For more than three decades, a nonprofit group has been working on a master plan for Leach Botanical Garden. Now a seed of that dream is ready to bloom into reality
David Porter, executive director of Leach Garden Friends, recently told the Business Tribune that Portland Parks and Recreation under Commissioner Nick Fish is preparing to start the first of several phases of work to develop the upper level of the nearly 17 acres of property along Northeast 122nd Avenue in east Portland.
The upper garden project work is part of a master plan that has been on the boards since the early 1980s and was refined in recent years by the landscape architecture firm Land Morphology and design firm Olson Kundig.
When the plan is fully realized, the garden campus will boast a new formal entrance, several new buildings, a new terraced arbor and fireplace area, new garden areas and plantings, as well as an elevated tree walk.
The new features are designed to allow the botanical garden to serve more visitors while also providing access to parts of the property that have been difficult for people with mobility issues to previously access.
Along the way, the nonprofit Friends group, which operates the garden campus for the city of Portland as the property owner, has honed its fundraising skills while forging new partnerships and building a fanbase for the botanical garden.
"The underpinning of everything we do is referring back to the values that we perceive John and Lilla Leach having when they gave (the property) to the city, that we have an obligation to think, 'What would John and Lilla do?'" Porter says. "It's very humbling to get here and be looking at breaking ground on this."
Vision becomes reality
When John and Lilla Leach bequeathed the botanical garden's original 4.5 acres to the city in the 1970s, their directive was that the property be turned into a garden and museum that the public could enjoy.
Over the past 30 years or so, as the Friends group began creating and then refining a master plan to achieve the vision of John and Lilla, the city and Metro regional government acquired surrounding property as it became available, swelling the garden to its current size.
The result, Porter says, is a diverse topography that the Leach Garden Friends group is now ready to develop to its fullest potential.
In the upper garden project plan that's being tackled, the manor house, where the Leaches lived starting in 1936, and a driveway currently used as the main entrance will remain as they are. Parking lots nearby also will remain available during the operating hours for the garden.
From the manor house area, the ground rises up about 50 or 60 feet, a stretch of forest that gives way to an area that's known as the upper garden. It's this section of the property that will be the focus of the upcoming multiphase effort.
The work that will begin this summer will result in the construction of a terrace that will offer views of a new pollinator and habitat garden that will be established to the north and the existing, sloped forested area to the south.
Designed by Olson Kundig, the terrace will boast an arbor made of sturdy, durable cedar that will be covered with a translucent roof offering views of the sky.
A giant granite block plumbed to serve as a gas fireplace will be built at the south end, near the edge of the forested area. The new features will allow the garden campus to be used during more than just its current daytime hours.
"At night, we can have people telling tales around the fire," Porter says.
The steep grade of the forested area of the garden campus has made access difficult in the past. The upcoming work will address that problem through the construction of what Porter describes as an aerial tree walk. As the land slopes away, the walkway, outfitted with railings for safely, will extend into the forest for a distance of about 300 feet. At its furthest point from flat land, the walkway will be about 30 feet above the ground.
"At its furthest point out, (it) will be ... in the midstory of the trees — dogwoods and vine maple," Porter says. "(But) the tree walk will be totally on-grade. I can bring my mom, who's 92, here with her walker and we can go out into the forest.
"One of the significant things for us is the ability to provide this experience that will open up access to be immersed in nature to whole ranges of people who normally can't go up to Powell Butte and hike."
Gazing into the future
Even as work begins on the first phase of the upper garden project plan, Porter and his group are anticipating future phases, including the construction of a multipurpose building and a welcome center; the demolition of a house that currently serves as administrative offices; a gravel driveway that will be replaced by a paved drive and a large parking lot to create a new formal entry for the garden campus; the construction of a public accessway down the slope of the hill that follows the alignment of Southeast 122nd Avenue.
The total estimated cost to turn the Leach Garden upper garden plan into reality is $10 million.
When the Friends group decided that it was time to start moving on the plan, they began a search for money. They found financial support from groups like the Murdock Foundation and Oregon Cultural Trust. Because the garden campus sits in the Lents Urban Renewal District, the group also was able to secure some funding from Prosper Portland as well as greenspace money from Metro.
They also received a challenge from Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz in her role at the time as park commissioner. If the nonprofit group raised $1.26 million, Fritz pledged the city's Parks and Recreation Department would supplement $4.9 million toward the project. The amount was more than the nonprofit had ever raised, but the group decided it had nothing to lose and hired a temporary consultant to help with the campaign.
"It was a little scary because we really didn't know if we could do it or not," Porter says.
The swell of local support has the Leach Garden Friends group looking beyond Portland to attract visitors.
Porter says he and his group are working with groups from other botanical gardens in Portland, including the Japanese Garden and the Lan Su Chinese Garden, to brainstorm how the city's bounty of gardens could be used as a way to boost tourism.
The American Public Garden Association, for example, has selected Portland as the city of choice for its national conference in 2020. The estimated 1,000 people who will attend are expected to generate about $2.75 million in revenue while they're in Portland, Porter says. He sees that as an indicator that there's an opportunity to create a new brand for the city.
"We should talk about Portland being a city of gardens," Porter says.
An original vision
Leach Botanical Garden pays tribute to the efforts and vision of John and Lilla Leach, who first realized the potential of the property along Johnson Creek as a plant-lover's paradise.
During her lifetime, Lilla was credited with discovering two previously unclassified plant genera and more than a dozen plant species.
She was the recipient of an American award for botany. In 1950, she was the first recipient of the Eloise Payne Luger Award presented by the Garden Clubs of America.
John, meanwhile, earned a reputation as a successful pharmacist and a civic leader who shared his wife's passion for plant life and the outdoors.
The couple belonged to Mazamas, a club focused on recreational outings that included skiing, hiking and mountain climbing. They also regularly took trips to seek out new plant life in the remote and rugged areas of Oregon and Washington state.
In the early 1930s, the couple purchased 4.5 acres of land along Johnson Creek. They named the property Sleepy Hollow and had a stone cabin built on the south side of the creek. The structure, which featured slate left over from the construction of Reed College and became a summer getaway for the couple, still sits on the property.
The couple went on to build a larger house on the north side of the creek, a structure they moved into in 1936 (the house now exists as Leach Botanical Garden's Manor House). They then focused on landscaping the property, adding plants following design plans created by Wilbert Davies, who would go on to become a renowned landscape architect in California.
The Leaches remained at Sleepy Hollow, among their collection of plants, until John died in 1972. Lilla moved to a care center in Lake Oswego, where she remained until she died in 1980.
In their wills, the couple specified that Sleepy Hollow be given to the city of Portland so that the grounds could be turned into a botanical garden and museum. But the gift came with a stipulation: If the city failed to move forward on those plans within 10 years, then ownership of the property would go to the YMCA, one of Johns' favorite organizations.
As the deadline neared, with the city making no move to establish the garden and museum, the YMCA signaled its intent to begin steps to acquire the property.
The Leaches' friends and neighbors worried the YMCA would end up selling the property, which would likely spell the end of the garden the couple had carefully cultivated. So, they formed a nonprofit group called Leach Garden Friends.
Urged on by the group, the city eventually committed to keeping the property and establishing the garden and museum.
If you go
Leach Botanical Garden, 6704 S.E. 122nd Ave., Portland; 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays, (through September); 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays ; 1-4 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays. Admission is free. For more: leachgarden.org
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