterey climate, and grouped them together with plants of similar water requirements.”

M. Evelyn McCormick (1862- 1948) Cactus Garden, Del Monte, circa 1893–1894. Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA

Julie Cain, who worked on the restoration of an Ulrich Arizona garden on the Stanford University campus, notes that other landscape features of the hotel grounds included a hedge maze, ninety varieties of roses, and 11-acre Laguna del Rey, a lake that remains visible to the public through the fence along Del Monte Avenue. Because the Arizona Garden was once again suffering from neglect by 2010, NPS and the NPS Foundation launched another restoration effort. This work included re-creating as much as possible of the original design as described in an 1888 record of the garden’s plant list and landscape. Navy volunteer personnel continue to tend the garden. A 2015 work party organized by Environmental Program Director Johanna Turner planted 50 new cacti and succulents, including blue-green agaves, flowering ocotillos, prickly pear and yucca.

Roman Plunge pool. Image: A hand-colored 1930s postcard

Another important landscape element of the campus is a Roman plunge pool designed by architect Lewis P. Hobart in 1918. In 2012 the Navy restored the pool complex, in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, to its 1918 condition, but with the depth converted to a shallow reflecting pool. Sunken gardens on the east and west sides of Herrmann Hall were laid out in craters resulting from an Army ordnance team’s decision to blow up the main building to save the hotel wings during the 1924 fire.

“Secret Gardens of Old Monterey”

Monterey State Historic Park hosts a collection of historic houses and buildings distributed throughout downtown Monterey managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Beginning at the Pacific House, the Parks’ Department calls the following sites along Monterey’s “Path of History,” a walking route marked by tiles in many languages, the “Secret Gardens of Old Monterey.”

Built in 1847 by Thomas Oliver Larkin, the first (and only) U.S. Consul to Mexican California, the two-story adobe known as Pacific House (20 Custom House Plaza) has served as a tavern, hotel, county offices, church, and ballroom. Today it houses a museum that tells the story of Monterey as the capital of Spanish California. Hattie Morley wrote in 1896 that the “back yard, which is surrounded by a high adobe wall, was a place of great excitement and interest. Great bear and bull fights took place there.”

Margaret Jacks, who owned the building in the 1920s, contracted with the Olmstead Brothers to redesign the courtyard for more peaceful gatherings. Plans for a Spanish style walled garden, correspondence, and planting lists for “Job# 8049, Old Pacific Building, Margaret Jacks for Improvement of Old Pacific Bldg. and Lot, Monterey, CA” are on file at the Olmstead National Historic Site in Brookline, MA.

Pacific House Memory Garden prepared for a Merienda party. Date unknown
Fountain in the Memory Garden. Photo. David A. Laws

The stucco-wall enclosed Pacific House Memory Garden is shaded by four venerable Southern Magnolia trees set around a raised hexagonal pool with a bronze cherub figure fountain. Tile-topped, arched verandas and wooden pergolas support Chinese wisteria, climbing roses, and an ancient, twisted-trunk Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum). The garden is the most-visited in Monterey State Historic Park and is a popular venue for weddings and local celebrations, including the annual Merienda commemorating the founding of Monterey in 1770. A heavy wooden door in the western wall opens to the Sensory Garden with a multi-tiered fountain, bougainvillea and colorful hanging baskets lining a brick-paved pedestrian section of Olivier Street and the Casa del Oro adobe.

A joint project of California State Parks and the Historic Garden League, the Casa del Oro Garden (Pacific Street at Scott) was opened in 2003 to create a gateway to the Historic Park. A fountain and beds of drought tolerant plantings on an upper terrace lead down wide stone stairways to a compact herb garden and the entrance to the Casa del Oro. The name “House of Gold” is derived from a secure vault in the Joseph Boston and Company store, Monterey’s first general merchandise outlet, where miners returning from the gold fields in the 1850s are said to have stored their booty.

Entrance to the Whaling Station Garden. Photo: David A. Laws

Purple wisteria vines trail over high stone walls and an overhanging veranda at the two-story Monterey-style Old Whaling Station Adobe and Garden (391 Decatur Street). A small rose garden and shaded patio at the rear of the house provide a setting for weddings, receptions, and parties. Scottish immigrant David Wright built the house for his family in 1847. Artifacts, including a large iron blubber try pot and a front sidewalk of whale vertebrae cut into diamond patterns, recall its later role in the service of a whale oil rendering operation. Fired clay bricks are a distinctive feature of the adjacent First Brick House, which was the first Monterey residence built with this material rather than adobe blocks made on site.

