By Nancy Carol Carter

The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Spring 2016, Volume 62, Number 2
Ambition and Service: The Life and Death of George Cooke (PDF)

English landscape designer George Cooke (1849-1908) died in the midst of an active career in San Diego. Had his life not been cut short by an accident in the hills near Alpine, this multi-talented and robustly productive man might have been better remembered in his adopted Southern California home. Instead, he resides just one step above a footnote in the San Diego historical record.

Cooke  receives  cursory  mentions as the original  landscape  designer  for the grounds surrounding the George W. Marston family home on Seventh Avenue in San Diego, and as the builder of the first designed roads and trails in  City Park (Balboa Park).1 Few people know of the admiration that he evoked among city leaders like Marston who later wrote, “What a man he was to dare and do! What loyalty, devotion and unwearied service he gave!”2

This article explores Cooke’s gardening and landscape experience in England, the earliest private landscape work he carried out in the United States, and his association with Samuel Parsons, Jr., a nationally recognized landscape architect. It documents Cooke’s arrival in San Diego and rapid absorption into the top-tier of community and business circles. It also includes information on his participation in crucial infrastructure projects and the land development of San Diego.

An English Gardener

George Cooke was born on February 7, 1849,  in  Puttenham, an ancient village in the English county of Surrey.3 He never received formal training in either landscape architecture or  engineering,  though he did study and work for a time at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.4 It was later said of him, “Work and experience had been his school master.”5

A big man with a “massive frame,” Cooke worked as a gardener in Leicestershire in the English Midlands.6 In the 1880s, he was employed at Launde Abbey, a substantial country house with extensive gardens.7 By 1891, he was working at Quorn House in Leicestershire, where he “proved himself a good gardener,” a modest way of saying that he developed a reputation as a skilled horticulturalist. In the world of Victorian gardening, where exotic plants were prized and competition keen, he was the first to flower a white form of the Cattleya mendelii orchid. He also was credited for success with Nepenthes, carnivorous tropical pitcher plants.8

Cooke wed in 1892 at age 43 to Eliza Jane whose surname is not recorded. Cooke’s relentless work and travel schedule presumably required self-reliance on the part of his wife, but there is nothing in the record about her character or interests.9 After the owner of Quorn House died, the couple immigrated to the United States, arriving in 1895.

Cooke first worked in New Jersey, laying out the extravagant 840-acre “Florham” estate owned by Hamilton McKeon Twombly and his wife, Florence Adele Vanderbilt.10 As work wound down in 1896, Cooke advertised his services in Garden and Forest as a “gardener and general manager or park superintendent.”11 He described himself as “a first class practical man, having a thorough knowledge of building, road making, drainage, etc.”12 By 1897, he was employed in New York by the City Department of Public Parks.13 At some point, Cooke met landscape architect and New York City parks official Samuel Parsons, Jr.14 Together, they formed the landscape business partnership Samuel Parsons and Company with a business office at 1133 Broadway in New York City.15

Cooke Comes to San Diego

In 1902, George Marston headed a committee tasked with finding a professional landscape architect to draw up plans for San Diego’s sprawling  and undeveloped City Park. During a business trip to New York,  he secured  the services of Samuel Parsons & Company. He sent a long telegram back home, extolling Parsons’ experience and suitability for the San Diego landscape design commission.16 In a subsequent newspaper article, Mary B. Coulston, executive secretary for the Park Improvement Committee, described Parsons’ partner Cooke as a man of the highest rank, who “is specially known for his skill in designing and constructing roads, bridges and architectural features of parks.”17

In December 1902, Parsons, came to San Diego to develop preliminary ideas on how City Park should be developed.18 Plans on paper would evolve over many months, he explained to the press, as topographic information and other specifics were provided to his New York office by San Diego’s city engineering department.19 “The greatest trouble I think I will have [in designing this park],” Parsons said, “will be with roads. In fact, I think I have never had a more difficult problem.”20

Cooke arrived in San Diego on July 24, 1903, with the preliminary park plan drawings in hand. He explained that he was in San Diego to personally superintend the grading of roads and paths on the west side of the park. They were already being marked out with stakes by workers from the office of the city engineer.21 Cooke faced a difficult task. Marston later wrote that this “was probably the hardest job ever undertaken on the park because the surface soil of several acres had been scraped off to fill the Fifth Street Canyon…[thus] park gardening began…with blasting, hard pan shooting, digging, shoveling and grading, men and mules in a revelry of sweat and dirt.” Soon after Cooke’s arrival, however, “the dirt began to fly” after years of city inaction on park development.22

The San Diego Union described Cooke’s work in City Park. He put in a busy day that included a drive to Switzer canyon and the eastern side of the park with T.S. Brandegee.23 He later took a ride with Marston to Pound canyon and the western ridge where “he gave orders during the day for implements to be used in grading.”24 A few days later, Cooke was escorted to East County San Diego to see native tree specimens. Coulston, along with George and Anna Marston, took him to the El Monte native oak groves and to visit some ranches in the Cajon Valley.25 Cooke’s practical engineering skills and efficient organization of work on park roads, trails, entrances and planting resulted in visible park improvements. Mary Marston was an unabashed admirer, calling him a tower of strength and admiring how his early starts each day and hard work brought rapid progress in park development.26  This went a long way towards overcoming skepticism about the possibilities of City Park.27

George Cooke’s trips to and from New York over the next four years, as well as his accomplishments in City Park, were assiduously reported in the local press.28 In January 1907, the Evening Tribune announced that Cooke had returned to San Diego to stay.29 He was soon offered as much work as he could handle in landscaping, surveying, engineering, and construction and project management. Important community service appointments, opportunities to positively influence the direction of civic life in his new community, and potentially lucrative investment possibilities were opened to him.

