Friday, December 19, 2014

Naturalists John Muir & J. Horace MacFarland

When I was a young child, my Dad’s study was in the parsonage at 216 State Street, a handsome four story Federal-style detached brick house (circa 1916) next door to the stone Gothic revival church just down the street in front of the State Capitol, a successful architectural pastiche with the general layout of the capitol in Washington, the staircase from the Paris Opera, and the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome (before the church turned the old parsonage into the church offices and bought a grand detached stone house uptown as the new parsonage).

Occasionally I visited Daddy in his study on the second floor at 216 State Street. I remember seeing Thanksgiving Day parades from the bay window. Other times we watched from the street by the green, where we used to have strawberry festivals – before they turned it into a double-sided car park.

This is reminiscent of the McFarland gardens at Polyclinic Hospital. It had been one of the premier rose gardens in the United States, with reflecting pools, arcades, and a handsome bronze fountain of the Three Graces, which Milton Hershey— of chocolate fame— had commissioned for his private garden. But Mrs. Hershey found the nudes offensive; so Mr. Hershey donated the fountain to the McFarland rose garden. J. Horace McFarland, a doctor and a founder of the American Rose Society, had created and endowed these gardens at his hospital.

The connection to the former green in front of Grace Church is almost a direct quote from an old Joni Mitchell song: “They paved paradise … put up a parking lot.” That’s exactly what they did to the rose garden. They turned it into a three-block parking lot. Dad did what he could to prevent it; but was unsuccessful. It broke his heart. I still have a jar of potpourri made from some of the last roses. Dad, however, was instrumental in preserving the Three Graces and placing them in the middle of Italian Lake, just a few blocks from the old rose gardens.

Previously he had recommended the new site above Italian Lake for the relocation of the Civil War obelisk commemorating “The Suppression of the Rebellion,” which had blocked traffic on Second Street in front of the Capitol and had been a genuine traffic hazard. Dad was able to suggest these changes because he had been a friend of the two mayors at the time. Both events occurred when I was in junior high school or at Mercersburg, in the early or mid sixties.

When Mother sold the house on North Second Street to move to a retirement community about thirty-five miles away, I took an extended leave from my job at Neiman-Marcus to assist her. (My parents had bought the house after the Hurricane Agnes Flood.) It was some of the most strenuous physical labor I’ve ever done.

While cleaning out the detached garage, I went through several boxes of assorted objects and papers from Miss Helen McFarland’s house. (Helen was the distinguished spinster daughter of J. Horace McFarland and had lived alone for many decades in her Victorian mansion, Breeze Hill, that had an uncanny similarity to the house in Psycho, though it was a much finer house. Helen McFarland was a close friend of my Dad’s and his great friend, Helen Heisey. The two of them worked together on a Decorator Showhouse at Breeze Hill after Miss McFarland’s death.)

A small Christmas card caught my attention. It had a sepia photo of the "Lone Cypress" at Carmel. I picked it up and read the note. It was from John Muir to his friend J. Horace McFarland and was dated 1914. I happened to know that John Muir died Christmas Eve 1914, and thought at first this must be one of the last things he wrote. But on closer examination, the card was notated “Rec’d 1/10/14” so it was from Christmas 1913. Even so, it’s a very special communication.

The card’s inscription reads:

“Dear Mr. McFarland,
Many warm thanks for the great work you have done and are doing for God’s beauty. Tho our long hard fight for Yosemite Park is lost, some compensating good must come from the aroused conscience of the whole country.Yours with love and admiration
John Muir”

I think the reference was to Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was dammed to provide a reservoir for San Francisco. Even today there is discussion about whether or not to restore the valley to its former natural state. I don’t think that will happen. We really need the water. But I’ve double framed the card, and consider it one of my most valued possessions.

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