The Making of Park & Tilford Gardens

Park&Tilford Distilleries Building 1957
Park&Tilford Distilleries Building 1957

The story of Park & Tilford Gardens begins in 1962 when Park & Tilford Distilleries engaged Justice & Webb Landscape Architects to create an outdoor space for their staff to use during their lunch breaks. After the firm provided ideas for this project, and for improvements to the signage on Cotton Road (Main Street today), the company asked Harry Webb to create a plan for a public garden on the two-acre site west of the existing office building. The goal was to contribute to the life of the community, as well as to promote the distillery and its products. See more.

George D. Kuhn, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Park and Tilford Distilleries, is credited with conceiving of a set of public display gardens. One of the primary inspirations for Mr. Kuhn was Busch Gardens, created by the Anheuser-Busch brewing company, specifically the gardens in Van Nuys California which welcomed visitors from 1964 to 1979. The executives and staff involved in the planning and construction of Park & Tilford Gardens included Mr. Kuhn, company Presidents Hans Krutzen and Don McNaughton, Public Relations Representative Bill Bird, and Plant Superintendent John Holdsworth.

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In 1964 Harry Webb presented the clients with design that included seven distinct gardens, interlocking like cogs in a machine when viewed from above. These included the Colonnade Garden, Rhododendron Garden, Flower Garden, Oriental Garden, Native Wood Garden, Rose Garden and Greenhouse. The design was accepted, and over a year of detailed design work was complete.

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The original features included a life-size fiberglass King Neptune fountain fabricated by Ital-Décor in Burnaby, an armillary sphere from Kenneth Lynch & Sons in Connecticut, and a large aviary which housed sulphur-crested cockatoos, and Indian Ringneck Parakeets.

Local sculptor, Jack Harman, was commissioned to create bronze busts of botanist Carl Linnaeus, and plant explorers David Douglas and Archibald Menzies.

 

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Large trees were planted, including the distinctive Dawn Redwood and several species of Magnolias.

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The north side of the Colonnade Garden featured a shade house for hanging plants, and a large Lord & Burnham greenhouse for propagating plants.

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Located between the Colonnade Garden and the office building to the east, the Flower Garden was completed in July 1968. It featured circular raised beds with seasonal plantings, and a stream that ran down the slope into a reflecting pool.

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The garden was enclosed by a wood trellis topped with pineapple finials, and an 11’ tall aviary housed zebra finches, budgies and canaries.

Many North Shore residents remember the Plexiglas domes that protected the plant displays during the Christmas season. Recycled heat from the distillery operations was added to these beds in 1970.

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The Oriental Garden is best known for its dramatic Moon Gate, distinctive arched bridge, and brilliant blue terracotta tiles.

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It originally featured paper Shoji Screens and a Japanese tea service. The waterfall was constructed with volcanic feather rock, the pool stocked with a collection of colourful Koi fish, and the gate on the north side was finished with a transparent blue stain.

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The four Acer palmatum 'Atropurpureum' or Japanese Cutleaf Maples were donated by City of North Vancouver's sister city, Chiba, in Japan and were planted by the Mayor of the City in 1970.

The gardens were officially dedicated by North Vancouver City Mayor Carrie Cates on January 29th 1969; with a gala event attended by business leaders, civic officials, media and other guests.

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The Rose Garden was constructed after the official opening, with its wrought iron gazebo and pergola fabricated by Riverside Iron, and a circular pool and fountain in the centre. Details such as brackets and finials were all custom designed by Harry Webb, and ornamental gaslights were installed in 1969.

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The Native Wood Garden was completed by Jeckway Construction in 1971 at a contract cost of $3,265. Peter Jeck was a respected contractor and craftsman who contributed to many notable landscape developments, including the original seawalk in front of the Bayshore Inn. The Totem Pole was installed several years later in February 1973.

This huge Cedar stump was found up Grouse Mountain. It was cut into manageable pieces, brought to the Gardens and installed at the entrance to the Native Garden.

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The 500,000th visitor to the gardens was honoured with a ceremony in 1972 and a presentation of a Plaque by Nancy Greene Raine and Mr. Krutzen. The annual attendance remained at double that number for the rest of the decade.

In 1978, Park & Tilford executives approached Justice Webb & Vincent Landscape Architects with the idea of adding a retail outlet at the west end of the Rose Garden. Architect John Vincent prepared the drawings, based on Harry Webb's concept for the building and it was completed in 1980. Today the former private liquor store houses the Garden Director’s office and The Rose Room, a multi-purpose meeting room.

 

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In 1984, the Park & Tilford Distilleries closed their North Vancouver site and moved to Montreal. The Gardens also closed and over the next few years fell into disrepair. Many of the features of the Garden were lost and vandalized leaving the Gardens overgrown, weedy and falling apart. Fortunately, the bronze busts  of Linnaeus and the plant explorers (David Douglas and Archibald Menzies) were given to VanDusen Gardens for safekeeping.

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Some people may remember the Barrel Sales when the Distillery was preparing to move.

During this period local citizens and politicians fought to preserve the gardens, and to protect them from redevelopment. Members of the Cloverley Area Residents Association chained themselves to trees, and City of North Vancouver Councillor, Stella Jo Dean checked herself out of Lions Gate Hospital with a broken ankle to cast the deciding vote on a motion to establish a covenant on the property that protects the gardens.

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As part of the subsequent redevelopment, the Flower Garden was demolished. Durante Kreuk Landscape Architects designed a new entry gate, the Display Garden, and the Herb Garden. Construction began in 1986 and the Shopping Centre and the Gardens re-opened in December 1988.

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Over the years there have been changes, some of which were the result of vandalism during the years the gardens were closed. The gas lights were lost along with King Neptune, the armillary sphere, furnishings in the teahouse, and the original totem pole in the Native Wood Garden.

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In 1996, the Friends of the Gardens Society  (FOGS) was formed as a Volunteer Group to augment the Gardens and educate the Public about gardening on the North Shore. They built a second Polyhouse for their Spring Plant Sales in 2000. Proceeds from those sales have made it possible for the FOGS to replace the aging Lathehouse with a set of wrought iron hanging basket stanchions and have a new totem pole carved and erected by a local carver in the Native Garden.

Recent restoration work has included repairs to the Oriental Garden pond and waterfall, and in 2019, the brick caps on the planter walls in the Rose Garden will be replaced. The Friends of the Garden Society is currently completing a set of improvements to the Herb Garden.

The story of Park & Tilford Gardens is significant in that it demonstrates an impressive commitment from the distillery executives, both in funding the design and in guiding its development. It is also notable that the original designer, landscape architect Harry Webb, was charged with envisioning and detailing each built element. Beyond this, the survival of the gardens over 50 years is a testament not only to its original creators, but to the committed citizens who fought to preserve it in the 1980s. Today it is the only example in Canada of a free, publicly accessible Botanical Garden which forms part of a shopping centre. Today the management and ongoing maintenance are provided by Bentall-Kennedy on behalf of the property owners and the retail tenants, and is actively supported by the Friends of the Gardens Society (FOGS). A Garden Review Board made up of City officials, staff, a FOGS representative and a landscape architect meets three times each year.

By Adrienne Webb Brown & Ann Pentland, October 2018