Work and at Home in San Diego

Cooke’s private work in San Diego began as early as 1903 when Marston hired him to landscape what would become the Marston House Museum and Gardens, designed by the architectural firm of Hebbard and Gill and completed in 1905.30 Cooke drew up the landscape plan and suggested initial plantings for the gardens. The bones of his English Romantic style garden are still discernable today.31

Cooke also laid out streets and lots in the soon-to-be-developed Mission Hills properties owned by Marston and horticulturalist Kate O. Sessions. Neither wanted a grid imposed on their land. Cooke’s plans embraced the natural topography of the area, showing curving streets and oddly shaped lots along canyon rims.32 By 1905, Cooke was employed on a third private assignment, this time for Pomona College in Claremont, CA. Marston, president of the college’s board of trustees, encouraged the purchase of a tract of land adjoining the campus and recommended that Cooke “secure data for laying out a 60-acre park and planting of the same.”33 The landscape designer later submitted a plan for integrating the new parcel into the college campus. A part of Cooke’s plan today is “The Wash,” a cherished campus park of native vegetation and old oak trees.34

In addition to the private work Marston steered his way, Cooke laid out a 140- acre subdivision in La Mesa’s Mount Nebo district for the Park-Grable Investment Company. He began landscaping the new La Mesa Springs country home and model poultry farm belonging to lawyer and real estate developer D.C. Collier.35 Cooke also undertook the design of a private recreational park on 50 acres in Normal Heights, conceived by its owner as a “Big Chutes Park” in imitation of the Los Angeles water slide park.36 Ellen Browning Scripps sought his advice on street layouts and plantings, while E.W. Scripps wryly commented that Cooke’s “Fine designs” could be costly.37 In downtown San Diego, Cooke was asked by the park commission to design improvements to the D Street plaza, today’s Horton Plaza park on the renamed Broadway Street.38

Steady employment for Cooke was assured by his appointment as vice president and general manager of the Southern Construction Company.39 He also was brought into several local real estate ventures.40 He helped to develop Greenwood, an 80-acre burial ground adjacent to the Mount Hope Cemetery.41 He also was listed as a member of the Point Loma Syndicate, an investment group controlling 1,000 acres of prime real estate. Representing another San Diego “who’s who” of investors, the Syndicate directors included Collier and U.S. Grant, Jr.42 Cooke was charged with surveying and platting the land to ready it for sale and development. There would be no unsightly cutting away of hills or filling   of canyons to achieve a grid pattern of streets. Instead, he promised, roadways would be worked into the lines and hills of Point Loma to celebrate its artistic terrain. He explained that this approach had long been employed in Europe, but “the movement to preserve the natural beauty of residential sections is only just beginning in this country.”43

Cooke continued to oversee City Park development as San Diego’s first park superintendent.44 He lauded the beauty and long-term potential of the area and called for more road building and additional planting of eucalyptus and other Australian plants, which he thought were the most appropriate choices for the local climate.45 He also became a vocal advocate of beautifying the streets of the city with more tree planting, reinforcing a message Sessions had propounded for years.46

About a month after moving to town, Cooke published an open letter in  the newspaper calling for the removal of the Russ School athletic grounds, or “bull-pen,” from City Park land. The slapdash fencing created an eyesore, Cooke wrote. Worse, the fence was erected solely to keep out those who did not pay an entrance fee. He insisted that this was contrary to park purposes. Any citizen had the right of free entrance to events in the park, he contended, and the Russ School gate-fee scheme was a dangerous precedent.47 Eventually, the decision was made to build a new high school and City Park athletic fields designed by Cooke that would be freely open to the public.48

Despite Cooke’s successes in City Park and his good press in San Diego, there were still petty resentments against him as an outsider. In late May 1907, the Park Commission received a complaint that Cooke had not resided in San Diego long enough to legally hold a city job. The problem was overcome and Cooke was voted a salary increase by the park board effective June 1907 to $1,200 per year.49 In Golden Hill Park, Cooke and Henry Lord Gay created the oldest designed feature of Balboa Park: a stone fountain grotto. Set at the head of a small canyon, water was intended to flow through the fountain and then drain underground to irrigate the ravine below and to form a pool.50 Today, the attractive stonework and curving cobble steps survive, although the benches are long gone and the fountain has not worked for many decades.51

It became clear that conflicts of interest could arise between Cooke’s private and public roles. For example, the Southern Construction Company wanted to bid on city contracts. As a result, Cooke resigned from the city payroll in September 1907.52 In practice, his involvement with City Park did not end, although the terms of his employment shifted to a contract basis.

Cooke’s life in San Diego was not all work. He had acquaintances and friendships dating back to his first working visit in July 1903 and took steps to establish more social ties to his new community after relocating. He joined the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, known at the time for its active association in the civic life of San Diego and for charitable work directed to “the underprivileged and under-nourished.”53 He helped to establish the San Diego Lodge of the Sons of St. George and was elected its chairman in July 1907. This benevolent society for British immigrants provided an acquaintance with the British Vice-Consul and other fellow countrymen.54

Cooke also joined the San Diego Floral Association, established in 1907, the year he moved to town. He was active in the organization and spoke at one of the monthly meetings, urging the Floral Association to “stimulate the interest of the city’s school children in floriculture.” He proposed setting up a garden within City Park for the exclusive use of schools, a place to bring students for exercise and the pleasures of gardening. Cooke also joined a committee organizing the second Annual Floral Association Fall Flower Show scheduled for October 1908.55

George Cooke’s San Diego

Cooke made San Diego his home at a propitious point in its history. After the land boom and disastrous bust of the 1880s, San Diego had stabilized financially and was growing in population. Although 1907 brought another national economic recession, the growth trajectory for San Diego was upward. Between the federal census reports of 1890 and 1900, the San Diego population increased by just 1,663 people. Over the next decade the population doubled to 35,978.56

Cooke had traded metropolitan New York for a very small city, but one with a praise-worthy leadership that developed projects and set ambitious civic goals. San Diego’s leaders came from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds and fit into an early twentieth century city-building group identified as visionary “town elite entrepreneurs.”57 While of humbler origins, Cooke brought to San Diego specialized professional knowledge, useful experience, a work ethic, personal ambition and a civic consciousness that meshed with this leadership ethos.

