A Hidden Portland Garden Awaiting Discovery
When people think of “gardens” in Portland they almost always mention the city’s iconic International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park (a.k.a. “The Rose Gardens”), or perhaps the Japanese Garden, which sits just above the Rose Garden area. You might also hear mention of the Lan Su Chinese Garden in NW PDX. All are wonderful places that must be seen, yet they are also quite popular and often extremely crowded (or closed, in the case of the Japanese Gardens which re-opens later this year). Of course, with temperatures in the 20’s these days, you can likely score a pretty quiet session at just about any of these gorgeous places; just bring a heavy winter coat! But what about those warmer days when everyone and their brother is swarming over every inch of flower and trail? Where can one go in Portland for a somewhat off-the-beaten path garden experience without driving a long distance? Enter Portland’s Elk Rock Garden, a 13-acre, once-private reserve of botanical delight nestled in Portland’s old Dunthorpe neighborhood. With dramatic views overlooking the Willamette River, Elk Rock Garden is a true discovery to be made. And for me, born and raised in this great city, well, I’d never heard of it.
So without a doubt Elk Rock Garden is both far less visited and beautiful; two great reasons to go. However, where did it come from? Who built this amazing garden and made it available to the public thereafter? Surrounding what is called Bishop Estate, Elk Rock Garden was a private garden created by businessman Peter Kerr (1897-1957). After Kerr’s death in 1957, the garden was opened to the public (1959) and has been maintained ever after by a dedicated group of gardeners. Here is an excerpt from The Oregon Encyclopedia that details the early history of Elk Rock Garden:
A Scottish immigrant with cosmopolitan sensibilities, Kerr and two other bachelors rented the five-acre property, which included rough pasture, native trees, and a Queen Anne-style house dubbed the Cliff Cottage for its location on the eastern edge of the bluff. The new tenants created a lawn, tennis court, and rustic golf course, and a cow, poultry, and vegetable garden supplied the kitchen run by the resident Chinese cook/houseman.
Visitors arrived on horseback or by way of the new interurban train at the base of the bluff to socialize and walk the paths that Kerr built himself. “I got it [poison oak],” he later remembered, “through digging the nasty shrub out of a path we were making.”
In 1905, Kerr married Laurie King and the couple moved into Cliff Cottage; their two daughters were born there. Peter planted a fruit orchard and a large flowerbed. By 1906 the Kerrs owned three lots in Abernethy Heights, increasing the total acreage of their Elk Rock property to 13.38 acres.
In December 1909, Kerr hired landscape architect John C. Olmsted of New York to evaluate Elk Rock and a five-acre lot at Waverly Heights across the river. Kerr’s parents had taught him to garden, so while he referred to Olmsted’s suggestions, he followed his own inclinations.
Provided with a client wish list and an image of a Scottish manse, Portland architect Ellis Lawrence was commissioned in 1915 to site a new house. The lawn was retained, but the orchard and flowerbed were eliminated. The new house was built at the base of the hill, with its living and dining room windows facing Mount Hood.
Kerr hired Emanuel T. Mische, Portland’s first superintendent of parks, to develop a planting scheme for the property. As with Olmsted, Kerr referred to Mische’s plans but experimented with a variety of plants, including favorites from Scotland, Northwest natives, specimen shrubs and trees, as well as brightly colored annuals.
Two years after the Kerrs moved into the house, they replaced the terraced garden and its espaliered fruit trees with a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a two-car garage with apartment above. Adolph Meyer, a Swiss-trained landscape architect, installed new basalt retaining walls, a rock garden, and steps throughout the garden.
The garden at Elk Rock was the family’s private domain, but its reputation spread. It was opened to the public in 1959, after Peter Kerr’s death, when the property was given to the Episcopal Bishop of Oregon and renamed The Bishop’s Close Garden at Elk Rock. Since its creation in 1897 the garden has survived due to the skills of dedicated professional gardeners who worked with Mr. Kerr during his lifetime and under the direction of a volunteer Garden Committee since 1959.
Getting to Elk Rock Garden is tricky, so use your map well. Of course, this just adds to the mystique!
Elk Rock Garden
11800 SW Military Ln
Portland, OR 97219
Open daily 8 am to 5 pm
Dog are allowed, but must stay on leash
No picnicking allowed
Help Preserve Elk Rock Garden: