The Morcom Amphitheater of Roses – originally known as the Municipal Rose Garden – is one of the grandest city rose gardens in the country. It began as a project of the Oakland Businessmen’s Garden Club in 1930 and the main force behind it (and the later Berkeley Rose Garden) was Dr. Charles Vernon Covell, a dentist and member of the Garden Club.
The New Deal played a vital role in building the rose garden, but it was not the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that did the work, as commonly thought. Instead, help came from the State Employment Relief Administration (SERA), which completed the garden in 1934-35 (before the WPA was enacted). SERA was funded, in turn, by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).
The garden lies in a natural bowl in the foothills of Oakland, a 7.5 acre site purchased by the city in 1915 [correction: 1911] as Linda Vista Park. The design is by Arthur Cobbledick, a member of the Garden Club, who laid out a formal plan inspired by the gardens of Italy.
The garden has three sections. The Jean Street entrance on the south end welcomes visitors with a classical curved colonnade, backed by stone walls, and a rose-lined walkway, flanked by a small service building.
Oakland Tribune - Sun - June 5, 1932
The middle section features a reflecting pool encircled by rose beds and an elegant 14-step cascade down the hillside to the west. Above the cascade is an octagonal wedding terrace in stone and more rose beds. Facing the pool and cascade from the east is a Mediterranean style loggia, which serves as an office and storage space.
A large Florentine oval garden at the north end has terraced flower beds rising on all sides, held in place by elegant rock walls. Access is possible from every direction by stone stairways, and path wend their way among the trees above the garden.
Work was begun on the garden in 1931 or 1932 and it officially opened in 1934 – with only the Florentine oval garden finished by that time. Soon after the opening, the Oakland Tribune reported an offer from the SERA of $29,460 in labor, if the city would match it with $14,600 in materials (June 27, 1934). Later, the Tribune reported that SERA workers had completed the gardens in 1934 (Tribune, Jan 1, 1935), but that can’t have been true because in Spring 1935 the Tribune was reporting that SERA laborers were still at work on the cascade (April 5, 1935). Presumably, that work wrapped up in 1935.
As the Tribune described various improvement made around the city in 1934, “Great economy has been observed by the city government and few actual improvements have been made except those done by the PWA and SERA.” (Jan. 1, p 14). In any case, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was only launched in mid-1935, would not have played any role in the gardens, despite being credited by the Oakland Heritage Alliance and by an historical marker near the park entrance (which puts the date in 1932, before the New Deal!). The official brass plaque for the gardens makes no mention of New Deal aid. Wikipedia has both the date and the agency wrong, as well.
The name of the garden was changed in 1954 to honor former Oakland Mayor Fred Morcom. The park has been refurbished at least twice, in the 1950s and 1990s, with many of the old roses (some going back to the 19th century) being regrafted on new rootstock. [Source: Living New Deal website]