Epic Garden Inspiration from the Past

The Oakland History Center is probably not the first place you turn for gardening inspiration, but if that's what you're looking for you'll be happy to hear that we have some great resources available. One source of floral inspiration to be found here is in materials about Oakland's annual California Spring Garden Show, first held in 1930. In its heyday the show was considered the best garden show on the West Coast. Attendees came from near and far, and railroads even offered special discount fares for passengers heading to the show. 

The show was big and spectacular, with a huge building of exhibits, waterfalls, and everything built to impress. The show was so popular that it quickly outgrew its first two locations, and by 1933 it took over both interior and exterior areas of the enormous Exposition Building, former neighbor of the Oakland Auditorium. Although the show scaled back in 1956, and changed venue when the Exposition building was demolished in 1970, the show eventually found a new home at the Dunsmuir Hellman Estate where it continued through the 1970s.

Flower beds surrounded by walking paths under the arched roof of the Exposition Building. A tall waterfall is visible in the distance.
Undated postcard from the annual California Spring Garden Show. Note the visible arched ceiling of the Exposition Building, and the large waterfall in the distance. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Each year's garden show had a theme - like "Ancient Gardens of Alhambra" in 1932, "Rainbow Waters" in 1955, and "Flags and Flowers" in 1976. The features of the show included displays by local garden clubs and nurseries, competitions for best home-grown flowers, horticultural displays showing the many varieties of a plant, vendors selling all manner of plants and garden equipment, and more. There were special exhibits throughout the years, like an outdoor aviary of native birds, flower-centric table setting designs, and the debut of new sets for Children's Fairyland.  

Black and white image showing floral displays floating on water, including a large white swan.
Postcard from the "Floating Gardens of Xochimilco" themed 1942 show, the only one of the WWII era. That year's show was held in tents at Lakeside Park because the Expo Building was in use for military purposes. The show was cancelled entirely for the next years, and returned in 1946. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Here in the Oakland History Center you can find a series of albums showing beautiful black and white photographs from 20 years of Garden Shows, from 1931-1955. The albums, which served as souvenir programs for the show, have the best overview of each year's show and give great views of things like giant mushrooms, enormous waterfalls, and the many other structures built for the show. However, looking at flowers in black and white admittedly leaves something to be desired. Luckily you can also see a smaller selection of color postcards from the show in our postcard collection. Here are a few highlights from the postcards, in both black and white and full color. 

Black and white image showing a wide view of garden exhibits inside the Exposition Building, featuring a round pool in the foreground and balloons hanging from the ceiling.
Postcard from the 1947 show, with another wide view of the expansive exhibit area. The theme for 1947 was "Fantasia." Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Black and white image of a wooden bridge over a wide waterfall
Postcard from the 19th Annual California Spring Garden Show in 1951. Waterfalls and pools were frequently advertised as key features of the show, with their immense scale designed to draw in crowds. Waterfall-loving landscape designer Howard Gilkey, whose most enduring local work is the Cleveland Cascade, was one of the founders of the show. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Color image of a backyard scene with a modernist patio surrounded by plants and overlooking a small pond.
Postcard from the 20th Annual California Spring Garden Show in 1952. The theme for 1952 was "Today's Gardens." The show also featured "outdoor living" exhibits that weren't specifically horticultural - like displays of the newest backyard grilling equipment and patio furniture. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Color image of a pool surrounded by flowers and ferns, with a classically inspired statue of a woman and a small building at the edge of the pool.
Postcard from the "Southern Azalea Gardens" themed show in 1953, showing the edge of the main feature of that year's show, a 175-foot-long bayou pictured below. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Color image of a long pool surrounded by flowers and trees, with a statue and small building in the background.
The immense scale of the bayou installation is more obvious here. This was the centerpiece of the 1953 show. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Color image showing a courtyard in front of a pink and blue cafe named Cafe de Jardin. Courtyard has several large trees surrounded with potted pink and white flowers.
This French sidewalk cafe set was the outdoor garden entry of the Hillside Gardeners of Montclair for the 21st Annual California Spring Garden Show in 1953. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Color image showing brightly colored patio furniture outside a backyard cottage or cabana next to a redwood tree and other plants.
Another sign of a huge production is a full-size redwood tree, of which there were many like the one shown in this postcard from 1954's "Redwood Vacation Lands" themed show. The giant trees were actually hollow columns covered with real redwood bark, designed to appear as if they continued growing through the building's ceiling. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Color image showing a tall waterfall cascading down a faux cliffside into a still pool, lined on both sides by abundantly blooming pink and white flowers.
Another postcard from 1954 shows the 30 foot tall, 2,500 gallon per minute waterfall. Visitors could pass under the waterfall and mountain through a 65-foot-long faux abandoned mining tunnel that led to an "Orchid Corner." Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Stop by the Oakland History Center to learn more about the California Spring Garden Show. While you're here, don't forget to grab some free seeds from the seed library, opens a new window downstairs. Maybe by next year you'll have enough impressive plants to start a Spring Garden Show of your own!