Last week, we read a report issued by the Park Improvement Board stating all the reasons that Mr. E.C. Balzer was not a fit Park Superintendent. This week we find out what happened after the release of that report.
Following the presentation of this report, a motion was made and immediately passed by the board to accept the recommendations and notify Balzer of their findings. Throughout the previous year, correspondence from the board to Balzer had been of a terse and somewhat demanding nature. Four months after the improvement committee submitted their report, the board called for Balzer’s resignation. He submitted it to them on December 23, 1909, as follows: “Gentlemen: I hereby tender my resignation to go into effect on the first of the year or as soon as possible thereafter as Superintendent. “ Although early news accounts relay a story of a congenial departure from his position, park board correspondence suggests otherwise.
During this same time frame, Aubrey White met the assistant park superintendent for the Boston parks system, John W. Duncan, at a park convention in Seattle, and they struck up a friendship. On January 3, 1910, White received a telegram from John Duncan stating, “Will accept offer as per letter of the 24th.” As prearranged by White, following Duncan’s acceptance of the offer to be superintendent of the Spokane park system, he was to report to work “not later than March 1st, 1910.”
John Duncan became one of Manito Park’s best known figures. He served as Spokane’s park superintendent for 32 years, retiring in 1942 at the age of 77. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, he moved to Boston with his family when he was a boy. He learned the nursery trade from his father. Although White and the Park Board Commission gave the appearances of seeking someone with a technical education to replace Balzer, there is no record in the available archives indicating Duncan had ever received a formal education.
After taking over as superintendent, Duncan spent the first couple of years primarily doing maintenance and cultivating a nursery at Manito Park. The nursery bordered the present Duncan Gardens to the East. By 1912, it had 212,000 plants, which would be planted in the various city parks. Over the years, the nursery contained assortments of flowering and ornamental trees, shrubs, and various experimental trees and plants.
During Duncan’s tenure as superintendent, he made a number of trips to the eastern states to gather ideas from established parks in larger cities. His first was in 1912, a year in which a new wave of changes happened in the park. Old greenhouses and superintendent’s house were torn down and a new greenhouses built; the upper level at the southern end of the park was graded to create a level ball field, tennis courts, bowling green, and playground (to which a wading pool was added in 1920); and, of greatest interest to Duncan, work began on the formal European-style gardens. He transformed the sunken dirt pit into a masterpiece, which received national acclaim. In 1941, the year before Duncan retired, the park board honored his years of fine service as superintendent by renaming the Sunken Gardens to the Duncan Gardens. This garden has undergone numerous transformations over the years, the most recent being in 1996.
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