Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island is internationally recognized for its evocative beauty as a landscape of environmental rehabilitation, as well as a place offering an experience "bound to, and enmeshed in, [its] specific cultural and ecological context" (Meyer, "The Post-Earth Day ..."). The reserve comprises a series of gardens set within a landscape of woodland, meadows, and water. Landscape architect and scholar Elizabeth Meyer describes how the landscape "open(s) up connections between both the environmental and cultural histories of a particular place — Seattle and the Pacific Northwest and phenomenological response and ecological thinking" (Meyer, "Seized by Sublime Sentiments"). First developed as a residential garden surrounding Prentice and Virginia Bloedel’s home, the reserve became a public garden in 1988.
A Bainbridge Estate
Located on the northern half of Bainbridge Island, Bloedel Reserve is a part of the traditional lands of the Suquamish Tribe, who first occupied the post-glacial landscape at least 14,000 years ago. As with so many local Indigenous names, the Suquamish name draws from the importance of the water, noted as dxʷsəq’ʷəb, "the place of the clear salt water" in the Lushootseed language. In 1855, the Suquamish ceded what is currently known as Bainbridge Island to the Americans as part of the Treaty of Point Elliott. While the Suquamish continued to use the waters and adjoining beaches, settlers moved in relatively quickly to clear the land of timber and claim homesteads. Much of the island would be logged by 1900, with homesteads primarily constructed on the eastern shore.
The Reserve lands were logged in the mid-nineteenth century, with logs sent to the Port Madison Mill on the island’s southern shore. In 1904, Angela Collins, the widow of former Seattle Mayor John Collins, purchased the property. She built a hunting lodge and summer beach cottage for the family, calling it Collinswood. In 1931 and 1932, the mansion that currently stands on the site was constructed. It was designed in the style of an eighteenth-century Classical Revival villa by Seattle architect J. Lister Holmes. Collins developed the gardens minimally, planting a collection of rhododendrons but otherwise allowing a second-growth forest to develop.
In 1951 Prentice and Virginia Bloedel purchased 67 acres of the Collins land and the house. They commissioned Holmes to update the mansion as a year-long residence. The couple moved into the house in 1953 and lived there until 1985. Virginia died in 1989, followed by her husband in 1996. The Bloedels created the Reserve on 150 acres of forest and gardens curated to "capture the essence of the Japanese garden — the qualities of naturalness, subtlety, reverence, tranquility — and construct a Western expression of it" (Prentice Bloedel, "The Bloedel Reserve ..."). It featured gardens, ponds, meadows, and wildlife habitats covering 66 acres, while another 84 acres remained in second-growth forest.
An Environmentalist at Heart
When Prentice Bloedel retired from the MacMillan Bloedel Timber Company, founded by his father, he turned his attention to how he might use his resources to nurture a forest preserve. Yale-educated, Bloedel had begun a career in teaching, but soon took over leadership of his father’s timber business. Known by many as an environmentalist at heart, he is credited with championing several of today’s conservation concepts such as "reuse." He advocated reusing hog fuel, a log byproduct, to help generate sawmill power, and worked with pulp mills to reduce waste. He is most recognized for his decision to reforest clear-cut land.
He and his wife jointly developed their new home and its surrounding landscape. Virginia was interested in designed gardens, drawing on the long legacy of formal gardens of her Seattle family home. Prentice was inspired by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. In describing his early forays onto his new land, he described how they "found single plants and colonies of fragile woodland species, mosses, ferns, a world of incomparable diversity ... one feels the existence of a divine order ... One realizes that we humans are trustees in this world, that our power should be exercised in this context" ("The Bloedel Reserve ...").
Prentice wrote in 1980 of their appreciation for the land, stating that "man is not set apart from the rest of nature ... This new awareness determined us to set the land aside for the primary purpose of providing others with the opportunity to enjoy plants both as arranged by man and as they arrange themselves; and for the purpose of providing people wandering about the Reserve a refreshing experience of nature and a broadening of their appreciation of their world" ("The Bloedel Reserve ..."). Bloedel set out to create a landscape that would simultaneously reveal the disturbance of the site and the potential of a different relationship between culture and nature, not necessarily a healing but a reckoning of sorts. To realize the vision, he sought advice from designers including Thomas Church, as well as local designers and landscape architects such as Fujitaro Kubota, Richard Yamasaki, Richard Haag, and later, Iain Robertson.
