By 9 a.m. on a recent Tuesday morning, barely a parking spot was left in the lot at the northeast entrance to Blake Garden, a public treasure burrowed within the Kensington hillside.
Automobiles emblematic of Berkeley — some Teslas, a Subaru hatchback, a couple of Priuses and a Honda decked out in Kamala Harris bumper stickers — were lined up, leading to an ornate entrance where a crowd of a couple dozen had assembled. Their eyes squinted toward the trees as the morning sun provided an opportunity to view a variety of feathered creatures.
They came here for a quick escape, a dash to the outdoors in the middle of the East Bay less than 10 minutes from the nearest Interstate 80 onramp. Although it’s easily accessible — particularly via the AC Transit 7 bus that connects El Cerrito del Norte BART station to downtown Berkeley — Blake Garden is noted for its unusual schedule. Its entrance remains locked on the weekends.
Nevertheless, Blake Garden is a gift to the public, enhancing a theme of endowment as the house and garden themselves were donated to the (College of Environmental Design) University of California by the Blake family 65 years ago. Now, the UC Berkeley department of landscape architecture and environmental planning stewards the garden, greets the public and hosts monthly events, such as the opportunity on Tuesday to go birding in the garden.
From the parking lot, you could hear a distant Steller's jay mimicking the caw of a red-tailed hawk while a migrating lesser goldfinch tweeted songs.
Before the birding properly commenced, the crowd was welcomed by Meghan Ray, the garden manager. She explained how the property’s sloping topography is nearly bookended by dual waterways that remain relatively active throughout the year, providing a unique haven for both fauna and flora.
It doesn’t take long to recognize a few other notable attributes about this uninhabited manor while rambling through its neatly curated grounds.
Education is foremost, with evidence detected around nearly every corner. There’s a Create-with-Nature Zone to allow children a chance to build with fallen limbs and brush and a larger-than-life chess board a high school intern once made out of redwood and cedar. Scores of students from Berkeley’s landscape architecture department come here to care for the land and add their verse to the garden’s timeless poem.
An undeniable draw to Blake Garden is that sense of spaciousness that’s all the more desirable when living in cities. The 10.5-acre property prominently features a variety of gardens as compact and diverse as little neighborhoods.
Wandering from area to area of distinct species of growth recalls the opening of a door into a hallway of rooms. In essence, there are five particular outdoor “rooms” that encircle the central manor.
The room that seems to always lure visitors first is the formal garden and reflection pool, designed as an homage to an Italian villa. Magnolia trees line the sides of the pool to create an oasis of tranquility and shade for Blake Garden’s only full-time residents.
Fourteen koi fish with gaping mouths and round bellies swarm by the water’s edge whenever a gentle human appears. Some are named in honor of the Blake family, who built the estate and planted the gardens beginning precisely 100 years ago in 1922.
Anson and Anita Blake, heirs to a quarry and paving business, originally lived on Rincon Road overlooking UC Berkeley’s campus, but their home conflicted with the university’s plans for building its new football field: Memorial Stadium.
The Blakes agreed to move and settled in Kensington, alongside other family members. Mabel Symmes, who was Anita Blake's sister and an early landscape architecture student at UC Berkeley, designed the garden.
Ray explained that some of the fish are named in honor of the family whose name defines the estate. The most stylish fish is named after Harriet Stiles Blake, who first acquired the property in the 1920s. The largest koi fish is named in honor of Anson, Harriet's eldest son, who built the estate as we know it today. He was drawn to the endless bay views and the unusual outcropping of lawsonite.
Examples of lawsonite are visible on a large rock situated at the base of the Mediterranean garden west of the house. The Mediterranean garden is a room for inspiration, offering visitors a chance to observe species that are well-suited to the Bay Area climate.
Along the northern edge of Blake Garden is the redwood canyon, a room that’s marked by an ever-trickling creek. The slim canyon creates a property line between Blake Garden and Carmelite Monastery, established by the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1940s. Several sisters continue to live at the monastery, which is closed off to the public. They’re ideal neighbors because, as Ray said, they keep mum and only communicate with the outside world for business matters.
The final two garden rooms are on the eastern side of the property. The Australian hollow features a wetland area that hosts a thornless blackberry brush with a tunnel dug into its bramble. Ray added that this tunnel and the koi fish are what the young school groups remember most from their tours. Above this area is the final room, an Islamic four-part garden that symbolizes the confluence of rivers.
At the heart of Blake Garden is a Mediterranean-inspired mansion covering some 13,000 square feet. Its thin, two-story framework was uniquely built in tandem with the development of the garden (often a garden comes after the home) and their symmetrical design serves a true Bay Area purpose: The house is a windshield for the formal garden and reflection pool.
The manor served as the official residence of the University of California president (the entire UC system, not just Cal) from 1967 until 2008 when it was abandoned. A total of five presidents lived there. Its first resident, former UC President Charles Hitch, was quoted in the Daily California saying that the manor was the “biggest three-bedroom house in the world,” because the only living area was on the second floor.
The building is now closed to the public but serves as a backdrop to the meandering garden strolls. Sneaking a peek into its barren interior revealed empty bookshelves, some original ceiling design and a couple of buckets to collect rainwater.
On any day, you’ll encounter a varied coterie who populate the grasses, benches and paths. Since the garden is only open on weekdays — from 8:00 a.m to 4:30 p.m. and closed every weekend with the exception of Cal Day in April — it creates a buffer from crowds.
Immune to the weekday barrier is a mix of retirees, children, university botanists and the occasional wedding photoshoot. Perhaps the garden will see an increase from office workers who’ve adopted a hybrid work model and can afford to spend a couple of hours away from their desk. For everyone else, access to Blake Garden can seem oddly out of reach.
Over the years, these constrained hours have caused a minor controversy in the East Bay. It’s a subject the garden manager encounters every now and then.
“I’m not against the idea of it being open on the weekends,” Ray clarified. “We’re just not at capacity to be open any more days. It’s a really small place. On Fridays, a movement class group comes and if one other thing happens, the parking lot is full. There are only three of us here and we are all working our hardest to make sure this is safe and open.”
She pointed out that the original mission statement called for the garden to be open to the public in a “limited” way and suggested that with more funding comes more staff that could lead to further access.
In 2012, a brochure stated that the garden is home to nearly 1,500 plant species, but that’s a number that Ray says has since decreased. She points to a drimys winteri in the formal garden that’s lost its life and is in need of removal, once funding is secured. Although the garden is positioned between two water sources, it doesn’t mean there’s always enough of a flow — or in the case of 2019 when there was a wet winter, too much of a flow as a raging flood blew past the Australian Hollow.
The garden is not exempt from the drought either, spurring a culling of plant species necessary to propel Blake Garden into its next century. Its future will depend on replanting sections with climate-appropriate species that won’t rely on as much water.
Moreover, Ray explained that since the garden was planted a century ago, it was created without the concerns of a fire. There’s now an opportunity for more selective planting to help mitigate these modern issues. As Blake Garden is in transition, she said it’s a signature of a healthy garden.
“You don’t want to freeze it in time,” Ray said. “I think the best gardens are always trying to evolve and change.”