Behind a low wooden fence with gates on Pacific and Scott Streets, California’s First Theatre Garden was designed in the style of a 1920s cottage shade garden in the shadow of two huge Monterey Cypress trees. An English sailor constructed the adobe as a saloon and apartment house circa 1843. For many years it served as a theater but is currently closed due to “structural deficiencies.” Although the cypress trees are long gone, the original stone-edged, terraced gravel paths still meander between borders of colorful bedding plants, succulents, and ferns. A handsome Cup of Gold Vine (Solandra maxima) is espaliered against the south facing adobe wall.

Cup of Gold Vine (Solandra maxima) at rear of the First Theatre. Photo: David A. Laws
Casa Sobernes, House of the Blue Gate. Photo: David A. Laws

Casa Soberanes (336 Pacific Street), familiarly known as the “House of the Blue Gate,” is a two-story Mexican-colonial style adobe with a cantilevered balcony dating from 1842. Ezequiel Soberanes Jr., a gardener at the Carmel Mission who inherited the property from his father, began developing the garden around the turn of the last century. Photographs from 1905 show a thriving front yard. In the 1920s, his successors, Ruben and Jean Serrano, built the stone retaining wall around the boundary and laid out terrace walks and beds edged with abalone shells, upended crocks, and wine bottles. A tall cypress hedge and archway over the gate that obscured the site for many years has been removed and the elevated house is once again visible from the street. Plantings comprise an eclectic selection of colorful material acquired over the years. Victorian boxwood hedges line beds filled with lavender, rosemary, daylilies, hebe, geranium, gazania, and old roses.

From California Gardens by Winifred Starr Dobyns, (1931)

Thomas Larkin built his two-story, white-washed adobe home, Larkin House (525 Polk Street), in 1835 and walled the garden as early as 1842. Local building materials combined with French-inspired, Carolina-style balconies became the prototype for the still popular Monterey-Colonial style. Elvira Abrego, grandniece of General Mariano Vallejo, wrote in 1896 that “A large orchard containing many varieties of fruit trees originally surrounded the house and a few of them are still standing.”

Larkin’s granddaughter, Alice Larkin Toulmin, developed the modern garden during the 1920s and ’30s. Its features include the Sherman-Halleck Headquarters, a single room stone-faced adobe structure occupied in 1847 by the future General of Civil War fame; a water storage cistern covered with an ornate wrought-iron grate; and high, tile-topped walls that ensure seclusion from the city beyond. Mature trees, flowering shrubs, and an arbor covered with the ‘Mlle Cécile Brünner’ rose shade raised terrace beds packed with perennials.

Sherman Quarters in the Larkin Garden. Photo: David A. Laws

A gate in the western wall opens to Pacific Street and Colton Hall, site of the drafting of the California Constitution. Trees of interest on the grass-covered Friendly Plaza include the Moon Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), grown from seeds carried to the moon on Apollo 14, and a chestnut from the White House lawn planted in 1966 by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson.

Orchard garden planted by Frances Grate in 1985. Image: David A. Laws

John Rogers Cooper, a New England ship’s captain who became a Mexican citizen and a Catholic in order to acquire land and marry Encarnación Vallejo, sister of General Vallejo, built the Cooper-Molera Adobe (525 Polk Street) in the late 1820s. Owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and restored in 1985, the 3-acre complex of adobe houses and outbuildings, including two large barns, all secured behind high walls served for many years as a museum of early California life. Frances Grate planted a garden and orchard appropriate to Cooper’s era that had to survive without pesticides and piped water. Almond trees from cuttings from the original garden were joined by historically correct (pre-1865) fig, pear, walnut, and several apple varieties, including Yellow Bellflower, Gravenstein, Red Astrachan, and Winter Pearmain.

Restored again in 2017–18, Cooper Molera represents a new vision for preserving and maintaining an historic site by sharing museum uses with commercial operations. The adobe buildings, together with the gardens, orchard, and grounds, are open to the public. Commercial businesses at the site include a bakery-café, restaurant and event spaces.

