Craig Creek at River Oaks Park and Oriental Gardens

by Tim Gilmore, 6/8/2018

Oriental Gardens, circa 1938

“The magic brush of spring,” The Miami News reported on March 19, 1939, “has painted Jacksonville with a riot of gorgeous color and brought with it a new season [of] glorious, blood-tingling days.”

Page 2-B said “Springtime” had “dotted the woods with shy violets,” “blazoned” forth “richly colored azaleas,” and “brought dogwood, pear and plum trees into the glory of full bloom.”

The showplace of Jacksonville’s sacre du printemps was Oriental Gardens, where Riverside resident George W. Clark had planted 18 acres of “overflow from his botanical collection” across the St. Johns River from his home. Clark began his plantings on this swamp bluff south of San Marco in 1925 and opened his gardens to the public in 1937.

circa 1941

We listen for the ghost-echoes of the “singing gardens,” but what most absorbs my thinking is the intricate web-of-webs of roots beneath the hard wet ground by the water. Beneath our careful steps, roots branch from the old oak that’s fallen across and re-risen from Craig Creek, then interconnect with the roots of older oaks nearby, interlace with elm roots and the muscular deep-dirt millipede legs of cypress trees in an underground economy so tight we might call this community of trees one living thing.

Crossing Old Man Craig’s long-buried footpaths steps this Great Blue Heron. The bird blends into the reeds, the purple-headed spiderwort, the lush wild onions. He stands still, prehistoric, aware of us long before we notice him.

Somehow here, all that’s past haunts the vegetation, burgeoning from down deep up. George Clark’s “Oriental Gardens” featured a sunken garden, bridges, arches, stone lanterns, fountains, a water wheel, torii (gates to Shinto shrines), stone steps (Hindu ghats) down to the river, and a “summer house” exhibiting “Asiatic paintings.” Plantings included “jessamines” (jasmine), “Chinese rice paper plants,” azaleas, and wisteria. A large collection of chimes offered “hourly concerts.”

the summer house

I’m not disheartened to find out the “singing gardens” were largely the effect of recorded chime music piped in through hidden speakers. After all, these gardens were no more “Oriental” than George Clark understood the word to mean “Other” in contradistinction to us, the “Occidental.”

“Oriental gardens” were as much a trend around the South as the planting of Japanese camellias after World War II. The idea of the Asian, or “Asiatic,” when not derogatory, as with stereotypes of sneaky opium-addicted “Chinamen” (and the whole rabbit-hole British colonial history of the Opium Wars), ironically honored the Japanese, a former colonial military power in their own right, as sophisticated, disciplined, cultured.

Oriental Gardens, featuring a torii

But I find no Ryunosuke Akutagawa story here. No Yoshihide—of the Japanese writer’s 1918 story “Hell Screen”—the artist commissioned to depict a folding-screen landscape of karmic hell—who tortures his apprentices to research his subject. I hear Yoshihide’s words of night in the gardens only in my mind:

“I felt as if the darkness enveloping the garden were silently watching us all breathing, the only sound an occasional rush of night wind, each gust wafting toward us the resinous smell of the pine torches.”

We did, however, watch the lone regal bird, tall as a 10 year old child, stalk the rushes, perch at the edge of the mud, open its bill, close it, open it, close it, perch, then stab the muck with that needle of a beak. The Great Blue Heron devoured the large frog in less than a minute.

Our lovely earth’s this ancient necrophagous garden. Every bright bloom and richly plumag’d bird’s the same primordial eater of death. It’s Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth. It’s the secret of beauty the cosmetics industry never can share.

It’s also the point at Mirror Lake, where prom dates reclined in long floral dresses beside tall azaleas in 1939 and 1946. “Do you remember?” a secret missive from an Anna to an Alfred, crumbling to dust (in the dust it collected) in that attic off Maple or Holly Lane at Laurel Road, has asked for 70 years: “the beauty” / “plums blooming” / “secret love” / “great promises like the first ones ever made. Remember, back then, believing…” / “sweet to have been so naïve” / “a lost garden” / “secrets then easily kept in the deep shade of the wider world.”

In the late 1950s, developers built expensive houses in the hills and dells either side of Craig Creek, including the former site of Oriental Gardens. In 1979, Riverside Hospital demolished George W. Clark’s Prairie-style home, designed by the great architect Henry John Klutho, at 2059 Riverside Avenue.

George W. Clark residence, courtesy Robert Broward

Clark had begun his career in Jacksonville with his brother Charles, as undertaker in a prominent funeral home business founded by Calvin Oak in 1856. He moved from burying the dead to building new family homes by the turn of the century, forming the Springfield Realty Company to develop the Victorian neighborhood just north of downtown after the Great Fire of 1901.

courtesy Robert Broward

In 1912, George W. Clark published a brochure for his newest neighborhood, north of downtown, curled into the Trout River, called Panama Park, “a high-class residential suburb” wherein residents would not “be allowed to maintain a herd of cattle, hogs, sheep or mules or permit poultry to run at large.”

from Debra Webb Rogers’s Images of America: San Marco

Certainly no hogs, sheep, turkeys or chickens freely gamboled about Oriental Gardens, postcards of which were sold from the on-site gift shop from the late 1930s to 1954, nor did livestock roam River Oaks Park, developed in 1940 by workers from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), which gave the unemployed jobs in “public works” endeavors.

from Debra Webb Rogers’s Images of America: San Marco

Craig Creek slices through what was Oriental Gardens, through River Oaks Park, then needles and narrows, in flight from the river. The creek trickles between sets of dead-end streets like Southwood Lane, Thornwood Lane, Fieldston Lane, cuts sharply south to St. Augustine Road by Philips Cemetery at Craig Swamp, churns across / beneath the old Florida East Coast Railway line, then curves and drops underground at Philips Highway just south of Mount Vernon Motor Lodge.

Was not that night the best time? He dressed in tux. She wore crinoline. Her skirts mimicked the floral landscape, that silken texture, that vibrant color, that touch imbued with indigo and magenta.

Oh, and William Craig? He’d come in from the grains and beans and hogs of his 2,424-acre plantation to take over as commander of the army of the Republic of East Florida, 1812. His men drilled and trained, firing their arms in the woods and hot swamps, though Commander Craig feared the republic lacked the strength to march on Castillo de San Marcos in nearby St. Augustine to wrest their new nation from Spain.

official flag of the short-lived Republic of East Florida

He was right. The new nation, East Florida, declared independence from Spain on March 17, 1812, ratified its constitution on July 17th, and called the republic quits by the end of the year.

circa 1950

So here we are. At the steps to the river. The last remnants of Oriental Gardens are these mimic-Hindu ghats. The waters toward which ghats descend are holy. But then—all waters are. In India, the ghats along the Ganges, in the city of Varanasi, thrive with blessings and ablutions, bathings and ritual purifications, spiritual newbirths and the cremations of the belovèd dead, ashes washed along the river to other rivers to the ocean and all the earth.

Our ritual honorings of the earth here at the mouth of Craig Creek are simpler. We might start by printing this story, converging a few friends in our own version of Tōrō Nagashi, the Shinto ceremony of sending handmade lanterns downriver to help the dead find their way to the afterlife. Joyously, with great mirth and celebration, fold the paper on which you print this story. Bring your friends. Set the story at the mouth of Craig Creek. Watch the water warp the paper, blur the words, then send and sink the story of this place into the waters darting narrowly into the city.

Selāh.