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Reader Rock Garden


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Statement of Significance

Description of Historic Place
The Reader Rock Garden is a cultural landscape composed of an early twentieth century naturalistic rock garden consisting of such resources as rock elements, test plantings, paths, trees and water features. It spans some 0.57 hectares located adjacent to Union Cemetery in the City of Calgary. A replica of the Superintendent's Cottage was reconstructed on the site in 2005.

Heritage Value
The heritage value of the Reader Rock Garden lies chiefly in its aesthetic and scientific value as one of Alberta's premier public gardens and a significant botanical testing ground. It is also significant for its association with the garden's designer, William Roland Reader.

Established in the mid-1910s and continuously developed until the early 1940s, the Reader Rock Garden is a remarkable marriage of artistic and scientific interests. The garden's designer, William Reader, was deeply influenced by the City Beautiful movement that advocated the development of well-designed civic green spaces as essential dimensions of the modern cityscape. Reader most fully expressed his commitment to the ideals of the movement in his signature piece, the rock garden in Calgary that now bears his name. His use and arrangement of local sandstone, subdued colours, and textural foliage in the garden all speak to Reader's familiarity with significant trends in North American and European gardening towards carefully balanced, naturalistic landscape architecture. Reader envisioned the garden as a showpiece for a progressive, sophisticated Calgary. During the years that he inhabited the (now reconstructed) superintendent's cottage, Reader offered tours of the semi-private garden. In addition to serving as an artistic creation and a tangible expression of civic boosterism, the Reader Rock Garden also served as a botanical laboratory to study the receptivity of Alberta's soils to a variety of plant species. At its height, the garden was home to over 3500 botanical species. Reader was a meticulous steward of his creation. He marked all the plants within the garden and wrote an unpublished book about the botanical features of the site. The garden itself became part of the system of Dominion Agricultural Research Stations and seeds from the garden were used in several prestigious North American and European gardens.

William Roland Reader was educated in Britain as a teacher, but pursued and developed his native interest in plants by serving as a garden designer at several large gardens in England. In 1908, he came to Canada to serve as a gardener for Pat Burns and his vast commercial empire. Five years later, he assumed the title of Superintendent of Calgary's Parks and Cemeteries, a position he held from 1913 until 1942. The development of civic recreational spaces and the greening of the cityscape were two key features of Reader's legacy. He lined streets with trees, greatly expanded the area of city parks, and designed playgrounds, parks, golf courses and tennis courts. Reader's efforts did much to educate Calgarians about contemporary principles and practices of gardening and to transform the cityscape in accordance with the ideals of the City Beautiful movement.

Source: Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch (File: Des. 2168)

Character-Defining Elements
The character-defining elements of the Reader Rock Garden include such features as:
- topography, north facing slope, soils;
- surviving evidence of William Roland Reader's naturalistic design;
- vegetation representing Reader's documented plantings and collections;
- remnant evidence of natural and created ponds, streams, and pathways;
- views opening as the path ascends and descends the hill;
- rock retaining walls, stairs, and paths;
- ceremonial arch;
- views of the city from the points in the garden.


Street Address: Macleod Trail South and 25 Avenue SE
Community: Calgary
Boundaries: Portion of SE 10-24-1-W5
Contributing Resources: Landscape(s) or Landscape Feature(s): 5

ATS Legal Description:
Mer Rge Twp Sec LSD
7 (ptn.)

PBL Legal Description (Cadastral Reference):
Plan Block Lot Parcel

Latitude Longitude CDT Datum Type
51.029977 -114.056711 GPS NAD 83

UTM Reference:
Northing Easting Zone CDT Datum Type


Recognition Authority: Province of Alberta
Designation Status: Provincial Historic Resource
Date of Designation: 2006/11/17

Historical Information

Built: 1914 to 1942
Period of Significance: 1914 to 1942
Theme(s): Expressing Intellectual and Cultural Life : Sports and Leisure
Historic Function(s): Leisure : Park
Current Function(s): Leisure : Park
Architect: William Roland Reader

One advantage the major cities of the Canadian prairies had over their eastern counterparts was that, when they entered periods of frantic development in the early twentieth century, they could see what pitfalls in urban planning the earlier established eastern cities had already encountered. Urban design was, therefore, probably undertaken with a greater sensitivity towards landscaping and park space than would otherwise have been the case. Though commonly regarded as unsophisticated towns of the wild west, both Edmonton and Calgary made sure they had ample space set aside for parks and gardens, in both their suburbs and their downtown cores, and planted trees along many of their streets, and, in many cases, provided extra spaces for flowers and lawns. The two cities were thus able to avoid the image of an urban jungle which had initially prevailed in many industrial cities of the East.

