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Profiles in Horticultural History By Nancy Carol Carter
John G. Morley
Reprinted from: May/June 2011, Volume 102, Number 3
Photo: California Garden
By Nancy Carol Carter
When John G. Morley retired in 1939 after 27 years as superintendent of San Diego’s parks, he was feted at two different banquets, one attracting 150 guests. His work in developing the city’s parks was generously praised. Nobody, a member of the park board said, was “more quietly efficient or ever accomplished more spectacular results than John G. Morley, the real builder of Balboa Park.”
Morley was too self-effacing to trust in fulsome praise, but acknowledgement of his success as a public park executive must have brought a measure of satisfaction. He had suffered cruel career reversals on two different occasions in his life.
Morley was born in Newark-on-Trent, an ancient market town near Sherwood Forest in England’s East Midlands. As with many British horticulturists of the time, he followed his father into gardening work. We know little of his early life, but one account states that he studied horticulture in Boston. He did live in Boston and married there. He had left England around 1890 and court records show that he was naturalized as a United States citizen in Los Angeles on June 18, 1891.
With so few facts about the younger John Morley, one brief newspaper comment is tantalizing: he is described as an “ex-Klondike gold-rusher.” Sometime between 1896 and 1899, gold fever struck the man usually described as unflappable, earnest, steady and practical. He did not strike it rich in the Yukon and soon resumed horticulture work.
John G. Morley was assistant superintendent of parks for the City of Los Angeles, becoming superintendent in 1903. These were lean years for Los Angeles parks. Morley was credited with ideas and ambition, but was allocated few resources for park development.
In 1910 the park superintendent position became a political football. When the mayor’s new parks commissioner asked for Morley’s resignation, Morley dug in his heels. When charged with mismanagement and incompetence, he was incensed. He called the accusations unfair and stoutly maintained that his work in the city parks was at the highest level possible within severe budget constraints. He refused to resign.
Eventually, the mayor got his way and the story was sensationally reported in the local press. Morley had been forced from his first city park management position and publicly embarrassed. With his city parks career in tatters, he entered a private landscape engineering and consulting business in Los Angeles. This venture was still new when Morley was approached about a job in San Diego. Members of the San Diego Park Commission recognized Morley’s ouster as a hazard of the political patronage system, not a valid assessment of his abilities. They were determined to recruit him.
Meeting Deadline Challenges
San Diego’s big city park was being developed under a comprehensive master plan, but once the city decided to hold a world’s fair, park improvements needed to go on a fast track. The city was counting down to the January 1, 1915, opening of the Panama-California Exposition and the park commission urgently needed a capable superintendent to push ahead work in Balboa Park and in the other city parks that would attract visitors during the fair.
Morley “caught the vision,” according to a park commissioner, and on November 17, 1911, began one of the periods of intense effort and accomplishment that characterize his years in San Diego. The challenges were many. Lack of water and recalcitrant soil in Balboa Park could be solved with piping and dynamite, but it all took extra time to get a plant into the ground. In just one year, ten tons of dynamite were used to blast holes for trees. A Harvard-trained landscape architect later observed that Morley had handled an almost impossible horticultural problem with intelligence and dogged perseverance, obtaining results that won national and international praise.
A second challenge was to Morley’s skill as a diplomat and negotiator. Within Balboa Park, the Exposition Committee had authority to design and construct buildings, roads and bridges. Although crossed lines of authority were inherent in this arrangement, Morley found ways to work cooperatively with the engineer and architect of the exposition.
Finally, the scope of responsibility Morley undertook as superintendent of parks was exceptionally broad. Besides Balboa Park, he was responsible for 49 other San Diego parks. Torrey Pines Park was then in the city system, along with the La Jolla waterfront park, and Soledad and Collier Parks.
Morley added a fierce work ethic to a mix of job skills and fully met the challenges. The California-Pacific Exposition was known as the “Garden Fair”—a testament to the beauty of the exposition grounds and the park by 1915. An architectural journal later wrote: “Everyone knows that the San Diego Fair resulted in Balboa Park and John Morley, two monuments to horticulture.”
Just weeks after the Exposition closed in 1917, Morley took on the new challenge of preparing park buildings for the use of the Navy as America’s entry into world war loomed. Morley again had to deal with parallel authority figures in the park and he again won praise for his cooperation and for the speedy facilitation of military needs.
Career Crisis and A Life’s Work
On June 10, 1917, the park commission exploded a bombshell over San Diego by asking for John Morley’s resignation. They had already selected Morley’s replacement, a real estate agent who once worked for U.S. Steel Company. Commissioners conceded that he knew nothing about landscape gardening or caring for trees and shrubbery, but thought his corporate experience would “inject business methods” into park management.
As in Los Angeles, Morley refused to resign and continued to do his work. Citizens rallied to his support. Morley sat quietly at the next Park Board meeting while 50 supporters packed the room and appealed to the board to reconsider their action. Kate Sessions won enthusiastic applause when she called the park commissioners “ignorant.” Action on Morley’s employment was put over to the next meeting. Petitions, letters and editorials hammered the board’s decision. At the subsequent meeting, the board again did not act.
The public outcry had saved Morley’s job and he had weathered a second career crisis. His remaining 21 years with the San Diego parks were event-filled, but his job was not threatened. He guided Balboa Park through the military occupation of World War I and through the California Pacific Exposition in 1935-36. He wrestled with the problems of aging buildings from the first exposition and helped fight off the placement of the new State College--now San Diego State University--into Balboa Park. Throughout, he constantly improved the park.
Morley created Balboa Park’s first rose garden and approved the original succulent and cactus garden. He cooperated in the development of the zoo. He satisfied public demand for a Horseshoe Pitch and got the city council to approve the sale of beer in the park. In the first years of the Great Depression, he planned and built a recreation area in the northeast section of Balboa Park. Upon the recommendation of grateful citizens, it was named in his honor in 1934. Today, Morley Field Sports Complex continues to serve San Diegans.
Morley became an internationally respected park superintendent and represented San Diego through extensive writings, speeches and leadership in professional organizations. He was a state fair director and judged many horticulture and flower shows, including a rose show in Paris. He was a friend of the San Diego Floral Association and contributed more than 30 articles to California Garden.
Given a choice, John Morley would not have retired, but the city had a mandatory retirement age, reached when he turned 72 in January 1939. A possible compensation was hearing his life’s work summarized and lauded. Balboa Park had become world famous under his direction. He was named parks superintendent emeritus and granted lifetime occupancy of a home in Balboa Park. He was made an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Park Executives. With his grandson, Morley attended the San Diego Floral Association’s ceremonial planting of an oak tree, not in his memory, but in his honor.
Eighteen months after his retirement, Morley suffered a fatal heart attack at his Balboa Park home. John G. Morley will need no marble shaft to honor his memory, editorialized one newspaper. Every time San Diegans look upon the splendor of their parks they can recall the career of one of their greatest benefactors. Few leave behind a more enduring monument.
Photo: California Garden
John G. Morley
Horticulturist, Author, Superintendent of San Diego City Parks from 1911-1939
Born: January 21, 1867
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Died: June 23, 1940
No articles or books are devoted exclusively to John G. Morley, but the following article describes the time of his entry into the life of Balboa Park: Richard W. Amero, “The Making of the Panama-California Exposition, 1909-1915,” Journal of San Diego History, 36:1 (Winter 1990). Online at www.sandiegohistory.org/journal
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.