Julian Martel, 3, of Los Angeles plays with a branch he found on the Fern Dell… (Francine Or, Los Angeles…)
Of the many indignities visited upon Fern Dell, the garden oasis in Griffith Park, one remains a mystery: Who turned off the water?
Starlets and health-seekers lined up in the 1920s to fill jugs from the spring that fed this 20-acre fantasia of ferns, footpaths and picturesque bridges. They thought it was a fountain of youth. Now, only the lower stream beds run, and the pools lie motionless and gummy.
You might think the city would do something. But instead, Friends of Griffith Park — the nonprofit group that stepped in three years ago to try to reverse the 95-year-old garden's long, sad decline — is on the case.
Members had no choice: The wooded glen has been deteriorating since skilled maintenance workers were laid off in the 1970s. Since 2008, the city has lopped its Recreation and Parks budget by a quarter.
"We knew we had to step it up," said Bernadette Soter, the group's communications director. "The city has no money."
In the 1960s, when Fern Dell was still a citywide attraction, I was young enough to believe fairies were hiding under the lush foliage. Now the garden's exotic plants and distinctive hand-hewn stonework are a metaphor for Los Angeles: a blend of make-believe and natural beauty, a lost Shangri-la in a city that ignores its own history.
But Fern Dell, which was declared among the nation's 12 most threatened landscapes last year by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, still works it charms. On Thursday, Soter showed me the garden's hidden corners.
We started at Trails, the little snack hut whose lavender-scented scones and biscuit-wrapped "snake dogs" have made it a Saturday morning hangout for haute tots and their parents. The outdoor dining area was ringed with concrete railings and bridges carved to look like rustic branches.
This curiosity of Victoriana was the rage when the nostalgic Scotsman running the parks department in 1914 began planting ferns in a ravine, Soter said.
Heading into the lower glen, we walked down a meandering footpath into a dazzling green light filtered through the canopy of sycamores, redwoods and ash trees. During the week, joggers start their mile-long ascent to the Griffith Observatory here, Soter said. Later, older men commandeer the picnic tables for card games and kibbitzing.
But beneath the trees, the ferns were sparse and spindly; in the mid-1980s, they fell victim to crime, vandalism and fern rustlers. Some may lie dormant under yard plants that invaded from neighboring homes, Soter said.
"They're sleeping," she said.
Before her death last year, fern expert Barbara Hoshizaki donated 40 species from her Mar Vista home to the garden. Jorge Ochoa, head of the Long Beach City College horticulture program, and his students are cultivating them in the college's shade house.
Soter pointed out the stone walls holding up the terraces along the meandering footpaths. They date to the Depression, when two California Conservation Corps outposts and a camp for runaway boys set up in Griffith Park expanded facilities. The boys did the shovel work, the artisans the intricate job of selecting, chiseling and fitting together river stones or broken concrete so the walls would stand by gravity alone, without mortar.
"That's when our grandfathers, and for some of us, our fathers had the great can-do moment in our history," Soter added.
Soter's father, a New Orleans transplant, was the maintenance supervisor in Griffith Park. "When I'm in the park I think of him," she said.
Several pregnant women and their partners stopped to snap photos in front of the ruins of an old waterfall. About 10 months ago, a maintenance crew decided to dig out the weeds and uncovered the stone structure. Serendipitously, Soter found a postcard of people in their Sunday best posing before the waterfall when it was intact.
"They still take pictures there," Soter said. "They know it's special."
But signs warning people not to fish or wade in the ponds were covered in graffiti. Some islands were ringed by concrete carved in a saw-tooth pattern to keep out intruders.
"On tours, sometimes somebody says, 'I think I used to smoke weed and sit in your ferns,' " Soter said, laughing. Some things never change; we rounded a bend and got a heavy hit of marijuana smoke.
An island in the middle of one of the stream beds looked odd: it was covered in grass. "Oh no, someone is doing some ad hoc gardening," Soter said.
Back at Fern Dell, we walked under a bridge held up by three giant logs. This upper part of Fern Dell was completely dry. A stand of redwoods was brownish orange.
"They're not going to make it," Soter said quietly. But some maidenhair ferns had popped up in a ditch.
"There's life here despite the problems," she said.
Several dams marked the boundary between Fern Dell and the trail up to the Griffith Observatory. Mixed in with the river rubble were concrete faux boulders. You couldn't tell which was which.
Everything's more fun if it's faux. Maybe that could be the city's new motto.
"I travel in the Third World [and] I see desiccated gardens like this from the colonial days," Soter said. "It has that same element of elegant decay."
Soter said her group doesn't have a date or dollar figure for the restoration. They're still trying to raise the money.
As for the water, a leak sprang in the middle of Fern Dell Drive this spring. Parks workers diverted the water to the lower stream bed.
They still don't know where it came from: the magical spring? Runoff from the observatory? City pipes?
"It's like a puzzle to put together the pieces and find out what this garden really is," Soter said.