The Stanford Arizona Garden — A Victorian Conceit
by Claudia Brooks
It all began in England. Not cactus gardens per se, but the impulse to identify and collect nature’s exotica and put it on display. Charles Darwin’s writings Voyage of the Beagle (Journal and Researches) and Origin of the Species, published in 1839 and 1859 respectively, not only brought Darwin himself considerable celebrity and respect, but gave new impetus to the European scientific revolution, propelling natural history to the forefront. Aided by an increase in wealth and literacy during the reign of Queen Victoria — a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution — the general population could now begin to take part in such new forms of inquiry and recreation, and so they did. Barbara T. Gates describes this as an overwhelming drive to collect, witness, and catalog nature in fields open to amateur and professional alike; noting too that such endeavors had an aesthetic as well as scientific component.  Their imaginations captured, the Victorians threw themselves into natural history with a passion that not only resulted in the establishment of new public institutions in which to house specimens of natural wonder for all to see, (e.g., The British Museum of Natural History), but launched a series of crazes that fostered private collecting and collections. The zeal of Victorian collectors was made manifest in their pursuit of geology, shells, orchids and ferns, to cite a few examples — the last of these becoming so widespread that in 1855 it acquired its own moniker “pteridomania,” meaning fern madness or fern craze. For some, collecting was a fashionable hobby and for others a more serious scientific pursuit.
The Victorian fascination with the natural world and the collection and display of its diverse forms of life logically extended to English gardens. During the Victorian Period garden styles changed to what came to be called “gardenesque.” It was a style ushered in under the influence of landscaper John Claudius Loudon and his wife Jane. Instead of large lawns, plant materials that provided color, and beds that emphasized shape and the display of plants were favored.  Throughout the 19th century plant hunters were hard at work in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire, bringing home new specimens. But of course, this activity also brought the issue of class front and center, for it was in fact the grand gardens of private estates tended by phalanxes of gardeners to which the preponderance of this exotica found its way.
With similar effect as that of the Industrial Revolution in England, the economic expansion that followed the American Civil War had led to an accumulation of wealth for a new industrial elite of self-made men and this, in turn, had formed the basis for an equally extraordinary growth of art- and other forms of collecting.  These men of new wealth — and their wives — sought shelter in respectability. Suddenly their aim became one of connecting their personal riches to high culture and what better vehicle for achieving this end than by harnessing the old world to the new — Europe to America? A trade in Old Master works, antique furnishings and architectural accoutrements began crossing the Atlantic to America during the second half of the 19th century, along with a desire to emulate European refinements and high cultural trends. The wealthy and powerful of San Francisco joined in, crafting a new chapter in the romance of Victorian natural history.
From completion of the Peninsula railroad between San Francisco and San Jose in 1864, the mid-peninsula had become a summertime sanctuary almost exclusively for the well-to-do of San Francisco. As Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett have written in their history of Menlo Park and its environs:
“Sprawling houses, each with its own name, were erected by San Francisco’s most powerful and influential pioneer families. The builders were the city’s merchants, bankers, financiers, lumber tycoons, attorneys and mining kings. . .. Landscaping was breathtaking. Estates were acclaimed for their unrivaled beauty. Behind regal entry gates were imported trees and what seemed like miles of carefully manicured lawns punctuated by ancient live oaks, brilliantly blooming flower gardens, chaste statuary and splashing fountains. The well-traveled agreed that these were some of the most outstanding gardens in America.” 
And so it was that Jane and Leland Stanford employed European horticulturalist, Rudolph Ulrich, between the years 1891 and 1893 to fashion for them a distinct and exotic type of garden known as the “Arizona garden.” The Arizona garden, encompassing a plot of 30,000 feet, was intended as a portion of the elaborate landscaping that was to surround a new mansion on their 8,900-acre country estate. Perhaps it was also intended to rival a similar garden established a short time earlier at the luxury sea-side resort, the Hotel del Monte (now the Naval Postgraduate School) in Monterey. The Hotel del Monte had been built at the behest of Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Collis P. Huntington, owners of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, to stimulate passenger trade.  It was Crocker who had first hired Ulrich and overseen his work on the del Monte Arizona garden project.
