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Historic rock garden in Stanley Park gets recognition

Heritage sites part of city's 125th anniversary celebration

When the City of Vancouver announced last year that it was looking for unsung heritage sites as part of its 125th anniversary celebration, it was music to postal worker Chris Hay's ears.

Hay, 65, has spent much of the past decade trying to bring attention to a long-lost rock garden built a century ago by his great-grandfather, John Montgomery, hiding in plain sight near the Stanley Park Pavilion.

"It really was like the B.C. Place of its time," said Hay while leading the Courier down the garden path on a tour. "It wasn't just a feature of Stanley Park, it really was its main attraction and there wasn't anywhere else quite like it. They would hold the largest events in the city here with up to 10,000 people, but somehow it sort of got forgotten and neglected over the years."

The rockery, which stretched nearly a mile and reached all the way to Coal Harbour, was recently named one of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation's "Places that Matter" and last week the park board gave permission to install a plaque to commemorate the spot.

Built using stones unearthed by the construction of Pipeline Road and the pavilion itself, the garden was once such a major attraction that it was even featured on early postcards. In fact, if it hadn't been, it very likely would've remained as a secret garden.

Because Hay--who'd been trying to dig up information on the spot after an elderly aunt mentioned its existence during a visit to Scotland--pinpointed the exact location only after stumbling across one of these postcards at a collectibles show that showed the Stanley Park Pavilion building in the background.

"I'd already spent a great deal of time scouring the park trying to find traces of it on my own, and then just like that I finally knew where to start looking," said Hay. While the garden has since been reclaimed by the surrounding temperate rainforest, not to mention road construction and the work of lesser landscapers than Montgomery, some of the original stones still poke through the ground to hint at its former glory. He estimates that roughly 10 per cent of the rockery is now exposed.

Hay's argument regarding the park's historical significance was also strengthened after the devastating windstorm of 2007, when toppled trees unearthed bronze plaques commemorating important past events.

"Much to my amazement, we found one commemorating a visit by Frances Willard, one of the founders of the suffragist movement, where she planted a camelia tree," said Hay. "She is one of only two women to have had statues made of them in all of Washington, the other being Rosa Parks, and it gives you an idea of what a big deal this must have been for people in Vancouver at the time."

COPE park board commissioner Loretta Woodcock, whose third and final term ends in November, said she is pleased to see what she calls Hay's "project of the heart" finally recognized.

"I am thrilled for Chris that he finally is seeing the results of all his hard work coming to fruition," wrote Woodcock in an email. "In that garden wander the spirits of a hundred years of city history, when the Pavilion was the place to be seen and the garden was the space to promenade."

With a little luck, the park board may eventually decide to put the garden on official Stanley Park maps, enabling people to find the lost garden for themselves.

Twitter: @flematic