By Jim,

After public concern, the City has decided to maintain the Robert Burns Memorial in Gage Park.

Gage Park group galvanizes to save garden’s integrity

by Jeff Mahoney, Hamilton Spectator, Monday, September 17, 2018

I thought I’d seen the Gage Park formal garden many times over the years. Turns out I was only looking at it.

When Dave Beland walked me through the other day, I could “see” it, truly see it, “read” it in a sense, for the first time. The symbolism; the organic integrity; the interrelationship of its parts; the carefully considered significance of every detail, every arc, angle and co-ordinate of placement.

The Friends of Gage Park have been vociferous in their concern that a proposed memorial to fallen firefighters not disrupt the garden or its intended effect.

Because they “see” the garden, read its meaning.

It’s one reason the Friends are so fiercely determined it remain exactly intact, true to the master plan to the last letter and, as importantly, faithful in every particular to the original vision, blueprinted by Lorrie Dunington and Howard Grubb a century ago.

Media reports earlier this summer, including a story in The Spectator, noted that the proposed location of the new memorial at Gage Park’s northeast end would come at the cost of removing the Robert Burns cairn and — it seems from initial concept diagrams — the lost of the focal square of the formal garden’s east lobe.

The Ye Bonnie Doon Burns Club of Hamilton, the group that had the Burns cairn put in Gage Park in 1984, were incensed at the plan, as they understood it. So were the Friends.

On Monday, says former Mountain MP Duncan Beattie, who’s been lobbying to preserve the cairn where it is, “we met with people from the parks committee. They told us they would work around it. We’d convinced them not to move it, desecrating our monument.

“But if we hadn’t protested,” he thinks, “it (the removal) would’ve been a fait accomplis.”

Dave Beland, of Friends of Gage Park, says, “There seemed to be no public meetings held, no public consultation. We (the city) have a Gage Park master plan. We’re supposed to have consultation.”

Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla, who favours the firefighters memorial being at the park, insists there’s been “misinformation” about the city’s plans. Staff were instructed to find a location for a firefighters’ monument, and out of many possible sites, the northeast end of Gage Park outstripped alternatives vis-à-vis meeting criteria, such as prominence, accessibility, parking and accommodating firetrucks for ceremonial purposes.

“Our next step is consultation with the Friends of Gage,” he says. “We are still in the process of working it out.”

He said the city would not do anything to violate the vision of the garden. The councillor says no final work would be done without public and stakeholder consent.

Jonathan Epp, landscape architect, City Public Works, says staff got direction to find the best place and the site selection study identified Gage Park. “We (staff) have a concept design but it’s not finalized.

“We’d be taking great care to respect the geometry of the garden. We want to continue this consultation.”

Stan Double, president of the Hamilton Professional Firefighters Association, on whose behalf the monument would be installed, says, “We had nothing to do with the location. It’s a city project. I support the location. It’s a great memorial.

“But we’re not going to run a bulldozer over anything. I hope all groups can come together and see this through” to everyone’s satisfaction.

Tensions do seem to be easing. But the Friends are vigilant. The park has been beleaguered at various times during its long history. It’s why the Friends formed, in 1992. The famous fountain was in disrepair. It took until 2014 for it to be reinstalled and fully restored to its glory. The Friends have put in years of work restoring the garden and they helped develop the Master Plan. It’s an offence against good sense to destroy what’s just been completed.

And the Friends are concerned that this latest ruffle has hurt their efforts to relocate Dunington/ Grubb Foundation here from B.C., a move that had been on the verge of happening, says Beland.

The formal garden was designed by Dunington and Grubb, landscape architects world-renowned in their day. It’s a historic treasure of national, even international import, and mixes the schematic genius of the traditional Victorian garden with the ideals, natural and urban, of the City Beautiful movement.

“It has the whole concept of how we relate to the natural principle,” says Dave . “Here’s the perennial garden. You’re encouraged to think of yourself as one of the plants — are you a soft flower? A prickly bush?”

All along, different parts of the garden correspond to different aspects of life and nature. The annuals represent one thing, perennials another. At the east end, where it had been proposed that the memorial would go, there are ovals bracketing the area, symbolizing larger community, while the squares inside the ovals symbolize closer community ty, those who know us by name.

And the focal square in the middle? “That is yourself,” Dave reveals, “Your own garden.”

My tour goes on like this. All is explained. Fascinating. How the fountain is placed just where it is to line up with the vertical of the escarpment in the background, its water cascading to suggest a natural cataract. 

“There’s even some Da Vinci code” in the proportions of the Burns cairn, Dave reveals.

A good garden is like a living painting growing out of the ground, colourfully expressive, structurally harmonious, pleasing to the eye. A great garden, such as Gage, is more. It’s like an illustrated narrative, a picture book of life and nature, full of rich and hidden meanings.

Everyone wants the firefighters memorial. Duncan Beattie and Dave Beland strenuously agree. Such a great cause. Let’s hope it can all be sorted out without breaking up a beautiful design. 

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