There are places in every city known almost exclusively by a small subset of locals. Although they appear on maps and are periodically featured in various publications, their presence is quickly forgotten. They remain somehow hidden from outside view and immediate recollection – a layer deeper. Having the luck to be tipped-off to one of these secluded locales is a unique experience and passing its existence on to others becomes a self-imposed obligation.
Off Highway 43, between downtown Portland, Oregon and Lake Oswego, is the affluent and unincorporated suburb of Dunthorpe. Its densely treelined streets meander past mansion after mansion – home to basketball players, actors, and government officials. Down one of the area’s many dead-end roads lies the former residence of Peter Kerr, a Scottish immigrant who arrived in Portland in 1888.
Mr. Kerr, with the help of a business partner, and his brother, was able to purchase 13-acres on a bluff high atop the Willamette River. The three men enjoyed living on the grounds for years until marriages lured two away. Mr. Kerr remained, eventually married as well, and moved his wife onto the property.
After the birth of their two daughters a decision was made to upgrade the property. Construction would begin on a much larger house meant to resemble a Scottish manor, with an enviable view of Mt. Hood framed between tall trees. Plans for an extensive garden were made to compliment the project and Olmstead and Son, a firm involved in the design of Central Park in New York City, was hired to complete the majority of the work. Together, a 6-acre English-style garden was installed, complete with a looping trail network through open lawns, dense shrubbery, and spectacular cliffside river views.
In 1957, at the age of 95, Peter Kerr passed away. His daughters donated the property to the Episcopal Bishop of Oregon on condition that the grounds be maintained and kept open to public visitors. The garden was named, “Elk Rock Gardens of the Bishop’s Close,” derived from Elk Rock island, visible from the bluff trail, and “Close,” a British term to describe an enclosed sacred space.
Unfortunately the official website’s warning that “finding the garden may be a challenge” turns out to be a true statement. The property is located at 11800 SW Military Lane, roughly a mile from the website’s marker on SW Military Road. The garden is open daily from 8am-5pm, and though parking is limited, the secrecy of the location seems to keep visitation levels low.
Some strict rules are in place in what appears to be an effort to preserve the grounds while discouraging visitors from loitering. Although leashed pets are welcome, picnics are not allowed. Children must be supervised. No sunbathing, no games, and no professional photography are allowed. Most surprising, the grounds are not available for any special events or weddings.
There’s an undeniable sense of serenity inherent in a stroll along these old gravel trails. A unique glimpse into the kind of life wealth, from another time, was able to provide its former owners. A beautiful home set among meticulous landscaping varying from carefully manicured hedgerows to open space, moss covered rock gardens, and a variety of magnolias. Secluded benches offer a place for quiet reflection as wind stirs the leaves of trees reaching perilously out over the bluff. On a typical afternoon, with fishing boats bobbing patiently on the river, the tranquility is interrupted only by an occasional rumble as the Willamette Shore Trolley, connecting Lake Oswego to Portland, races by far below.