Guided by Thomas Church
Church, a San Francisco landscape architect, was the first professional designer to work with the Bloedels to realize their vision. Church began in 1954 and was periodically engaged until 1976. Prentice asked Church to design a pond where an alder swamp stood west of the house and to help lay out a new entry drive. The driveway, slightly modified, remains the core of the circulation system. The pond, the largest on the Reserve, is sculpted from the undulating lands and provided the opportunity for a Japanese garden to be sited on its shore. On the north side of the original entrance drive, Church proposed a guest house and swimming pool, responding to the Bloedels’ pleasure in hosting guests and visitors.
Church also turned his attention to a swampy site in the forest farther to the west. There he took advantage of a natural spring to create a quiet and contemplative reflecting pool in the form of a canal, set in the midst of the woods. Completed in 1970, the pool reflected the Bloedels' interest in working with natural systems to create what might appear to have been accidents of nature rather than designed works of art. This same pool would become an iconic element in a later design by Haag.
Following many concepts for the formal gardens surrounding the house, the Bloedels executed Church's proposals for a simple overlook at the east bank in 1974. The overlook that extends from the house sits above a steep bank that descends into the waterfront with long views through the trees toward the sea and the distant Cascade Mountains. While the top terrace is architecturally defined, the sloping land is bordered by mounds of taller grasses that frame the distant view.
Fujitaro Kubota's Influence
The Bloedels were interested in the potential of the landscape as a nature preserve and an expression of the spiritual powers of the landscape, layered in natural and cultural histories. As collectors of Asian art, they were interested in the possibility of drawing on an Eastern sensibility. Their fascination with Eastern aesthetics was strengthened by the work of Japanese Americans who were designing, constructing, and maintaining gardens throughout Seattle. Bloedel likely knew of Fujitaro Kubota’s nursery in South Seattle, Kubota Gardens, where model gardens were displayed as inspiration for clients. Bloedel invited Kubota to work on the Bainbridge property, where he would work from 1955 to 1961.
Prentice Bloedel appreciated the aesthetic Kubota had developed and commissioned him for the Japanese-style pond garden on the shore of the larger pond to the west of the house. Rather than create a set of design drawings, Kubota, as was his practice, designed on-site. He took a seat on a small stool and directed his two sons on the placement of plants and rocks as the garden took shape. Kubota’s attention to the senses likely pleased the Bloedels, who found the sounds and smells of the natural landscape so appealing. Birds were drawn to the gardens, and the path through the garden was laid in gravel, eliciting a crunch under visitors' feet as they walked. The guesthouse overlooking the western edge of the pond and garden was designed by Paul Hayden Kirk and has been described as an expression of both the Japanese character of the site and the region’s Native American longhouses.
Others also worked on parts of the Reserve, including Noble Hoggson, a local landscape architect who designed the flower gardens near the house between 1958 and 1959. In 1969 Haag was invited to contribute to the emerging landscape. Bloedel contacted Haag on the recommendations of Paul Kirk, Ibsen Nelsen, and Fred Bassetti to address the "canal pond" that Church had initially designed. Bloedel found the pond murky and gloomy, contradicting his vision for the landscape. There was also a problem of the high water table and wet ground. The two men agreed on the concept of a glade or opening in the woods, essentially a garden room reflecting the forest and offering a pause in the landscape. Nearly 200 feet long and 40 feet wide, the glade was defined by a 10-foot-high yew border hedge, the dark pool holding the center, defining the ground plane while reflecting sky above. As the high water table maintained the pool’s water level, the space seemed carved from the ground.