Rudolph Ulrich was born in Weimar, Thuringia, Germany in 1840 and immigrated to the United States in 1868 at the age of 27. Trained as a landscape gardener in Europe, he built a successful career designing and installing gardens and grounds for private and public clients across the United States. In later years Ulrich was brought in by Frederick Law Olmsted to assist with landscape design at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois; but in the early 1870s he’d begun working on various estates built in the San Francisco Bay Area.  True to the zeitgeist of Victorian landscaping, as Julie Cain describes, Ulrich sought to use the widest possible variety of plants available to him, placing them precisely and specifically to create dramatic visual effects. Texture and color were his primary concerns, and little thought was given to grouping plants by origin or by similar water requirements. One might liken Ulrich to a 19th century painter who anticipated early 20th century post-impressionist sensibilities years ahead of its time.
Extravagance was a characteristic of Ulrich’s work, but the wallets of his new patrons, Jane and Leland Stanford, were open. Moreover, Leland Stanford owned a railway which facilitated the transport of plants and materials. This allowed Ulrich himself to travel to the Sonoran Desert desert in search of specimens. His layout of the garden was formal, featuring a symmetrical quadrilateral layout bisected by a wide main axis. Its overall shape was elliptical. Tall columnar saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) were the garden’s chief design element at the time. There were flower borders replete with numerous species of cacti, succulents (agaves, aloes, and yuccas), palms, conifers and grasses.
By 1884 work on the Stanford Arizona Cactus Garden was completed, but the untimely death of Jane’s and Leland’s only child, Leland Jr., caused them to scrap plans for the mansion. Instead they founded Stanford University in his honor, its doors opening in 1891. The Arizona garden remained part of the University grounds, and was steadily maintained until 1926 when both members of the Stanfords’ personal staff who had continued to tend the garden, Chung and Ah Wah, returned to China.  Neglected for decades thereafter, the garden eventually ran wild and then fell into ruin, until its resurrection and restoration through diligent volunteer efforts commencing in the late 1990’s. A few of the original plants still survive, though most have been substituted and/or replaced in keeping to the extent possible (and knowable) with Ulrich’s original plans.
Today, Stanford’s Arizona Garden stands as an historic relic of Victorian landscaping, an expression of Gilded Age new wealth, and a hidden horticultural gem.
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 Gates, Barbara T. “Introduction: Why Victorian Natural History?” Victorian Literature and Culture; Cambridge University Press; Volume 35, Issue 2, September 2007, p. 540.
 Ibid., p. 545.
 Bennett, Shelley M. 2013. The art of wealth: the Huntingtons in the Gilded Age, 9.
 Svanevik, Michael and Shirley Burgett. Menlo Park, California: Beyond the Gate; Custom & Limited Editions, San Francisco, 2000, p. 7.
 Cain, Julie. “Rudolph Ulrich’s Arizona Gardens,”Pacific Horticulture, Pacific Horticulture Society, October 2004.
 Palmer, Barbara. “Sun again shines on century-old cactus garden,” Stanford Report, January 15, 2003.
Cain, Julie. “Rudolph Ulrich’s Arizona Gardens,”Pacific Horticulture, Pacific Horticulture Society, October 2004: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/rudolph-ulrichs-arizona-gardens/, (accessed August 23, 2019).
French, Laura. “Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: The Victorian Cactus Craze? Succulents in Nineteenth-Century Poetry,” Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University Blog, Posted February 27, 2019: https://blogs.baylor.edu/armstrongbrowning/2019/02/27/reflections-from-a-visiting-scholar-the-victorian-cactus-craze-succulents-in-nineteenth-century-poetry/ (accessed August 18, 2019).
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Joyce, Alice. “Stanford’s Victorian cactus garden reawakens,” SFGate, June 30, 2004: https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Stanford-s-Victorian-cactus-garden-reawakens-2745180.php (accessed August 23, 2019).
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