Influenced by both the City Beautiful and Civic Center movements at the turn of the twentieth century, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce wanted to improve and grow their town. Altruism was not absent, but an enlivened business climate and greater prosperity were the expected corollaries of civic improvement and population growth. This group had successfully intervened to change the fortunes of the long-neglected City Park by creating the Park Improvement Committee that functioned between 1902 and 1905 when a park funding source and City Park Commission were finally created within city government. It had also spun off the San Diego Floral Association in 1907 to work for city beautification.

Attention now turned to the City Beautiful ideal of a well-planned civic center. There was talk of enlarging the downtown plaza and surrounding it with great public buildings. It could be connected to a waterfront pleasure pier by a widened and beautified D Street (later Broadway).58

Within six weeks of permanently settling in San Diego, Cooke was serving with Marston, Julius Wangenheim, Melville Klauber, Judge Alfred Haines, Leroy Wright and other local leaders on San Diego’s Civic Improvement The committee’s broad remit was to “take a hand or lend support to any movement or meeting for the betterment of San Diego.”59 Created under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce and the Art Association, the group succeeded hiring city planner John Nolan to create a plan of development for the growing city.60

Road improvement was another major issue of the day. San Diegans were awakened to the use of automobiles for personal transportation by the publicity surrounding a January 1906 endurance race from Los Angeles to Coronado, completed by 22 drivers. There were calls for a direct highway connection between Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as roads to better link San Diego to other destinations.61

This subject tapped into Cooke’s particular expertise and experience, having completed ten miles of roads within City Park. He was hired as the supervising engineer when the Chamber of Commerce established a Committee on Boulevards in May 1907.62 Within a month, he was ready to begin overseeing roadwork to link San Diego with Del Mar. He also worked on a major roads report for the committee. Published by The San Diego Union in August 1907, it was called “the most important report ever submitted to the Chamber of Commerce.” The Chamber accepted and endorsed the impressive document detailing 200 miles of proposed road building.63

On June 10, 1908, Cooke was hired as San Diego County’s chief engineer for road building. The California State Legislature had approved an act allowing county boards of supervisors to appoint highway commissions and float bonds for road building. Appointed to the San Diego County Highway Commission, E. W. Scripps, John D. Spreckels, and A.G. Spalding hired Cooke.64 Within one month, they reported to the Board of County Supervisors an ambitious plan of action that would extend five main transportation arteries out of San Diego.65

This plan and a widespread clamor for improved roads sent Cooke across the county in a whirlwind of meetings with county supervisors, city officials, and interested groups. During these trips, he personally inspected potential routings. Cooke promised a road from San Diego to the Riverside County border, via Escondido, once that city made claim to a share of a proposed road bond. Cooke admonished the people of Escondido to act in good faith. With the county investing in surveying and the other work of planning the roadway, local citizens would need to work hard for passage of bonds to pay for the highway construction.66  In fact, in the next year, San Diego was the sixth county in California to pass a bond issue strictly for road construction.67

Cooke made an informal report to the County Commissioners on his inspection trip to find a best route to the desert.68 He had been to Warner’s Ranch, Santa Ysabel, and Julian, making “an exhaustive examination of the most feasible route to Imperial.”69 Just a few days later, an article stated that Cooke was traveling with the president of the board of supervisors along the proposed public highway route to Imperial County.70

A Fatal Accident

Cooke’s visits to communities to learn about their transportation needs took him to East County San Diego early in August 1908 for a meeting on an improved road from Alpine to Descanso.71 Local “good roads” advocates invited him out for a reconnaissance before the meeting. The party set out in a horse drawn wagon. Six miles from Alpine on Canejo Mountain Road, a harness loudly snapped, causing the horses to bolt. The wagon overturned, violently ejecting Cooke. He was thrown 50 feet down a ravine and seriously injured. His two uninjured companions walked away to seek help.72

The accident occurred in the late morning, but it was not until 4:00 p.m. that Cooke was transferred to The Willows, a resort hotel in Alpine. He had endured hours of agonizing pain under a hot sun before receiving medical attention for five broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. A San Diego doctor and a trained nurse were summoned to Alpine along with Cooke’s wife.73 While a recovery was optimistically predicted in the earliest news accounts, the medical prognosis soon changed. One or more broken ribs had punctured a lung.74

Cooke succumbed to pneumonia just three days after the accident, on August 6, 1908. He was 59 years old. A headline across five newspaper columns announced Cooke’s death, calling him “one of San Diego’s best known citizens.” The New York Times ran a death notice the next day for “the well-known landscape artist George Cooke,” associated with Samuel Parsons, Jr.75

Funeral plans were announced for August 8, 1908. The service was arranged by the Order of Elks at the organization’s new downtown building.76 Honorary pallbearers included Marston, Scripps, Spalding, and A.E. Wright. The assisting minister was The Reverend Charles L Barnes of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Prominent citizens offered eulogies at Cooke’s funeral.

It was said that Cooke’s death was a personal blow to those who knew him and loved “his many virtues.”77 He was described as genial and universally liked.78 Marston drew up a more nuanced assessment in his eulogy, later printed in a family chronicle. He described Cooke as a self-made man who contributed to society by finding expression for his talents and outlets for his compulsion to work. George Cooke was a modest man. Without the advantages of a technical education, either in engineering or landscape work, he often felt his limitations. Work and experience had been his school master, and he glorified his work by letting it lead him on, step by step, to higher forms. He put aside money making in order to do the work he loved to do. He loved the brown earth and its tender plants more than business success. Out in the open, under the blue sky, he was happy in his work. So it came to pass that the man who began life  working as a gardener, carried his work up to the finer gardening of an artist and lover of the beautiful.

