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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Landmarks: Duncan’s colorful vision still blooms

Vistors to Manito Park’s Duncan Garden walk the path toward the fountain donated in memory of Louis Davenport. (Dan Pelle)
Vistors to Manito Park’s Duncan Garden walk the path toward the fountain donated in memory of Louis Davenport. (Dan Pelle)

Is there a garden anywhere in Spokane as meticulously kept and as beautiful as the formal Duncan Garden at Manito Park?

During the warm weather months, this gem of the city parks is alive with color and busy with visitors. And it is also an interesting part of Spokane’s history, beginning in the early years of the 1900s when Charles Balzer, first superintendent of what was then Montrose Park, discovered that the site where the garden now stands was filled with rich loamy soil. He had 42,500 wagon loads removed for gardens in parks throughout the city, leaving behind a sunken space the length of two football fields. In 1910 John W. Duncan, assistant park superintendent for the Boston Park System, was hired to improve and operate this fledgling park on Spokane’s South Hill. He did that for the next 32 years.

Before coming to Spokane, Duncan had an association with the famous Olmsted Brothers, urban planners who laid the plans for many of Spokane’s parks, and he was eager to begin implementation of the Olmsted designs. As he visited other parks across the nation, he came up with the idea of a formal European-Renaissance style garden, which he designed and built in 1912 at the site where the loam had been removed. This became known as the Sunken Gardens, and it featured sculpted turf areas, a host of annuals, shrubs and intricately patterned geometric floral designs on its 3 acres.

In 1956, Verus Davenport, wife of Spokane pioneer Louis B. Davenport, donated a large granite fountain with a brass centerpiece featuring three swans in memory of her late husband. The fountain stands in the center of the garden and has a water display pattern that runs on a 10-minute cycle. Where a wooden gazebo once stood at the south end of the garden, the Friends of Manito installed a concrete Victorian gazebo with domed roof in 2004 in celebration of the park’s centennial.

Steve Nokes, a member of the executive board of the Friends of Manito, has been conducting tours of the garden for 27 years and notes that the group has helped with a number of improvements in the park – and at the gardens specifically, they’ve replaced urns for shrubbery, put in a railing along the stairs leading down to the garden and more.

There is a lot of planning that goes in to the design of the garden each year, a design that always changes. Especially challenging is determining the selection of the 40,000 annuals that will be set in the ground every May, a planting process that takes staff from Manito and other parks some five or more days to complete.

Right about this time each year gardener Margaret Schussler leads the process of figuring out color schemes for the various beds and then determining which plants will accommodate the design. Flowers must be able to last until first frost. There are the old stand-bys and favorites, but the gardeners always like to try something different and see what might become new favorites for the public. In late winter seeding begins in the greenhouses.

And once everything is transferred into the garden itself, there’s still the weeding, fertilizing, pruning and other garden maintenance to keep up with.

Aubrey L. White, considered the father of Spokane parks and an early president of the Spokane Park Board, remarked in 1928 that “I do not suppose there is a single thing in our city that has been taken in as many snap shots as the sunken gardens.”

Duncan’s shaping of Manito Park extends well beyond the gardens. For example, under his supervision Mirror Lake was reduced in size to what is now the duck pond – thanks to construction of concrete retaining walls and by diverting spring water to keep the pond filled. Previously the lake extended east to what is now Grand Boulevard via a canal that would come close to drying up in the late summer, leaving behind an ugly swamp laden with mosquitoes. On the west side of the lake, water would seep into lots abutting the park.

And he was also slowly incorporating recommendations of the 1907 Olmsted report into the park.

John Duncan retired in 1942, at which time the Park Board designated him superintendent emeritus of the Spokane park system and credited him with “creating one of the finest series of gardens in the country out of barren rocks, lakes and bogs.”

The previous year the park board renamed Sunken Gardens. It became Duncan Garden in honor of the man whose lasting legacy was a beautiful formal garden in a beautiful park in Spokane.

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