Reader Rock Garden, Calgary

One advantage the major cities of the Canadian prairies had over their eastern counterparts was that, when they entered periods of frantic development in the early 20th century, they could see what pitfalls in urban planning the earlier established eastern cities had already encountered.  Urban design was, therefore, probably undertaken with a greater sensitivity towards landscaping and park space than would otherwise have been the case.  Though commonly regarded as unsophisticated towns of the wild west, both Edmonton and Calgary made sure they had ample space set aside for parks and gardens, in both their suburbs and their downtown cores, and planted trees along many of their streets, and, in many cases, provided extra spaces for flowers and lawns.  The two cities were thus able to avoid the image of an urban jungle which had initially prevailed in many industrial cities of the East.

In Calgary, the City created the position of Superintendent of Parks and Cemeteries in 1913.  For the position, it hired a horticulturalist from England, William Reader, who had recently been the gardener for Pat Burns and his commercial empire.  Reader had actually been trained as a school teacher, but he developed a personal interest in gardening, and designed the gardens of several large estates in England before migrating to western Canada in 1908.  Upon his appointment in Calgary, he embarked on a vast planting project, lining many of the streets with trees and expanding the park space from 520 to over 1,300 acres.  Over the next 29 years, he would create several public parks, such as Central Park, Tuxedo Park and Victoria Park.  He would also create a number of children’s playgrounds, golf courses, tennis courts and outdoor skating rinks.  His work occasionally took him out of Calgary as well, for example, his landscaping of the EP Ranch for the Prince of Wales.

The project to which Reader is most closely associated, however, is called the Reader Rock Garden, which was built in his own back yard, which was City owned space at Macleod Trail and 25th Avenue SE.  The space included an area for the residence of the Superintendent of Parks & Cemeteries.  Reader was inspired by the City Beautiful movement which had taken hold in Europe and North America towards the end of the 19th century.  Envisioning Calgary as a “showplace city” he embarked on a plan to make the space next to his residence into a model garden, featuring a wide range of flowers, trees and other plant species.  Areas were spaced off with rock fences, with other colourful rocks also interspersed among the plants and trees.  Reader also experimented with plant and flower varieties, with his garden becoming part of the system of Dominion agricultural research stations.  As a result, his reputation grew with time, as seeds from his garden were used by a number of prestigious gardens in England and North America.

Most of Reader’s creative work was done during the 1920s.  The Depression did much to curtail park expansion and the landscaping of boulevards.  Reader himself was forced to retire in 1942 at age 67, and, the following year, he passed away.  In 1944, his garden was named in his honour, but its upkeep in the years that followed did not live up to his reputation.  His cottage was removed in 1944, and, in later years, furnishings and other buildings were removed.  Foreign and unsympathetic plants were allowed to invade the garden.  Recently, however, efforts were made to transform the site back to its original condition of horticultural excellence.  In 2006, the Reader Rock Garden was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.  Its historical significance lies in its representation of the efforts of its developer, William Reader, to transform the bustling City of Calgary from a sprawling western metropolis of office blocks and redundant suburbs into a showplace city filled with parks, landscaped boulevards and recreational facilities.

Written by: David Leonard, Historian

Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Reader Rock Garden in Calgary. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Reader Rock Garden.

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