Today’s Centennial Garden was first laid out in 1907, possibly designed by landscape architect W.W. Parce, who was planning Chautauqua’s grounds at the time. It featured looping paths separating beds of shrubs and flowers, and then-tiny spruce trees that now tower over the site. An early visitor rhapsodized, “The artistic garden to the west of the Auditorium is the most charming this side of California.”
The garden’s beauty peaked in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, after 1945 Chautauqua’s financial difficulties resulted in minimal upkeep – for over 40 years.
In 1997, in preparation for the Centennial celebrations the next year, Executive Director Leslie Durgan and landscape designer Christina Baud determined to restore the garden. In the spring of 1998, sprinklers were installed, sand and soil and manure and grass seed were spread, perennials and shrubs were planted. Much of the material was donated by local businesses.
A giant rock was set in the center of the garden to anchor a fountain. The Winslow Foundation (established in memory of Wren Wirth’s mother, Julia Dierks Winslow) donated $5000 for the decorative fountain, and Tribble Stone made an in-kind donation of drilling the rock from which the fountain flowed and engraving a stone plaque with “Fountain in Loving Memory of Virginia Davis Wirth Wiebenson Parent and Teacher” (Wren Wirth’s mother-in-law).
Finally, four brick paths that duplicate the paths in the original garden were laid. Approximately 10,000 bricks were purchased from the Denver Brick Company for $25,000. The bricks (Inca red flashed garden pavers) were laid over felt paper on a sand subbase in a 2” trench. The bricks, sold to individuals by Chautauqua and engraved with tributes, are fundraisers and memorials. They support preservation of Chautauqua’s historic buildings and grounds as well as development of educational and cultural programs. Cost per brick is $200.00. Initially, in 1998, 2,000 were engraved; as of 2020 it was more than 15,000. The Master Brick Location Spreadsheet contains the location and message of every brick in the garden, so people can find their brick.
In 1991 Wren Wirth told the Chautauqua Board she wanted to make a grant from the Winslow Foundation for a xeriscape garden south of Academic Hall. The Wirths selected Robert Howard Associates as the landscape architect. On December 15, 1992, Robert Howard Associates submitted the design plan, and Senator Tim Wirth made a donation in memory of his parents, Cecil Wirth and Virginia Davis Wiebenson.
Work began in spring 1993. In May, Astor Lane was filled in across the south end of the triangular garden site, and plants started going in the next month. The Water Wise Garden was dedicated on July 17, 1993. In February 1995 it won an Honor Award in the 1994 City of Boulder Xeriscape Awards Program. In 2004 the Winslow Foundation awarded Chautauqua a grant for plant identification, bricks, and wire settees, and in the winter of 2018-2019, with the help of a Winslow Foundation grant, the garden was completely renovated in time for the summer season.
The so-called wire settees in the Waterwise Garden south of Academic Hall are actually made of iron, not wire, but they look like they’re made of wire. They are the survivors of the hundred “iron settees” ordered in 1906 for Chautauqua. Over the years the iron settees were stolen or dispersed to other Boulder locations (the Courthouse lawn, etc.). In 2004, eleven of the old settees were acquired from the Courthouse in exchange for our wooden benches and $1800. They now grace the perimeter of the Waterwise Garden.

Couple walking through gardens with tennis racquets
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