Once the pride of Portland: Southeast's Lambert Gardens
When April arrives, it's not unusual to find a line of cars headed south from the City of Portland on the way to the farmlands and rolling fields of the Willamette Valley, in search of Oregon's local nurseries. For example, the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival in Woodburn offers city people a chance to see dazzling waves of colorful tulip fields from late March to early May – tantalizing visitors to spend a sunny afternoon wandering the grounds and enjoying the fragrance and sights of velvety tulips.
The springtime tradition of visiting floral nurseries had been going on since the 1930s, but the public didn't have as far to travel back then! To most dwellers of the Rose City, "a trip out to the country" then could have been as close as the Lambert Gardens on 28th and S.E. Raymond Street in the Reed Neighborhood. But how exactly did this tradition start?
Like many other second-generation Oregonians who fell in love with Portland on their first visit, Andrew B. Lambert – originally from Louisiana – was on vacation with his brother, when he felt the lure of the Northwest. In 1925 Portland had a small-town feel, and tall Douglas fir trees still covered the Southeast neighborhoods. There were boating and fishing on the Willamette River near Oaks Park, and plenty of outdoor activities – hiking, bird watching in Oaks Bottom, and bicycling the streets of Inner Southeast with little or no traffic.
The cool summer weather and the rainy winters kept Oregon plants and trees green and vibrant – and jobs were available for those who wanted to work hard. Hey, who wouldn't want to live in paradise?
So Andrew stayed in Portland, earning a living by felling trees on a small scale, a task which seemed to be in demand at the time. As mentioned in various articles in the Oregonian newspaper about the Lambert Gardens, Andrew earned enough money that way to purchase twenty-five overgrown acres of land from Reed College – vacant land on S.E. 28th, a bit north of the campus. The site he bought was once a prospering produce garden, run by immigrant Asians, who grew fruits and vegetables they then sold around the neighborhood, and to traveling vendors and local merchants, who in turn marketed them around town.
During the following years Andrew Lambert began collecting trees, plants, and shrubs – such as Blue Lawson Cypresses, golden arborvitae, and copper beeches – and he created a garden that people would eventually travel to from great distances, both to enjoy the garden and to buy the most beautiful flowers they had ever seen. But Andrew's signature draw to the Garden from the start were the scarlet, crimson, yellow, and red fields of tulips that bloomed each spring. They were what placed the Lambert Gardens on the map.
Andrew had imported 15,000 bulbs from Holland, with the idea that botanists and gardeners would be more likely to buy tulip bulbs from his nursery, rather than order them from a catalogue and wait weeks for delivery.
This self-made gardener spared no expense in his Lambert Gardens. Local news coverage declared it a "model garden built on a lavish scale. People visiting the Butchart Gardens [in Vancouver, British Columbia] will also want to visit the Lambert Gardens."Lambert began designing a series of small gardens within the Garden, each with its own theme. The curious came to see what an English or French garden looked like, while his Italian and Spanish gardens reminded immigrants of the homeland they'd left behind. He paid $450 to import a "Mining Lady Statue" from Europe; and he ordered stonework from the Vermont Quarries to finish a courtyard entrance to his Sunken Garden. Weekly newspaper advertisements proclaimed "If it's from Lambert's, it's the best."
A Moorish water lily pool, and a bronze fountain with a statue entitled "Boy with Gourd" imported from Italy, were among the outstanding attractions in the Lambert Gardens – which drew thousands of visitors each spring and summer.
Within five years of opening the Lambert Gardens to the public, Andrew and his staff worked tirelessly to design and build some ten different distinct gardens, decorated with white columned pergolas, bricked walkways, handcrafted rose arbors, and statues – and fountains and vases imported from overseas further adorned the grounds.
Remarkably, the Lambert Gardens were still going strong right through the Great Depression in the 1930s. Twenty workers were kept busy manicuring the grounds at all times, and thousands of people paid admission to view the prized Gardens, even in that time of high unemployment.
In the winter months, when most nurseries and flower gardens were closed for the season, the Lambert Gardens announced the Start of Christmas with one of the largest illuminated displays in the city. Christmas at the Lambert Gardens included a miniature church, recorded music, winter floral scenes, and Holiday decorations.
The public was so impressed with the creativity of Andrew Lambert that his garden design services were requested citywide. In 1934, Lambert and his crew were awarded a contract to plant rhododendrons, evergreen plants, and a lush lawn around the U.S. Customs Courthouse at 8th and N.W. Broadway; and years later the gardeners of the Lambert Gardens were hired to give the grounds of the University of Portland a makeover.
In the summer of 1936, the Meier and Frank Department store in downtown Portland advertised a giveaway of thousands of dollars' worth of furniture, household goods, and products to customers. Meier and Frank, occupying two city blocks between Alder and Morrison on S.W. 5th and 6th Streets included in the associated display a fully-furnished home, called The Fortune House, on the tenth floor. This house included a brick patio – and also external landscaping done by the experts at the Lambert Gardens. It's hard to imagine a full-sized house indoors on the floor of a department store; but during its time, the downtown Meier and Frank store was considered to have the tallest retail floor in the nation. Once Meier and Frank's "Fortune House" display was over, the Lambert Gardens expert workers were once again contracted to create in its place an outdoor landscape for a model town they were attempting to set up. Eighteen miniature model houses would depict a small community, and customers could buy their floor plans and view the cost estimates to have full-size version of one of the houses built – and, also, to buy the furniture needed for their new home from Meier and Frank.
Once these citywide distractions were over, Andrew Lambert was able to return to his beloved Gardens in the Reed neighborhood and continue developing his floral and outdoor art. To draw the public to Lambert Gardens, Andrew dedicated a plot in it to the Rose Festival Committee. Each year, in June, the Rose Festival Court and the reigning Queen were invited there for photographs and promotional speeches. By then, the Lambert Gardens had become an expected venue for political speeches, for entertaining visiting dignitaries, for booking a wedding, or to be the backdrop for general announcements. In 1932, six downtown theaters showed a documentary filmed at the Lambert Gardens by local city officials.
Andrew installed a wishing well for people to gather around and toss money into, invoking good health and luck. The money collected was donated to the Oregon School for the Blind. But, after repeated break-ins in which money was stolen from the wishing well, a six-foot fence was built around the grounds to deter further theft.
In 1955, four live pink flamingos were brought to the Gardens from Miami, Florida. Unfortunately, one of the birds escaped, and the entire city was on the lookout for Pinky, the lost Flamingo. He was eventually found in Camas, Washington; and, after many failed attempts, it took the expertise of backwoodsmen to capture the bird and return him safely to the Gardens. But flamingos were not the only exotic birds there; for $1.50 admission visitors could not only enjoy the floral and pond exhibits, but also could interact with peacocks and African Crowned Cranes. (In the early years, admission to the Gardens had been only 25 cents.)
But all good things come to an end; and in 1968 Andrew sought, but couldn't find, anyone with deep enough pockets to keep the Lambert Gardens open. An appeal to city officials to buy the iconic floral business was turned down; and a disappointed Andrew and other arborists and gardeners realized that the Lambert Gardens would be no more. The 1960s were an era of building freeways and bridges to accommodate the driving public, and were not a time of preserving beautiful gardens, historic buildings, and outdoor art venues.
The Lambert Gardens were replaced by a three-story, 1,000-apartment complex, built on a 30-acre parcel of land nostalgically named the Lambert Garden Apartments – but that name, too, did not last – and the complex is now called Wimbledon Gardens. Few people today even remember the beauty and grandeur of the renowned Lambert Gardens, which had been there for so long.
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