Cooke’s massive frame and quick speech gave to strangers an immediate impression of strength and force. Sometimes too impulsive and impatient, he thus failed to reveal his real gentleness. But a closer acquaintance brought out the kindliness of his nature and left to his friends a happy remembrance of simplicity, generosity and manly goodness. To do his full duty and to make the world more beautiful and happy was the daily religion of his life. He lived well, he wrought nobly, and his works do follow him.79

The British Vice-Consul and representatives of the British Benevolent Society were in attendance at the funeral.80 The next day’s newspapers described many flower tributes and a large turnout for “the beautiful ritualistic funeral service.” Cooke was interred at Greenwood Cemetery, the burial ground he had designed and was landscaping.81

The only locally identified family survivor was his wife, Eliza Jane Cooke, who apparently spent the rest of her life in San Diego. One month after her husband’s death, she was identified as the executrix of George Cooke’s last will and testament and began publishing the series of required legal notices.82 This is the last information about her aside from her listings in the City Directory and public records.83

Although Cooke had permanently settled in San Diego just 20 months earlier, his death was deeply felt as a communal loss. He was widely known because his name and photograph had so frequently appeared in the local papers since his first working visit in 1903. He gave public talks, was the champion of City Park and local road development, and had forged multiple business and social ties. This was a life cut short. Moreover, the fatal accident occurred while Cooke was energetically working in the service of an improved San Diego.

On a practical level, Cooke’s tangible contributions would be missed. He was seen as providing services of inestimable value to the city, county and state. His labors were “untiring and productive of great good.”84 A newspaper editorialized that no one else was qualified to step into Cooke’s shoes.85 Both the Chamber of Commerce and the County Highway Commission adopted formal resolutions enumerating his biographical details and life achievements and offering condolences to his widow.86

Two weeks after his funeral, a large crowd gathered in the Garrick Theater  to  hear  lectures  on  the  Little  Landers’  ideal  of  self-sufficiency  on a small farm. In the midst of a “stirring address” on the great future of San Diego, orator John B. Osborn linked that bright tomorrow to the contributions of George Cooke. If people will work to realize the city’s ambitious dreams, Cooke’s life will not have been in vain, he said.87

Discussion of appropriate memorials for Cooke began immediately after the funeral. As a first act, the highway commissioners and the park commissioners agreed to purchase an appropriate grave marker. There was a suggestion to purchase and dedicate the El Monte old growth oak groves in East County San Diego. Cooke had loved these trees.88  The San Diego Floral Association discussed the creation of a horticultural library to honor his memory, along with the planting of a memorial tree in City Park.89 At the January 1910 regular meeting of the Association, Sessions submitted a bookplate specially created  for the Cooke library books designed by artist Alice Klauber.90 Donations were solicited. Apparently this appeal did not bear fruit because one year later, California Garden regretted the substantial delay in memorializing Cooke, one of the Floral Association’s “enthusiastic members.”

Scripps, Spreckels, and Spaulding, members of the County Highway Commission, scrambled to recapture momentum on their important roadwork. Later, when the Escondido road was being laid out, it was noted that “the late Engineer George Cooke” had recommended improvements that reduced a dangerous sharp grade.91

When Samuel Parsons, Jr., was invited back to San Diego in 1910 to assess the city’s parks in advance of the exposition being planned for 1915, he wrote    a lengthy report that included a reference to a planned grove of live oak trees  in a small canyon, intended to be a memorial for George Cooke.92 Whether this planting ever occurred is unrecorded, but Cooke was honored by the Floral Association on March 8, 1911, with the planting of 29 pepper trees in the George Cooke Memorial Grove near the intersection of 26th and A Streets. The California Pepper tree had become a Cooke favorite.93

A San Diego Legacy for George Cooke

If Cooke were better remembered in San Diego today, he would be credited with the pioneering road planning that helped to modernize Southern California, and for a lasting artistic contribution to the appearance of Point Loma and Mission Hills. Both neighborhoods have curvilinear roadways that respect the natural terrain and provide a charm that continues to attract residents and visitors.

Cooke should also be recognized as our region’s strongest link to the central strain of American landscape aesthetics and history that dates to Andrew Jackson Downing. The latter’s work influenced Calvert Vaux, the British architect and landscaper recruited to the United States; Frederick Law Olmsted who partnered with Vaux in the design of New York’s Central Park; and Samuel Parsons, Jr. who was both a Vaux intern and partner.94 It also influenced Cooke, though it would be an exaggeration to place him on the same level as these leading names in the art of American landscape design. Still, Cooke was an observant and experienced disciple of the landscape art and San Diego’s resident link to its most influential early practitioners.

Cooke’s story fills a gap in the history of Balboa Park. In particular, it explains the fading influence of the Parsons plan in the years leading up to the Panama- California Exposition. When Cooke resigned from his park superintendence in September 1907, he had completed most of the design elements required. Roads and entrances had been built and a great deal of planting had been completed. Those accomplishments, combined with a paucity of funds, led to a decision  not to hire a new park superintendent.95 Cooke continued to work for the park commission on a project basis, and was undoubtedly consulted informally on various questions of park planning. After his death in August 1908, the Parsons plan lost its most vocal advocate.96

Having died two years before City Park became “Balboa Park,” Cooke did not play a role in the successful Panama-California Exposition (1915-16). Nonetheless, he should be credited for the enormous amount of work that he undertook between 1903 and 1908. Cooke’s productivity and engaged citizenship helped San Diego to understand that it could accomplish the seemingly impossible.