Once the concept was established, Haag suggested finding small hedges that would mature into the 10-foot-high hedge. Bloedel quipped that he might not live long enough, and so they needed to find full-grown yews to transplant. The appropriate plants were identified in an Oregon nursery in the summer of 1969 and Bloedel traveled to pick out the specimens he wanted. In 1970, 10-foot yews were planted along the edges of the glade, giving spatial definition to the pool while opening up to the sky and sun. On the exterior of the room, the hedges were left untrimmed, merging with the forest texture, while on the inside they were trimmed to define the clear geometry of the garden room. The hedge opened with narrow slits at the corners that were almost invisible due to the overlapping of the vertical plane. Once within the narrow threshold, the view of an immense breadth of sky and water opened to the visitor. Haag continued to talk with Bloedel about his vision for the reserve, but little appears to have been constructed for the next eight years.
Open to the Public
In 1970, the Bloedels donated the property to the University of Washington, but the estate proved too costly and likely too complex for the University to maintain appropriately. In 1974, the Bloedels established and endowed The Arbor Fund as a foundation, which then purchased The Bloedel Reserve in 1985 and opened it in 1988 to the public as a 150-acre public garden and forest preserve.
During the period of transition, Richard Brown became the Reserve’s curator and oversaw many upgrades to the facilities. It became clear that a unifying master plan was needed, and in 1978 the Planning and Development Committee of the Arbor Fund invited Haag, Arthur Erickson, Grant Jones, and the firm of Jongejan, Gerrand and McNeil to participate in a design competition. Haag won and began a seven-year process of developing a series of four gardens that would better connect the reflecting pool and Japanese garden to the larger landscape.
Prentice Bloedel sought a plan that would create better connections between the gardens and improve circulation throughout, although he remained skeptical of any plan that might be set in stone and not allow the landscape to evolve over time. Haag presented a minimal scheme. He drew his proposal on tracing paper laid over a map of the Reserve. As Brown recalled, "He painted his plans right in front of us, much as an artist would make a painting" (Rozdilsky, 95). Haag believed that because Bloedel was partially color blind, his reliance on primarily black-and-white pencil drawings would be more appealing and easier to understand. Brown believed Haag was chosen in large part due to his "artistry, creativity, knowledge of plants, and that he would be personally involved with the changes at the reserve" (Rozdilsky, 95). Bloedel may have appreciated Haag’s process-oriented approach, as he did not believe in a rigid master plan, as reflected in his appreciation for Kubota's designs for the Japanese Garden.
The plan Haag developed to carry out Prentice’s vision over the next five years remained conceptual as "a reflection of that garden rather than a document that led to the garden" (Rozdilsky interview with Haag, 1990). The two men were committed to a design process that would nurture growth and change within the landscape. Bloedel was comfortable with mistakes and encouraged risks. They did not need to return the disturbed landscape to an idealized nature, but to acknowledge the accretions of history, natural and cultural, and to create gardens from these layers of time and place. In essence Haag’s design revealed the forest out of which the gardens were carved in space and over time.
Circulation through the reserve was designed as a hierarchy of service roads, a ceremonial drive, and walking trails (major path, minor path, innermost path, and subliminal trail), set amidst habitats that included bogs and random rambles, a pond for cattails and redwing blackbirds, and a grove of evergreen and deciduous trees. As Haag and Bloedel re-imagined the road, they sought to "most creatively reveal the essence and yet strengthen the myriad landscape qualities and moods from the most fragile, ephemeral to the most hardened and fixed" (Haag, "A Policy ..."). The existing road was regraded to follow the natural contours and minimize its visibility in views toward the forests and meadows. The major path would lead visitors from the main entrance through a working orchard, with grazing sheep over a ha-ha (essentially a ditch in the land that prevents grazing animals from crossing) to a threshold at the beginning of the formal garden sequence. Walking paths were minimally marked in the woodlands and meadows. One senses a synthesis of Haag’s and Bloedel’s interest in landform and ecology.