In Calgary, the City created the position of Superintendent of Parks and Cemeteries in 1913. For the position, it hired a horticulturalist from England, William Reader, who had recently been the gardener for Pat Burns and his commercial empire. Reader had actually been trained as a school teacher, but he developed a personal interest in gardening, and designed the gardens of several large estates in England before migrating to western Canada in 1908. Upon his appointment in Calgary, he embarked on a vast planting project, lining many of the streets with trees and expanding the park space from 520 to over 1,300 acres. Over the next 29 years, he would create several public parks, such as Central Park, Tuxedo Park and Victoria Park. He would also create a number of children's playgrounds, golf courses, tennis courts and outdoor skating rinks. His work occasionally took him out of Calgary as well, as was the case with his landscaping of the EP Ranch for the Prince of Wales.

The project with which Reader is most closely associated, however, is called the Reader Rock Garden, which was built in his own back yard, which was City owned space at Macleod Trail and 25th Avenue SE. The space included an area for the residence of the Superintendent of Parks & Cemeteries. Reader was inspired by the City Beautiful movement which had taken hold in Europe and North America towards the end of the nineteenth century. Envisioning Calgary as a 'showplace city' he embarked on a plan to make the space next to his residence into a model garden, featuring a wide range of flowers, trees and other plant species. Areas were spaced off with rock fences, with other colourful rocks also interspersed among the plants and trees. Reader also experimented with plant and flower varieties, with his garden becoming part of the system of Dominion agricultural research stations. As a result, his reputation grew with time, as seeds from his garden were used by a number of prestigious gardens in England and North America.

Most of Reader's creative work was done during the 1920's. The Depression did much to curtail park expansion and the landscaping of boulevards. Reader himself was forced to retire in 1942 at age 67, and, the following year, he passed away. In 1944, his garden was named in his honour, but its upkeep in the years that followed did not live up to his reputation. His cottage was removed in 1944, and, in later years, furnishings and other buildings were removed. Foreign and unsympathetic plants were allowed to invade the garden. Today, however, efforts are being made to transform the site back to its original condition of horticultural excellence.


The historical significance of the Reader Rock Garden lies in its representation of the efforts of its developer, William Reader, to transform the bustling City of Calgary from a sprawling western metropolis of office blocks and homogenous suburbs into a showplace city filled with parks, landscaped boulevards and recreational facilities. The main environmental showpiece was to be this garden.

(D. Leonard, February 2005)



Throughout Alberta, gardens sprang up very quickly after the first wave of settlement. Their appearance was due to a variety of reasons and they came in the whole range of sizes, from small patches beside a cabin, to large test plots and estates. Some were off in the middle of nowhere, while others were in prominent positions in the centre of town. Most were built by amateurs, but in some cases involved a professional horticulturalist, landscaper or landscape designer.

The Reader Rock Garden in Calgary, which was begun in 1922 and was an ongoing project until Reader's retirement in 1942, exhibits features typical of many gardens of the period. It was built for show. It was built to modify and improve, or 'beautify' the native landscape. It was built as a civic embellishment. It was built to test species for hardiness in the Alberta climate. And it was built as a result of the gardening urge of its owner, William Roland Reader.

Alberta gardens took a number of forms. There were formal gardens, such as those found at many railway stations and parks like Memorial Park in Calgary. There were garden plots, found in many schoolyards, and on experimental farms and stations, where flowers were grown in rows alongside vegetables. There were English country gardens both big and small in front and back yards and on estates like the EP Ranch, Government House, Bow Bend Shack, and John Burns' property. Institutions like the Galt Hospital and the Correctional Institute in Lethbridge cultivated gardens to beautify their grounds. Businesses like Sick's Brewery, also in Lethbridge, had highly visible ornamental plantings to advertise their product and contribute to civic improvement. And there were wilderness gardens of various sorts, ranging from the river valley civic parks in Edmonton to more modified landscapes with introduced plant species such as artist Carl Rungius' garden and the 1933 Cascades of Time garden in Banff.

Most of these gardens, as diverse as they were, share one feature in common. They no longer exist. Gardens can tolerate only a small amount of neglect, and require a fair amount of sustained specialist attention to remain in top form. Thus the context of the Reader Rock Garden, which was rich and varied before the Second World War, is today very limited. Archival images of private gardens and trade fair exhibits of landscape architects reveal that the rock garden was a popular form in the 1920s. Rocks were also employed very widely in an incidental fashion for edging gardens. However, the specific focus of the Reader Rock Garden as a testing ground for over 4,000 species of ornamental plants is not duplicated in Alberta. The sophisticated design and layout of the Reader Rock Garden is most closely resembled by the remaining example of a rock garden in Banff National Park, the Cascades of Time garden, which is outside provincial jurisdiction.

(D. Field, December 2005)

Additional Information

Object Number: 4665-1052
Designation File: DES 2168
Related Listing(s): 4664-0404
Heritage Survey File: HS 81997
Website Link: http://www.calgary.ca/
Data Source: Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch, Old St. Stephen's College, 8820 - 112 Street, Edmonton, AB T6G 2P8 (File: Des. 2168)
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