  1. Cooke’s work at Marston House and the garden design are described in Vonn Marie May, “The Marston Garden: The Southwest Interprets English Romantic,” The Journal of San Diego History (hereafter JSDH) 36, nos. 2-3 (Summer 1990), 163-178. Balboa Park historian Richard Amero mentions Cooke as the implementer of Samuel Parsons’ plans, calling him an assistant to Parsons, rather than his business partner. He viewed Cooke as a jobbing engineer. Richard Amero, “Samuel Parsons Finds Xanadu in San Diego,” JSDH 44, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 9. The most frequent mention of Cooke within published general histories of Balboa Park is found in Gregory Montes, “San Diego’s City Park 1902-1910 From Parsons To Balboa,” JSDH 25, no. 1 (Winter 1979), 1-25. Showley mentions Cooke’s name twice, as the park road builder and as an accident victim. Roger M. Showley, Balboa Park: A Millennium History (Carlsbad, CA: Heritage Media Corp., 1999), 25, 26. Smyth’s 1907 history of San Diego includes a short mention of Cooke’s work in the park and a photograph of him identified as the “superintendent in charge of the work.” George W. Marston, “Story of the City Parks,” in William E. Smythe, History of San Diego 1542-1907 (San Diego: The History Co., 1907), 621. In a later version of the San Diego parks story Marston gives a fuller picture of the challenges Cooke faced and overcame in his early City Park work. George W. Marston, “History of the Parks,” in Carl H. Heilbron, History of San Diego County (San Diego: San Diego Press Club, 1936), 157.
  2. Mary Gilman Marston, George White Marston, Family Chronicle, vol. 2 ([Los Angeles]: W. Ritchie Press, 1908), 22-24.
  3. “Birth, Baptism & Christening,”, http:// (accessed February 2, 2016). In 1871, at age 22, Cooke was lodging with a family in Cranley (later renamed Cranleigh) in Surrey. No employment or profession was indicated. “England Census 1871 and England Census 1881,” (; accessed February  2, 2016).
  4. Training and work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was in Cooke’s time, and remains today, the gold standard for gardener training. Cooke mentioned his Kew experience when interviewed by a San Diego newspaper reporter. “Here to Superintend City Park Improvement,” The [San Diego] Evening Tribune (hereafter Evening Tribune), July 24, 1903, 5. More specifically, the Marston family learned that Cooke had worked with cactus, succulents and other dry climate plants while at Kew. Marston, George White Marston, Family Chronicle,
  5. “Many Present at Funeral of George Cooke,” Evening Tribune, August 8, 1908, 8.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Launde Abbey, Leicestershire, England,” ( people/ site5216/history; accessed February 15, 2016).
  8. “England Census 1891,” (; accessed February 2, 2016); “Obituary: George Cooke,” Gardeners Chronicle & New Horticulturist, August 22,  1908, 156. This obituary mentioned Cooke’s early work in Canada.
  9. At Cooke’s previous place of employment, Launde Abbey, the census report listed a household worker named Eliza Jane Paris. This could be the woman he married. She was approximately four years younger than Cooke. She is not mentioned in later news reports of her husband’s many activities. In the Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, the Cooke family was shown to be living in Hackensack, New Jersey. In addition to George and Eliza Cooke, an eight-year old niece, Winnie Mason, was part of the household. No children were present in San Diego and none were mentioned as survivors of either George or Eliza Cooke. “Census of the United States,” (; accessed February 2, 2016).
  10. “Obituary,” Gardeners Chronicle. The Twombly’s home, on the Florham estate, is identified as one of the most opulent of the Gilded Age mansions built in Morris County where, by 1910, more millionaires lived within a one-mile radius than elsewhere in the world. “History [of Morris County, New Jersey],” www. (accessed January 24, 2016). The estate is now part of Fairleigh Dickinson University. Photographs linked to the university’s digital archives and dated to the 1930s show the home and mature landscaping of the grounds. “Vanderbilt Twombly Estate Collection,” Fairleigh Dickinson University Digital Archives, (accessed January 24, 2016).
  11. The choice of Garden and Forest signals Cooke’s ambition. It was no ordinary gardening magazine, but in a class of its own as an intellectual marketplace for emerging ideas in the fields of landscape, architecture, public parks, forestry, and some fields of science. It attracted authors and readers among policy makers and elite
  12. Cooke’s appeal for a new position ran for at least two months in the weekly publication, first appearing in the March 15, 1896 issue. “Situations Wanted,” Garden and Forest 9, no. 422 (March 15, 1896), viii.
  13. The New York park commission voted to appoint George Cooke as a gardener on May 17, 1897, and increased his salary the next week. Minutes and Documents of the Board of Commissioners of the [New York] Department of Public Parks, 1897-1898 (New York: Martin B. Brown Co., 1898), 25, 31.
  14. Samuel Parsons Jr. (1844-1923) was born into a family of nursery owners. He apprenticed in landscape work with Calvert Vaux who, with Frederick Law Olmsted, designed New York City’s Central Park. Later, Parsons and Vaux were in partnership for eight years. Parsons was a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. He completed numerous private and public landscape commissions during his career and, from 1895 until 1911, served as the head landscape architect of New York City. “Samuel Parsons, Jr.,” in Pioneers of American Landscape Design, ed. Charles A. Birnbaum and Robin Karson (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 287-91.
  15. A British publication suggests that Cooke and Parsons teamed up around 1900. “Obituary,” Gardeners Chronicle; “Parsons, Samuel and Co.,” The Trow (formerly Wilson’s) Copartnership and Corporation Directory of New York City (New York: Trow, 1902), 406.