Of Haag’s designs for the Bloedel Reserve, the most extraordinary was the garden sequence that would win the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) President’s Award of Excellence in 1986. To experience the sequence, the visitor followed a path through the meadow, arriving at the threshold of the first garden room framed by the forest to the right and behind, and a series of small earth mounds to the left and front. Walking at the edge between the forest and the mounds, one entered the garden with the guesthouse as a backdrop. The earth mounds, each of which had a distinct form and scale, were constructed with the soil from re-grading the east bank adjacent to the house, a visual reminder of Bloedel and Haag’s shared commitment to recycle existing resources. The largest mounds were planted in blue fescue, a color resonating with the greyish blue of the region's sky. Erratic boulders were retained between and within the mounds, as if erupting from deep in the ground. Small shrubs echoed the forms of the boulders and mounds in an abstract manner that suggested the regional landscape of mountains and valleys, the site within the site.
Haag's Garden of Planes
At the center of the garden was a swimming pool that lay empty. The poet Theodore Roethke had drowned in the pool in 1963, and it was no longer thought to contribute to the landscape as a whole. A number of ideas were considered, including proposals for a Bamboo with Sand Garden, an aquatic garden, and a mound garden. In each of these proposals Haag sought to use the scale of the pool and its central position to define the garden room, to catch your eye, maybe your breath. This was, after all, to be the first in a series of gardens, and so Haag wished to establish a presence and a language that would resonate with Bloedel.
In Haag’s Garden of Planes proposal, the ground plane surrounding the pool was created by removing one-foot squares of the former concrete terrace and replacing them with the grass and moss, abstractions of the surrounding meadow and forest. A large cedar tree with roots that swelled into the terrace defined the corner nearest the guesthouse entrance by breaking up the geometry of the ground, thus again fusing one design with the character of yet another player in the larger garden. The garden’s surface was a hybrid of the meadow that one had traversed to arrive in the garden, the forest that lay ahead, and the implied architectural character of the guesthouse, as well as a palimpsest of the former uses of the garden itself. It was this ability to layer multiple readings of a site that imbued Haag’s designs with a thick narrative.
While Bloedel remained tentative about the proposed design, he agreed to a full-scale model of Haag’s concept for the pool featuring two unequal pyramids built of white pea gravel, one ascending while the other descended. Haag and Bloedel, along with the trustees, discussed the pyramid idea and the construction of the mock-up model. The idea was to test the concept. The pyramids composed of white gravel were set into an aluminum framework with slopes exactly the right angle to hold themselves. The photographs suggested an enigmatic garden, reminiscent in character of Zen meditation gardens that invited contemplation. However, this garden would be removed by the trustees, as it may have been too abstract for visitors to comprehend and did not fit with the idea of the forest reserve as envisioned by its stewards.
From the first garden, the visitor passed through a wooden gateway and across a stone path to enter the Anteroom. This garden was both forest and bog, "created by selective subtractions of the nuances of nature from the chaos of a tangled bog" (Frey, 58). It was here that the forest referenced its natural form and its logged history. Cleared of its understory, the large stumps of harvested trees and fallen trunks, some with the roots still visible, stood out as if curated works.
Forest surrounded the garden, enclosing it by means of the vertical reach of the giant native arborvitae, western hemlocks, and larches mixed with alders, mountain ash, and elderberries and blueberries forming a middle story. Over 2,000 plugs of chartreuse moss, as well as extensive plantings of devil's club (Opolopanax horridus), and native ferns heightened the enchanted nature of the forest. The wet ground of the bog lay beneath this forest. Into this forest, Haag inserted a narrow path, meandering through stumps, moss, trees, skunk cabbage, and pools of water, guiding both water and visitors to the garden’s far end.
As Prentice Bloedel described it, the garden was "an extension of the oriental feeling of the Japanese Garden ... Mood-inducing plantings, i.e., those producing light and shadow" ("The Bloedel Reserve ..."). Stumps, uprooted trees, and logs carpeted in moss, fungi, and ferns decayed back into the earth, while seedlings grew from nurse logs and along the water’s edges. While Bloedel had been cautious on the use of stumps as it was reminiscent of logging practices, he appreciated how the garden became a primordial place: wet, thick, and beautiful with trees providing shelter and intimacy. It was a garden that recalled the mossy forest in the Cascades, a part of nature re-described by an artist. The moss garden reflected multiple visions including Haag’s trips to Saihoji, the world-renowned moss garden, the rainforest landscape of the Olympic Peninsula, as well as Prentice Bloedel’s vision of a restored forest ecology.
