Gary Cowles was walking near his home on South Arroyo Boulevard about 15 years ago when he noticed a sidewalk located on private property behind a fence.
“It seemed to continue on and on and I wondered what that was about,” Cowles recalls. “And I ran into a guy on my walk and he said ‘Oh, that’s the old Busch Gardens.’”
Cowles’ discovery piqued his curiosity about the early 20th-century tourist attraction.
“Next to Mt. Lowe, it was the biggest attraction in Pasadena, I understand. When they had the Panama Exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915, it supposedly had 1.5 million visitors,” he says.
Cowles conducted research at the Huntington Library, Botanical Garden and Art Collections and the Pasadena Museum of History. On one museum trip he met Michael Logan, who was similarly interested in the gardens. The two joined forces to reconstruct the park’s history and design.
“What intrigued me was that nobody could really say, ‘Well this was here, and that was there.’ There were no existing diagrams and maps. And there was a layer of mythology that had to be put to death,” Cowles says.
Busch Gardens was a pre-Disneyland theme park located on the property of Adolphus Busch, a St. Louis-based brewer who generated his immense fortune from the sales of Budweiser beer. Busch and his wife Lilly came to Pasadena in March 1904 and purchased a summer home on South Orange Grove Avenue, a street of expensive residences known as Millionaires’ Row. Their residence was an English-style mansion dubbed Ivy Wall, designed by architect Frederick L. Roehrig and built in 1898.
Busch purchased additional property near his home, eventually acquiring the 30 acres on which the gardens would be located. His realtor, E. H. Lockwood, envisioned Busch’s property as “the ideal garden spot,” according to Cowles’ website (pasadenagardens.com), and convinced Busch to finance their construction.
Robert Gordon Fraser, a Scottish-born gardener, began building the Upper Gardens in November 1904. This 14-acre park extended east of Arroyo Drive (now South Arroyo Boulevard) to Orange Grove, north on Orange Grove toward Arlington Drive, and south to Madeline Drive. The Upper Gardens opened to the public in early 1906, with tourists entering this formal Victorian-style park from Arlington Drive.
Construction of the more bucolic Lower Gardens — comprising 16 acres west of Arroyo Drive — began in the spring of 1906. Both the Lower and Upper Gardens officially opened in July 1909, operated seven days a week, and were free of charge to the public.
To stabilize the gardens Fraser created a network of terraces and an elaborate drainage system. Pathways and stairways built of stone masonry supported these terraces. Walls constructed on both sides of the Arroyo Seco riverbed protected the gardens from rains and floods.
“It was a real challenge,” explains Cowles. “If you hike at all, you know how unstable the hillsides are. … [Fraser] even brought in peat to help stabilize the hills and they were terraced in such a fashion that made them stronger.
“Adolphus Bush was very pleased with the result that the gardener [Fraser] was able to achieve with the terracing, which is very unique. It has overtones of the Scottish earthworks that were around castles.”
The Lower Gardens also featured terra cotta figurines of fairy tale characters, like Red Riding Hood and Snow White, which contained a moral theme designed to influence Lilly Busch’s grandchildren.
“The gardens were motivated by Lilly’s desire to have a place to entertain her grandkids,” says Cowles. Lilly may also have amused her grandchildren in the Mystic Hut, another feature of the Lower Gardens.
“Supposedly Lilly Busch could go in there with her grandkids and get on the blower and call for a servant or somebody to bring treats,” says Cowles. “There was also supposed to be a magic mechanism whereby a table flipped out and all these goodies were revealed. There are a lot of stories like that about Busch Gardens.”
The Lower Gardens were also the site of Easter egg hunts for disadvantaged children and orphans, as well as fundraisers, dog shows, concerts, flower exhibits, and carnivals. In addition, Busch Gardens was a popular location for film shoots, with movies continuing to be filmed there until the early 1950s.
Busch Gardens remained free to the public until 1920; from that year until 1937 tourists paid a small fee, the proceeds of which were donated to the Pasadena Hospital Association (in 1920), the American Legion of California (1921-1928; 1933-1937) and the Unemployment Relief Group, a private charity (1933-1934). The park closed in 1938.
By then, both Adolphus and Lilly were dead and the Busch relatives began subdividing the property. Ivy Wall was later demolished and replaced with an apartment complex.
Cowles’ search for the remnants of Busch Gardens unearthed many features of the park, the majority of which were found in the backyards of homes built on the subdivided property. As described in pasadenagardens.com, the area that was formerly the Upper Gardens contains some of the retaining and boundary walls, winding cement pathways, stairs, rustic bridges, gnomes, a bird bath, waterfalls, fences and pools. The Old Mill, a Bavarian-style building, has been converted to a residence.
The foundations of the Mystic Hut, pathways, and a large rustic bridge with waterfalls are among the surviving features of the Lower Gardens. In addition, a portion of a Greek pergola has been incorporated into a house that can be viewed from South Arroyo Boulevard, as can part of an observation deck and a stone bench.
Cowles and Logan’s research spurred interest in Busch Gardens, and in 2005 the two organized an exhibit about the park at the Pasadena History Museum. In addition, Cowles says he has “amassed a huge amount of materials in binders that’s now at the Huntington library. Hopefully, that will be in good hands; scholars can have access to that.”