  16. “Mr. Parson [sic] the Architect,” Evening Tribune, October 21, 1902, 4.
  17. “Marston Tells More of Trip to NY and Parsons,” The San Diego Union, November 23, 1902, 4. The story of Coulston’s work in San Diego and with City Park is told in Nancy Carol Carter, “Mary B. Coulston: Unsung Planner of Balboa Park,” 58:3 JSDH (Summer 2012), 177-202.
  18. “Parsons will Return to New York on Wednesday,” The San Diego Union, December 2, 1902, 4. Parsons had set wooden stakes to mark tentative roads on the west side of the park and identified places for park entrances.
  19. “Landscape Artist Samuel Parsons, Jr.,” The San Diego Union, November 10, 1902, 6.
  20. “Has Buckled Down to Work,” The San Diego Union, December 24, 1902, 5.
  21. “Here to Superintend City Park Improvements.” Evening Tribune, July 24, 1903, 5. An accompanying photograph portrays Cooke as a well dressed, full-bodied man with an imposing mustache. “Architect Cooke on Way to San Diego,” Evening Tribune, June 9, 1903, 5. Landscape architecture was a newly defined profession at the turn of the twentieth century and terminology for its practitioners was not firmly settled. “Landscape artist” and “landscape gardener” were also used.
  22. George W. Marston, “History of the Parks,” in Carl H. Heilbron, History of San Diego County (San Diego: San Diego Press Club, 1936), 15, 157.
  23. Along with Kate O. Sessions, Townsend Stith Brandegee (1843-1925) was one of the local volunteer plant consultants to Parsons & Company as work on City Park commenced. Elizabeth C. MacPhail, Kate Sessions: Pioneer Horticulturist (San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1976), Brandegee had worked as a civil engineer across the American West before devoting his life to botany. He freely offered both his engineering and horticultural expertise to the park project. T.S. and Katharine Brandegee are profiled in Nancy Carol Carter, “The Brandegees Leading Botanists in San Diego,” JSDH 55, no. 4 (Fall 2009), 191-216.
  24. “Chief Forester Pinchot Coming to San Diego,” The San Diego Union, July 28, 1903, 8.
  25. “Architect Cooke Looking Up Trees,” Evening Tribune, August 7, 1903, 5.
  26. Marston, George White Marston, Family Chronicle, 2:22.
  27. “Parsons and Cooke Doing Detail Work for Four Portions of Park,” The San Diego Union, December 26, 1904, 8; “Planting Going on & Oiling of Park Ways Commenced,” The San Diego Union, March 29, 1904, 5. Newspapers tracked Cooke’s progress, describing each new park road, path and planting he completed. The sheer enormity of City Park continued to feed doubt about its development even though Kate O. Sessions had previously made a successful demonstration of City Park’s horticultural potential with her nursery on 36 acres of leased parkland and by planting more than 100 trees per year in the park from 1892 through
  28. “Mr. Cooke Returns,” San Diego Union, August 9, 1903, 5; “Architect Cooke Leaves for the East,” Evening Tribune, August 27, 1903, 5; “Work on Park to be Resumed,” Evening Tribune, December 19, 1903, 7.
  29. “George Cooke Will Make Home Here,” Evening Tribune, January 16, 1907, 5. Balboa Park historian Richard Amero suggests that the San Diego city park commission benefited by cutting out the middleman—Samuel Parsons, Jr.—and hiring Cooke directly for work in City Park. Whether Cooke was made an offer based on this end-run around his partnership with Parsons is unknown, but Amero goes on to describe the ways in which Cooke’s work in the park deviated from the Parsons design. Amero, “Samuel Parsons Finds Xanadu,”  12-13.
  30. Most practitioners in the new field of landscape architecture retained the right to undertaking private commissions, even when attached to a partnership or employed in a public
  31. May, “The Marston Garden.”
  32. Ann Jarmusch, “Expanding Mission Hills’ Historic Value,” SDMetro (October 2010), /2010/10expanding-mission-hills%E2%80%99-historic-value/ (accessed September 25, 2015).
  33. “The Season’s Work on San Diego’s Park,” The San Diego Union, March 10, 1905, 5. In a long and detailed article, all that Cooke accomplished during his working visit is described and future park plans are revealed based on a tour Cooke had conducted for the reporter. This upbeat report elicited an editorial a few days later commending George Marston and others who were leading the development of City Park. “Progress on the Park [Editorial],” The San Diego Union, March 13, 1905, 4.
  34. Charles Burt Sumner, The Story of Pomona College (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1914), 180. In this book George Cooke’s last name is spelled “Cook.”
  35. “Plans a Model Poultry Farm,” The San Diego Union, March 20, 1907, 14. David Charles Collier (1871-1934) was a good person to know in San Diego and his name frequently shows up with Cooke’s in real estate investment lists. A gregarious joiner, Collier belonged to numerous organizations and founded others. He served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and knew almost everyone in town. La Mesa Springs was the original name of today’s city of La Mesa. Collier’s land purchase caught the attention of those familiar with his success as a land developer and attracted other investors and settlers to the La Mesa area. James D. Newland, La Mesa, (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing 2010),
  36. “Plans Being Drawn for a Big Chutes Park,” Evening Tribune, January 14, 1907, 2:7. Securing    a reliable water source for the park proved to be problematic, but the owner, W.L. Warner, claimed to have solved that problem and asked Cooke to push ahead on the work later in the year. “Rushing Work on New Chutes Park,” The San Diego Union, September 11, 1907, 5. Nine months later, the project again made the news as a team from Cooke’s Southern Construction Company worked to get the grounds open. “Pleasure Park Being Improved,” The San Diego Union, June 20, 1908,


