A secret Berkeley rose garden: A father and son venture

Jules and John Gordon (L and R respectively) in their usual seats in the rose garden. Photo: Eden Teller.
Jule and John Gordon (l and r)  in their usual seats in the rose garden behind University Avenue in Berkeley. Photo: Eden Teller

Every Saturday, John Gordon and his father, Jule Gordon, stop by Peet’s before heading over to a hidden rose garden behind a row of stores on University Avenue. The garden is a “labor of love,” said John, and part of a development of six beautifully restored old buildings which, together, form a peaceful sanctuary in downtown Berkeley that tends to put a smile on visitors’ faces when they discover it for the first time.

Most of what the father and son do, John said, is sit on a bench and “bullshit.” But his father often finds a flower or two to bring Daisy, his girlfriend, and, after a bloom – there are two or three a year – the pair always trim the dead flowers together, a process called deadheading.

The rose garden cottage, when first purchased and now. Photos: ?? (left) and Eden Teller (right)
The rose garden cottage, when first purchased and now. Photos: Gordon Commercial (left) and Eden Teller (right)

Some of the people that come across the garden have invented urban legends about Jule Gordon and his roses: that he’s in the garden every day, that he breeds the roses grown there, that the garden is 100 years old.

In fact the garden is just eight years old. The development — which is accessed through a small passageway between the recently shuttered Brasa restaurant at 1960 University and Saxology at 1956 University — consists of six buildings, four of which were “decrepit” when John Gordon first bought the property. One building didn’t even have a roof, only plastic sheeting stretched across a gaping hole, he said.


The first steps on the way to a rose garden. Photo: Gordon Commercial

Jule Gordon, formerly an aircraft engineer, lived in Los Angeles and grew dahlias before he moved up to the Bay Area. When visiting his son, he saw John Gordon’s roses in the backyard and began growing roses.

The University Avenue project began with the removal of two feet of dirt in the empty space that had been a parking lot, and bringing in new soil for planting. The status of the buildings on the site, which had been “structures of merit,” were downgraded, which allowed John Gordon to make structural changes. He lowered many of the buildings and reinforced their foundations. The old foundations – thick wooden beams – now make up a fence at the back of the garden.

The planters holding blooming yellow flowers are in fact repurposed industrial sinks. Photo: Eden Teller.
The planters holding blooming yellow flowers are in fact repurposed industrial sinks. Photo: Eden Teller

The fence is not the only repurposed item in the garden: Nearly every feature of the garden is in its second or third lifecycle.

The finely wrought iron gate that marks the entrance is from Urban Ore; the new arch with its thick white columns was sourced from Ohmega Salvage; the fencing around the patio are in fact trellises turned sideways; and the cement planters holding yellow flowers are old sinks.

The sole item on its first life is the wooden arbor near the eastern wall of the garden, which was built entirely without nails specifically for the rose garden.

You can always tell when a visitor steps into the garden for the first time, said John Gordon, by their wide-eyed looks of surprise and delight. The garden isn’t common knowledge yet and, even though it has played host to several Rose Society events in the past, the space has never been rented out. It is very much a family space, said John; people “leave windows open and can hear the buzz” of other conversations, which enhances the community vibe.

If people know the spot, it’s as a favorite lunch place. Customers at Slow, the newly opened Bittersweet Café, and the recently shuttered Peruvian rotisserie restaurant Brasa have been enjoying eating their food at tables set among the rose bushes.

The gate is purposefully set back from the street so that visitors can see the rose garden from outside its doors when closed, said Gordon. Photo: Eden Teller.
The gate, between 1956 and 1960 University Avenue, is purposefully set back from the street so visitors can see the rose garden from outside even when it is closed. Photo: Eden Teller.

Family friend Julie Gordon (no relation to the Gordons) uses the red cottage on the western wall for her landscaping business; the son of a friend has been using another room to study while it is in between renters; and Jule Gordon held his 90th and 95th birthdays there. The garden now has a website and is host to several free jazz concerts this summer. John Gordon said he could imagine a couple getting married under the new arch – when the roses have grown tall enough, of course.

Roses cannot produce a blue pigment, but with species like Blue Rhapsody, growers get as close as they can. Photo: Eden Teller
Roses can’t produce a blue pigment, but with species like Blue Rhapsody, growers get as close as they can. Photo: Eden Teller

There are no blue roses, said Jule Gordon, but Blue Rhapsody gets pretty close. The purple flower, like many others in the garden, is a prizewinner, evidenced by the Gordons’ three trophies and boxful of blue ribbons. They select which species to grow in their garden by looking at the winners of the East Bay Rose Society’s annual fall contest. Gordon senior said he had no favorite – “They’re all nice” – but pointed out the flowers of Marilyn Monroe, Firefighter and Double Delight as particularly beautiful and fragrant specimens.

The yellow bloom is Marilyn Monroe. Photo: Eden Teller.
The yellow bloom is Marilyn Monroe, one Jule Gordon points to as being particularly beautiful. Photo: Eden Teller

Although the garden is still a discovery waiting to be made for many Berkeleyans, developments on University Avenue may accelerate the process. Two apartment buildings are planned for the 1900 block of University – one at the Firestone lot on Milvia Street and University Avenue, and one that will rise behind the garden on its southern side. They will create 1,450 new living spaces, according to John Gordon, who hopes they will anchor the neighborhood the way Trader Joe’s has anchored University Avenue at Martin Luther King Junior Way.

The garden is also becoming more of a destination as word about it spreads. The Brazil Café is moving in, taking over the Brasa space, and the new business owners hope to host more nighttime events in the garden. There’s also a local musician who is hosting a free summer jazz concert series in the garden on Saturdays.

Downtown Berkeley is turning a corner, said John Gordon, and the rose garden will be part of it.

Related:
City’s largest apartment building ever gets go-ahead
 (07.11.13)
Developers put theaters back into high-rise plans (06.26.13)

Eden Teller, a graduate of Berkeley High School, is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She will be attending Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, next year.

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