Statement of Significance
Description of Historic Place
Reader Rock Garden is a cultural landscape that is an Edwardian era Arts and Craft style rockery. It consists of rock elements, test plantings, pathways, trees, water features, and numerous planting beds with a variety of differing micro-climates and garden areas. The area to the south of the site's drive includes the South Slope, Upper Garden, High Rockery, and Western Slope. The garden to the north of the drive, called the West Garden, includes two pools, a connecting stream and a small bridge. Finally, the area immediately adjacent to the reconstructed superintendent’s house, centres on a lawn bordered by perennial beds and includes a small, reconstructed, gazebo. The Garden spans roughly 0.57 hectares and is located on the slope and hill of Union Cemetery.
Reader Rock Garden is valued for its connection to William Roland Reader who was Calgary’s Parks Superintendent from 1913 to 1942 and is considered Calgary’s most influential Parks Superintendent. The development of civic recreational spaces and beautification of streetscapes are key features of his legacy. Reader lined streets with trees, expanded the area of city parks, and designed playgrounds, parks, golf courses and tennis courts. He was also a founding member of the Calgary Vacant Lots Garden Club and the Calgary Horticultural Society. Reader's efforts did much to educate Calgarians about contemporary gardening principles and he wrote many articles encouraging citizens to beautify their surroundings. Through his dedication, he turned a nearly treeless Calgary into what became known as the “garden city of the west.”
Beyond his beautification efforts, Reader was internationally renowned for his horticultural expertise. Reader acquired seeds and plants from around the world, testing varieties to see what could survive in Calgary’s difficult climate. Reader used the Rock Garden to test new, rare and unique plant species and during his life the Garden held over 4000 different plant species. The quality of his plants and seedlings were recognized by the prestigious horticultural agencies including Kew Gardens, London; the Botanical Gardens at Harvard; and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh.
Reader Rock Garden is also valued for its intricate and elaborate design. The design is based on the British Arts and Crafts Movement and contains influences of the late Edwardian era and early Civic Parks Movement of North America. The main concept was as a naturalistic rockery, an approach advocated by William Robinson (1838-1935) who was a prominent British gardener and writer that challenged the popular view held that it was necessary to include a formal element within a garden. Reader would have been influenced by the writings and ideas of both Robinson and another leading British garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). Robinson and Jekyll both argued for a variety of natural garden types, including water gardens, wild gardens, and rock gardens; all of which are represented in the Reader Rock Garden.
The design and use of local sandstone, subdued colours, and textural foliage in the garden all speak to Reader's familiarity with trends in gardening towards balanced, naturalistic landscape architecture. He laid out a network of walls, pathways and water features to create an intricate series of gardens with variety of gardens types, with differing climatic conditions, moisture levels, and sunlight exposure. The garden is divided into areas including the West Garden, South Slopes, Upper Garden, High Rockery and Western Slopes. Reader kept meticulous records of these areas and assigned each plant bed a unique identifier. The West Rockery, south of the lawns of the house, was considered the most heavily planted part of the site, featuring 650 different types of plant species. His plan also included the construction of a sandstone entry arch at the base of the garden and a gazebo and house at the peak.
Reader Rock Garden is the most important legacy of Reader’s work in Calgary and was the site of his home during his tenure as Parks Superintendent. As such, the site is intimately connected to the memory of William Reader and in 1944, following his death in 1943; the park was named “Reader Rock Garden” to honour his contributions to the city.
Reader Rock Garden also is valued as a symbol of the optimism and development of Calgary during the early 20th century. Reader constructed an internationally praised garden on what was originally a bare hill, demonstrating the potential for Calgary’s parks and gardens. The garden was a showcase to educate people about the gardening and aesthetic potential of the prairie and foothills region of Alberta, particularly Calgary.
The character-defining elements of Reader Rock Garden include, but are not limited to its:
- Topography and north facing slope;
- The spatial configuration of 6 separate gardens – West Garden, Yard and House, South Slope, Upper Garden, High Rockery and Western Slope;
- Native plant vegetation reflecting Reader's documented plantings and collections;
- The upper and lower ponds connected by flowing water;
- Stone retaining walls, stairways, and a collection of pathways;
- Neo-classical sandstone ceremonial arch marking the entrance to Union Cemetery;
- The main drive; the cobble stone corner at the switch back in Cemetery Road;
- Reconstructed Superintendent’s Cottage designed in Arts & Crafts style;
- Original plaque honouring William Reader near the entrance to the garden;
- The reconstructed twiggery bridge, gazebo and benches; and
- View from high rockery back to the house; view from the bottom of the west garden up to lower pond; vistas of the city from the garden.