Up on the Roof

An Amazing Mini-Eden


     Once only the secretaries’ secret, a place for brown baggers to catch some peace at lunchtime, today the Kaiser Center Roof Garden actively advertises its presence with a concert series. Yet it’s not visible; you gain access by elevator within the Kaiser Center on Lakeside Drive, not a typical place to swing by without purpose. That all may change if expansion plans go through.
     The Swig Company hopes to build a new high-rise tower on the site of the existing building on Webster Street. A portion of the garden would be lost in the process but later put back as it was originally, and the square footage of the garden would actually increase. Best of all, a grand staircase would rise to the garden directly from 20th Street, providing clear public access.
     So what’s up there worth seeing, perched on the top of a five-story parking garage?
     A 3½-acre mini-Eden, with lush lawns, flowerbeds, mature trees and a free-form reflecting pool spanned by an arched wooden bridge. A fountain sprays, while ducks land and paddle around. Around you looms the silver cityscape and below, a gorgeous bird’s-eye view of Lake Merritt. Not surprisingly, the site can be booked for weddings and certain journalists (ahem!) have done exactly that.
     When it opened in 1962, the garden was considered a technological and horticultural marvel — and the largest rooftop garden in the world. It takes a lot of soil to support trees and grass and careful planning to ensure that it doesn’t collapse the floor. The garden’s designer, noted landscape architect Theodore Osmundson, innovated irrigation and drainage systems, picked an extraordinary array of plant specimens and made clever use of “wasted” space. All this makes it a magnet for landscape architecture students to this day. Before Osmundson died in 2009, he often gave seminars and tours of his creation. His garden remains something to behold.

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