Hand colored postcard of Senorita Maria Ignatia Bonifacio and the Sherman Rose

Chromatella, a climbing Tea-Noisette rose growing against the wall of the Cooper-Molera garden, is associated with a popular legend of the late 1800s that thrived for decades. General William Tecumseh Sherman, who served as a lieutenant in Monterey from 1846 to 1847, was billeted in the “Sherman-Hallack Quarters” of the Larkin Garden. The young lieutenant is said to have presented a cutting of the rose to the beautiful Senorita Maria Ignatia Bonifacio and promised to return to wed her by the time it rooted and bloomed. Although the first cuttings of the rose, then known as “Cloth of Gold,” did not arrive in Monterey for 25 years after Sherman left, the fable fueled a boom in yellow roses and quaint tea rooms. Dona Bonifacio’s rose-covered arbor and house on Avarado Street became a tourist landmark of such note that instead of being demolished in the early 1920s it was relocated and a cutting from the rose was planted at the new Monterey Mesa site. A marker outside 785 Mesa Road identifies the rebuilt Casa Bonifacio.

Casa Bonifacio at the original Alvarado Street site by M. Evelyn McCormick, circa 1935. Image: Trotter Galleries

Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish author of Treasure Island, reportedly lodged at the French Hotel (530 Houston Street) in 1879, while pursuing his future wife Fanny Osbourne. English horseback traveler, J. Smeaton Chase described the rear yard circa 1911 as “a square of garden ground, in a corner of which a few nasturtiums and stalks of mint grew in a secret and furtive manner.” Renovated in the 1980s, the Robert Louis Stevenson House Garden covers about half an acre with a romantic cottage-style design of winding paths and densely planted beds of annuals and perennials, including cineraria, fox gloves, poppies, and Iochroma. Survivors from an earlier orchard — almond, lemon, and plum trees — are shaded by a towering Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboide), a deciduous relative of Sequoia sempervirens, that was known from the fossil record but believed to be extinct until it was discovered in China in 1941.

“Stevenson House” by M. Evelyn McCormick, circa 1925. Image: Trotter Galleries

Other Monterey historic garden sites

Landscape architect and movie set designer Florence Yoch redesigned the Doud House grounds (177 Van Buren Street) in the 1960s for the Monterey History and Art Association. Four Monterey cypress trees planted by the original owner Francis Doud in the 1860s still stand on the property. Two other Yoch gardens, Casa Alvarado (570 Dutra Street), and Casa Albrego (592 Abrego Street), a private women’s club, are not accessible to the public. Yoch began practicing in 1913 and completed more than 250 projects over the next 50 years, including grand Hollywood estates and the Tara set for the movie Gone with the Wind.

Casa Amesti in 1958

Jose Amesti built Casa Amesti in 1833 and enclosed his property with a 12-foot-tall adobe wall where he raised livestock, cooked, and socialized. Except for the garden wall, yard door, house, and one apple tree the area was cleared in 1919. Inspired by a courtyard at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, Frances Adler Elkins and/or her brother, Chicago architect David Adler designed the current formal garden. Elkins lived at Casa Amesti and maintained the garden until her death in 1953. The Old Capitol Club leases the property that is open only to members and their guests.

Vasquez Adobe by M. Evelyn McCormick, circa 1935. Image: Monterey Museum of Art

Many gardens with flourishing plantings around other buildings in early photographs and paintings, today stand unadorned. A canvas commissioned through the New Deal Federal Art Project in the 1930s by artist M. Evelyn McCormick shows the city-owned Vasquez Adobe (546 Dutra Street), home of outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez, in the 1920s embellished with climbing roses and pots of geraniums.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Eden, Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society under the title “Garden History of the Monterey Peninsula, Redux”. It has been updated for this posting. A pdf copy of the original version can be downloaded from this site.


City of Monterey Historic Preservation website

Historic Monterey Buildings

Historic Garden League

California State Parks “Secret Gardens”

Rudolf Ulrich’s Arizona Gardens

Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society Archive

Gardens of the California Missions

Suggested Reading for the CGLHS 2019 Conference — Early California Landscapes and Gardens: Romance and Reality



David A. Laws

I photograph and write about Gardens, Nature, Travel, and the history of Silicon Valley from my home on the Monterey Peninsula in California.