  1. Ellen Browning Scripps, Diary, March 25, August 13, 1908, Ellen Browning Scripps Collection, Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College (hereafter EBSC), Drawer 23, Folder 12; W. Scripps to W.E. Ritter, November 9, 1908, EBSC, Drawer 13, Folder 22. Thanks to Molly McClain for these references.
  2. C. Collier and other prominent businessmen were associated with the new company. “Improvement of Plaza Planned,” The San Diego Union, April 30, 1908, 11.
  3. “Elected Manager of Construction Company,” Evening Tribune, January 16, 1907, Cooke’s permanent move to San Diego and his new job with the construction company were announced on a page with a new Cooke photograph. He is unsmiling, but pleasant looking. His forceful mustache has been reined in, he wears glasses and sports a natty polka dotted bow tie. This picture appears several times in newspapers over the next months. The next day, the morning paper similarly announced Cooke’s new Southern Construction Company position. Readers were assured that Cooke’s work in City Park would continue. “George Cooke Chosen Manager,” The San Diego Union, January 17, 1907, sec. 2, 7.
  4. One of Cooke’s first jobs with Southern Construction Company was to plat 1,000 acres of undeveloped land on Point Loma, designing streets and readying individual lots of land for recording in county land records and eventual sale. Within six months lots in a new Point Loma subdivision were being advertised. “Loma Alta Point Loma [advertisement],” The San Diego Union, June 25, 1907, 7.
  5. The formation of a corporation to create the new Greenwood burial ground was announced in the newspaper. “To Establish New Cemetery,” The San Diego Union, May 10, 1907,
  6. A full-page advertisement seeking investors promised profits. “An Unusual Investment Opportunity is Offered by the Point Loma Syndicate [advertisement],” The San Diego Union, February 25, 1907,
  7. “Contour Roads for Point Loma,” The San Diego Union, March 12, 1907, A third known business association for Cooke is the San Diego Consolidated Realty Company specializing in downtown San Diego property. This venture ran large newspaper advertisements in 1907 seeking additional stock buyers. Many prominent citizens were listed as investors along with George Cooke. Well-known San Diegans Ed Fletcher, George Burnham, A. Haines, William E. Smythe, A. Blochman and Harrison Albright were among the listed investors in the company. “San Diego Inside Property [advertisement],” San Diego Union, July 7, 1907, 9.
  8. John Morley, hired in 1911, is often thought to be the first park superintendent. But George Marston as head of the San Diego Park Commission clearly stated that George Cooke was hired in 1907 as the city’s first superintendent of parks. “Contend Cooke is Non-Resident,” The San Diego Union, May 26, 1907, 10; “George Cooke Chosen Manager,” January 17,
  9. “Cooke Speaks of Opportunities for Park Development,” San Diego Union, January 10, 1907,
  10. “Cooke on Street Trees for Beautification,” The San Diego Union, January 24, 1908,
  11. “Would Remove Russ ‘Bull-Pen’,” The San Diego Union, February 12, 1907, The unsightly boards had caught Cooke’s attention the prior year and he had proposed the planting of screening trees to create a living wall of green around the unsightly boards. “Renewed Action in Park Improvement,” The San Diego Union, January 17, 1906, 8. The Board of Education and Park Commission met on the issue of removing the high school fence but failed to reach an agreement. “Long Pow Wow with No Result,” The San Diego Union, February 20, 1907, 14.
  12. “Fifteen Acres Set Aside for Athletic Field in City Park,” The San Diego Union, March 5, 1908, The field was to be built on A Street, between 26th and 27th Streets in the Golden Hill area. A drawing of Cooke’s plan for the athletic facility was an oval running track surrounding ball fields and six tennis courts.
  13. “Contend Cooke is Non-Resident,” The San Diego Union, May 26, 1907, 10; Minutes of the San Diego Board of Park Commissioners, August 6,
  14. The project was initiated by the Golden Hill Improvement Committee to enhance their corner of City Park. Leroy A. Wright, a park commissioner, was a resident of the neighborhood. He and Cooke selected the site for a fountain and plans were drawn up by architect Henry Lord Gay had previously announced his excitement at finding a 421-pound clam shell at Frank Holzner’s shell shop on Sixth Avenue that he planned to incorporate into the fountain design. If this clam shell was installed in the fountain, there is no evidence of it remaining today. Gay was the architect for many homes and buildings in the San Diego area, including the Western Metal Company, now part of the downtown San Diego baseball park. He was profiled in the newspaper upon moving to San Diego from Chicago in 1905. “New Architect Begins Business,” The San Diego Union, August 19, 1906, 5; “Work of Year in City Park Outlined in Annual Report,” The San Diego Union, April 8, 1908, 10; “Will Select Site for Fountain This Morning,” The San Diego Union, July 10, 1907, 12; “Huge Clam Shell to be Centerpiece of Fountain,” The San Diego Union, September 3, 1907, 6.
  15. Only the surviving roads engineered and built by Cooke before 1907 are older designed Balboa Park features than the Golden Hill fountain grotto. A newspaper article described the completed park feature noting that a portion of funds for the improvement was contributed by people of Golden “Pretty Fountain for Golden Hill,” The San Diego Union, March 8, 1908, 20. The fountain grotto is on the National Register of Historic Places and is described by the San Diego Save Our Heritage Organization as an endangered Arts and Crafts style inglenook. “Golden Hill Fountain Grotto,” htm (accessed May 23, 2016).
  16. “Cooke Resigns From Park Board,” The San Diego Union, September 19, 1907,
  17. An Elks Lodge was established in San Diego in 1890 and the growing organization built its own downtown building in 1906-07 at 168 W.B. France, “50th Anniversary Program Will Open with Dinner,” The San Diego Union, June 2, 1941, 1.
  18. Allen Hutchinson was a sculptor and San Diego’s resident British Vice-Consul. He founded San Diego’s first cricket club. “Allen Hutchinson,” in William Ellsworth Smythe, San Diego and Imperial Counties, California: A Record of Settlement, 2 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing, 1913), 332-33.
  19. “Arranging for Floral Exhibit, The San Diego Union, June 28, 1908, Cooke died three months before the Fall Flower Show of 1908 was staged.
  20. Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900; Thirteenth Census of the United States,
