A mother and daughter pose in front of a rose bush during their visit to the Berkeley Rose Garden. Throughout the course of the event, volunteers offered rose bundles and chocolate to mothers in attendance in honor of Mothers’ Day.
A mother and daughter pose in front of a rose bush during their visit to the Berkeley Rose Garden on May 8, 2021. The city of Berkeley held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the completion of the restoration of the garden, and volunteers offered rose bundles and chocolate to mothers in attendance in honor of Mother’s Day. Credit: Clara Mokri

With its sweeping bay view, gently sloping pathways and, most importantly, 1,300 brightly colored rose bushes with sweetly perfumed flowers, the Berkeley Rose Garden is something the residents of Berkeley want to nurture and have voted to nurture.

So, through Measure T1, a 2008 East Bay Regional Parks District tax, Measure WW and the city of Berkeley Capital Improvement Fund and Measure F parks tax, the Berkeley Rose Garden has a new life and a new pergola, a feature that will last for decades to come.

“I think one of the great things that has come out of the pandemic is people really have enjoyed their parks,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the garden Saturday morning. “I want to thank the voters of Berkeley. Without you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Despite being demolished in 2016, the 220-foot long redwood pergola was reconstructed to the exact measurements of the original structure. The redwood beams were tagged, logged, organized, and stockpiled to be reused in the rebuild in different areas of the park. Credit: Clara Mokri

The year-long, $5 million building project replaced the garden pergola, which had rotted and was red-tagged in 2014. It also made the park Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-friendly and updated the irrigation, among other details. The refinishing of the tennis courts adjacent to the garden will be done in the coming months. 

Parks fanatic, environmentalist and Berkeley Parks and Waterfront commissioner Jim McGrath said he’s the “godfather” of this project and is thrilled to see the pergola fixed and the garden upgraded. He worked to get the parks tax passed in Berkeley in 2014, which raised taxes to fund projects like this.

“This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of,” McGrath said. “This is such an iconic park for the Bay Area. It’s wonderful the city of Berkeley believes in infrastructure. This will last another 80 years.”

The Berkeley Rose Garden was built between 1932 and 1937 through the New Deal public works programs, historian Susan Ives of the LivingNewDeal.org writes. Legendary Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck designed a terraced amphitheater with a redwood pergola, and landscape architect Vernon M. Dean and Charles V. Covell, founder of the East Bay Rose Society, finalized the plan. 

City of Berkeley rosarian Miguel Cortes shows off the thriving floribunda rose named after Frida Kahlo that he planted in the rose garden two seasons ago. While most people first recognize the smell or color of the flowers first, Miguel is most fascinated by roses’ varying abilities to resist diseases. Credit: Clara Mokri

Hundreds of men employed by the Civil Works Administration and, later, the Works Progress Administration worked over four years to install the garden. 

The garden was designated a city of Berkeley Landmark in 1995. However, throughout the years, the beloved park pergola, with its brightly-colored climbing rose vines, fell into such disrepair it was deemed unsafe.

The city does not allow the chopping of living redwood trees to build city projects, so the redwood used to replace the original pergola redwood had to be carefully and creatively sourced. Some of the original redwood was milled to replace the pergola “roof.” Reclaimed redwood that had another use was used, as was redwood from fallen trees at the bottoms of canyons, said Scott Ferris, director of Berkeley Parks & Recreation and Waterfront.

Throughout the course of the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Berkeley Rose Garden, volunteers offered rose bundles and chocolate to mothers in attendance in honor of Mother’s Day. Young Song receives a bouquet during her visit to the rose garden with her daughter Sarah. Credit: Clara Mokri

The city of Berkeley had a tough few years with their parks, losing the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp in 2013 to fire, a red-tag designation for the rose garden’s pergola in 2014 and another red tag for the Berkeley Pier in 2015. 

“We lost a lot of our iconic recreation features in just a few years, but with the help of T-1, we’re rebuilding them,” Ferris said. “It turned out beautifully, just absolutely beautiful. It’s one of the jewels of Berkeley.”

Berkeley Parks and Recreation rosarian Miguel Cortes said the rehab of the rose garden not only adheres to the Works Progress motif but brings the roses new life. Previously, the roses were shot with water from galvanized steel sprinkler heads, which was not great for their leaves. Roses, he said, like to be watered at their base, so part of the project was to install a drip system that does so. 

Cortes, who works all week at the garden, said everything he asked for in terms of the rebuild was granted. He promises the roses will climb the pergola again.

The new ADA features go around the tennis courts, and a ramp leads those who use it to the middle of the refurbished pergola, where they can admire not only the roses but the view. The ADA portion of the park renovation cost $1 million.

“It looks great and pretty much everything you could hope for,” Sandy McCoy of the Friends of Berkeley Rose Garden said. “It’s beautiful. It’s a great arts and crafts monument even though it’s a WPA project.”

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday, Berkeley Rose Garden visitors were greeted with a small bouquet of roses and baby’s breath for moms and just about anyone else who wanted one. Volunteers passed out chocolates and a DJ played soothing jazz while guests lingered in the park.

The best time of the year to go to the rose garden and see its perfectly Instagramable 200 varieties is right now, Cortes said. Sarah Song brought her mother, Young Song, from Oakland, to the garden to enjoy, as they do every year on Mother’s Day weekend. As her mother took pictures of bright, purple varieties — her favorite — Sarah Song pushed down her mask just a little to smell them.

Deputy City Manager Paul Buddenhagen (from the left), Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani, and Councilman Terry Taplin cut the ribbon to celebrate the reopening of the Berkeley Rose Garden on May 8, 2021. Credit: Clara Mokri

“We think it looks great,” Sarah Song said. “We were so surprised they handed us a rose for walking in just for being a mom.”

People took pictures to send their friends and loved ones, couples took photos of themselves at the bottom of the amphitheater, and the gorgeous weather kept visitors smiling.

“I love the rose garden,” said a former Berkeley High teacher who calls himself Eldon DeCali, and who was taking pictures to send to his two daughters in Spain. “This is the spot. This is the most beautiful place in Berkeley, if not the universe. I love all the colors.”

Call for Volunteers

The Berkeley Rose Garden needs volunteers and experience is not required. Projects vary throughout the year, but include pruning, soil amending, weeding, deadheading, trash pickup and special projects. Interested parties should email rosarian Miguel Cortes at mcortes@cityofberkely.info

Laura Casey is a freelance writer covering Berkeley and the East Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has written for a number of local publications. She is also a full-time investigator at an East Bay law...