Water, Birds, Sky
At the end of the Anteroom’s garden path, the visitor discovered a narrow opening in a tall hedge that led to a Reflection pool, the first garden Haag had designed. The garden was comprised of ground, water, and sky enclosed by the forest. Here again he fused the languages of Western and Eastern thought. The formal geometry of the Western garden -- manifested by the rectangular form of both the glade and the reflecting pool -- met the poetic simplicity of a Japanese garden revealed in the simplicity of the material palette, the enclosed nature of the garden, and the stillness of the experience. "It was a garden without any objects, without any distractions beyond the water and the sky" (Condon, 56)
From the reflecting pool’s stillness, following the garden path through deep wood the visitor discovered the Bird Sanctuary. By design it was a space where one communed with nature and the birds by remaining at its edge, not allowed to enter. Haag and Bloedel worked with what existed, highlighting an alder grove marking a 1910 fire. Haag sometimes merely cleared the underbrush to expose existing conditions and natural processes.
Haag chose to strengthen the role of the water by making it more visible to humans, as well as more functional for the birds. Working with University of Washington ornithologists, he designed a variety of islands and small coves for the birds and waterfowl. Excavating a large free-form pond just south of the existing irrigation pond, he created a sanctuary with inter-connected and vegetated "safe" islands that birds might use for resting and nesting. As at the famous Japanese garden of Ryoan-ji, visitors could contemplate from the edges, from a bench at the end of a small peninsula.
Eventually, the trustees approved a new pathway circumnavigating the pond, and by thinning out the vegetation, visitors could enjoy views across the water. In addition, as visitors did not appreciate the cattails and other "weedy" plants, they were replaced with those with "greater visual interest," even if the birds were not part of the decision (Rozdilsky, 123).
Into the Future
Haag continued his work on the Reserve until 1984, when Prentice Bloedel retired and put the leadership of the landscape in the hands of an Arbor Fund directors and the trustees. In 1986 the project was honored with the ASLA Presidential Awards for Design Excellence, the second of such awards for Haag's design practice. By this time, the trustees of the Reserve had already determined that the pyramid garden would be redesigned into a level plane to reflect a more common Japanese-style garden.
The Arbor Fund hired Environmental Planning and Design of Pittsburgh to produce a master plan that would more fully connect additional areas to the trail system, as well as looking into refinements for the Bird Marsh, the eastern bluff, and the Swan Pond. The plan also addressed visitor facilities, such as parking, an interpretive center, and access paths. Environmental Planning and Design hired Koichi Kawana, a professor of landscape architecture at UCLA, to redesign the Garden of the Planes as a rock and sand garden. Iain Robertson, landscape architect and faculty at the University of Washington, served as a consulting landscape architect from 1990 to 1994, contributing to the evolution of this remarkable reserve.
Building on the Bloedels' belief in the healing powers of nature, the trustees and staff, led by Ed Moydell, carried out a Heritage Landscape Study to guide the future of the reserve with the intention to expand access to a larger audience as well as to make the Reserve financially sustainable. They sought to assure that the public might benefit from being in nature as Virginia Bloedel noted "being present in nature elevates and nurtures the human spirit, heals hearts and minds, and enriches our communities and our world" ("Summer is the Season ..."). For Prentice Bloedel, the Reserve could be described as an investigation in environmental psychology, as he sought to realize the power of the natural world to contribute to mental health and wellbeing. The Bloedels stewarded the Reserve as a gift intended to improve the relationship between people and the natural world.
While Bloedel Reserve today may appear as a simple landscape set aside for birds and plants, the design and curation of the land is remarkably complex. The Bloedels' vision, realized in collaboration with designers, gardeners, and forest scientists, is at the heart of the reserve, while the details have been realized and sustained by a community of stewards. Today the Bloedel Reserve is open to the public with the mission "To enrich people’s lives through a premier public garden of natural land and designed Pacific Northwest landscapes" ("Summer is the Season"). It remains not a public park but a public garden and forest reserve to be sustained into the indefinite future.