  21. Judith Comer-Schultz, “History and Historic Preservation in San Diego Since 1945: Civic Identity in America’s Finest City,” diss. Arizona State University, 2011. The dissertation offering this analysis draws analogies from a study of civic leadership in early day Phoenix and identifies the staging of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition as the best example of leadership overcoming the shortfall of population in San Diego. Historians debate the benefits versus the exclusionary elitism and anti-democratic aspects of political, landowning and business “growth elites” or “place entrepreneurs” in early twentieth century California cities, but Cooke easily penetrated the San Diego stronghold. The historiography is discussed in Todd Gish, “Growing and Selling Los Angeles: The All Year Club of California, 1921-1941,” Southern California Quarterly 89, no. 4 (Winter 2007-08), 391-415.
  22. This plan was suggested by George Marston. Richard F. Pourade, The History of San Diego: Gold in the Sun, vol. 5 (San Diego, CA: Union-Tribune Publishing Co., 1965), 89.
  23. “Outline of Civic Improvement Plans,” The San Diego Union, April 20, 1907,
  24. “Eastern Man Will Draw Plans for Improving San Diego,” The San Diego Union, September 5, 1907, 8; Melanie Macchio, “John Nolen and San Diego’s Early Residential Planning in the Mission Hills Area,” JSDH 52, no. 3 (2006), 32-33.
  25. Pourade, The History of San Diego: Gold in the Sun, 81-83.
  26. “10 Miles of Roads Completed and More Authorized by Bond Issues,” The San Diego Union, March 29, 1908, 11; “Begin at Once to Lay Out Routes,” The San Diego Union, May 6, A proposed road to link up with Lemon Grove Boulevard was viewed by Cook and received his approval. “Chollas Valley Asks Boulevard,” The San Diego Union, September 4, 1907, 5; “To Start New Boulevard Thursday,” The San Diego Union, June 11, 1907, Sec. 2, 9.
  27. “Chamber Urges Work on 200 Miles of Fine Boulevards,” The San Diego Union, August 31, 1907, 10; “San Diego’s Boulevard System [editorial],” The San Diego Union, August 31, 1907,
  28. “Highway Commission Submits its Report,” The San Diego Union, October 9, 1908,
  29. “Network of Boulevards Planned,” The San Diego Union, July 10, 1908,
  30. “Escondido to be on Trunk Road,” The San Diego Union, July 15, 1908, 12; “Escondido Asks for Boulevards,” The San Diego Union, July 16, 1908,
  31. Ben Blow, California Highways, A Descriptive Record of Road Development (San Francisco: [H. Crocker, Co.], 1920), 125.
  32. “Favors Pass Route for Boulevard to Desert,” The San Diego Union, July 25, 1908, This article includes a large photograph of George Cooke.
  33. “Escondido Survey Ordered By Road Commission,” The San Diego Union, July 9, 1908,
  34. “Visit Delzura Country in Interest of Roads,” The San Diego Union, July 31, 1908,
  35. A well-attended mass meeting of enthusiastic good road advocates was reported. “Alpine People in Favor of Good Roads,” Evening Tribune, August 3, 1908,
  36. Cooke’s companions were identified as J. Meyer and Douglas Ogden in a newspaper account. “Engineer G. Cooke Badly Hurt in Runaway,” San Diego Union, August 3, 1908, 12. The accident was reported in morning and evening news articles. The evening story reported that Dr. John Perry Lewis from San Diego went to Alpine to attend Cooke. Lewis was reported to be on the Board of Directors for Agnew Hospital. “Highway Engineer Badly Hurt in Runaway,” Evening Tribune, August 3, 1908, 5.
  37. “Injuries Fatal to Architect Cooke,” The San Diego Union, August 7, 1908,
  38. “Architect Cooke is Dead,” Evening Tribune, August 6, 1908, 8; “Artist Cooke Dead from Accident,” The New York Times, August 7, 1908,
  39. “Elks, Attention,” The San Diego Union, August 8, 1908, 5.
  40. “The Death of George Cooke [Editorial],” Evening Tribune, August 8, 1908,
  41. “Many Present at Funeral of George Cooke,” Evening Tribune, August 8, 1908, 8.
  42. Marston, George White Marston, Family Chronicle, 22-24.
  43. “Many Present at Funeral of George ”
  44. “Obsequies for Cooke,” The San Diego Union, August 9, 1908, 12. A macabre subtitle to this article read: “Body of Dead Architect Buried in Cemetery Planned by Himself.”
  45. “Cooke’s Will Filed in Court,” The San Diego Union, September 4, 1908, 6. Cooke left an estate with an estimated value of $4,000. “Notice for Publication of Time Appointed for Probate of Will,” The San Diego Union, September 18, 1908, 13; “Notice to Creditors [in the Matter of the Estate of George Cooke, Deceased], The San Diego Union, February 6,
  46. The widow of George Cooke, was living at 3521 Fourth Avenue in “Cooke, Eliza J. (wid Geo),” San Diego City and County Directory 1908 (San Diego: San Diego Directory Co., 1909). In the Census of the United States, 1920, she was boarding with the James Yates family in San Diego’s Mission Hills neighborhood. Yates was a retired gardener and both he and his wife were born in England. Although a resident of the United States for more than 30 years, Eliza  Jane Cooke did not become a United States citizen. She died on November 22, 1930, at age 77 and was buried at Greenwood Cemetery. “All California Death Index,” (http://; accessed February 2, 2016).
  47. “Many Present at ”
  48. “The Death of George Cooke [editorial],” Evening Tribune, August 8, 1908,
  49. “Many Present at ”
  50. “Little Landers Urge Return to Soil,” The San Diego Union, August 21, 1908,
  51. Alice Lee and Ed Fletcher, prominent citizens and Cooke acquaintances, remembered his strong wish that these oak groves be preserved. “To Commemorate Work of Cooke,” The  San Diego Union, August 9, 1908, The old growth oak trees are now protected within San Diego’s El Monte County Park.
  52. “Floral Society to Start ‘Geo. Cooke’ Library,” Evening Tribune, September 12, 1908,
  53. “Report of Regular Meeting,” California Garden 1, 7 (January 1910), 14.
  54. “To Name Engineer in Place of Cooke,” Evening Tribune, August 22, 1908, 8; “Board Calls for Paving Proposals,” The San Diego Union, February 25, 1910,
  55. “Make City Park Paradise of South, Urges Scenic Artist,” The San Diego Union, July 5, 1910, 2, 9.
  56. “The George Cooke Memorial Grove,” California Garden 2:10 (April 1911)
  57. Downing, Vaux, Olmsted and Parsons are all profiled in Pioneers of American Landscape Design, Charles A. Birnbaum and Robin Karson.
  58. “Cooke Resigns From Park ”
  59. A park superintendent was not hired until John Morley was brought on board in November 1911 when preparations for the 1915 exposition were getting In 1909, the San Diego Park Commission hired Wilbur David Cook (1869–1938), a well-known Los Angeles landscape architect, for a one-month consultation on park matters. He is sometimes mistakenly named as Cooke’s successor. Robert L. Horn, “A History of Balboa Park, Part III,” California Garden 51, no. 2 (Summer 1960), 25-27.


Nancy Carol Carter, B.S., M.S., M.L.S., J.D., focuses her historical research and writing on Balboa Park and the horticultural and landscape history of Southern California. Retired from the University of San Diego School of Law, she is associate editor of California Garden and serves on the boards of the San Diego Floral Association and the California Garden and Landscape History Society.