Note: FoGP’s view on heritage gardens, also known as folk gardens: Today we don’t advocate that individuals pick up shovels to create a new garden in Griffith Park; we’d rather folks join our planting opportunities or work with RAP on specific projects. We consider these gardens as grandfathered: Dante’s, Amir’s and Captain’s Roost. Incidentally, volunteer caretakers are needed at both Dante’s View and Amir’s Garden; if you are interested, please contact RAP.
A little more background on folk gardens. Here is the text we wrote for the Griffith Park Master Plan in 2007 (see pp. 122-123). Unfortunately, this Master Plan was turned into a Vision Plan before being adopted by Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department.
Dante’s Garden, later named “Dante’s View” by the City of Los Angeles originated in Griffith Park in 1964 when 60-year-old Dante Orgolini, of Brazillian and Italian descent, was struggling to find some purpose in his life after a traumatic divorce.
Dante’s life had been exciting and full. He was a talented artist/muralist (his work may be found in the Santa Barbra courthouse), a foreign correspondent for a Brazilian publication, a translator for Hollywood studios (speaking Portuguese, Spanish and Italian), movie technical advisor, insurance salesman, actor, and hotel manager. Now for the first time in his life he felt lost and lonely.
Dante loved the outdoors and enjoyed puttering around the little garden by his rented apartment on Edgemont Avenue. Since Griffith Park was close by, he found himself hiking on a trail up to Mt. Hollywood from the Observatory parking lot. Along the way he spotted a tree-lined shady area off the trail with a few benches and water fountain, a wonderful place to pause and refresh oneself. As an added bonus, there was a spectacular view of sprawling Los Angeles below, the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island in the distance.
Dante’s immediate thought was how wonderful it would be to create a little garden right at that spot! With his artist’s eye he pictured plants and shrubs around the benches, a hiker’s destination where visitors could not only rest, but stay to enjoy the magnificent panorama below. With a little effort on his part he could enhance the beauty of the slope, especially since water lines were there.
To make his dream a reality, however, Dante realized he had to get permission since the Park was supposed to be kept in its natural state, with planned recreational areas for various sports and activities. He approached some nearby rangers patrolling in their park vehicles with his modest plan to cultivate some flowers and plans in the area. When the rangers were assured his motives were simply beautification on a small scale, they cooperated by repairing the water lines to give him better irrigation access.
With rangers approval, Dante started planting with small cuttings, hiking up to the trail most mornings with his backpack full of gardening supplies. Then Park visitors, seeing him hard at work, asked him to plant their own shrubs and saplings as gifts in memory of a departed relative or loved one, which he was happy to do. As time went on, he added a path and a few wooden steps for easier access around the hillside. With his gregarious nature he welcomed all to come and stay awhile, and if anyone offered to help hoe or weed an area, they were never refused.
Dante could often be spotted leaning against his hoe handle joking with a group of Boy Scouts, Sierra Club hikers, an Italian film director from Milan, or conversing in Portuguese with a visiting family from South America.
Art Seidenbaum, feature writer for the Los Angeles Times who often enjoyed his hikes through the Park, was told about a man who started a garden in a shady spot off the trail to Mt. Hollywood; he introduced himself to Dante on his next hike to the area. Charmed and impressed by this amiable gardener’s story, Art wrote several articles about him for the LA Times, resulting in Dante becoming a Los Angeles area celebrity overnight.
The City recognized the aesthetic value of the garden and its popularity with the public and erected a large wooden sign over the entrance steps declaring “Dante’s View” with a wooden horse trough and hitching rail for horsemen riding to tie-up and water their mounts, and visit the shady rest stop.
Many hands make light work
Dante was blessed with gardening help over the years to ease his workload, but no worker was as strong and capable as a quiet unassuming newcomer named Charlie Turner. This English bred well-mannered wiry man hiked into his life during one of his jaunts exploring Griffith’s trails. One day while passing the garden, Charlie saw a man bent over weeding a patch of flowers in the hot sun. As they exchanged greetings Dante told him about his dream garden and little anecdotes about acquiring each sapling. With a history of extensive farm work in Canada, Charlie would see that this genial hard-working man needed ongoing garden help and offered his assistance. Thus a friendship was born.
Both arrived at the Observatory in the early morning and hiked up the trail together getting to know one another. Retired from his job at Title Insurance Company in the mid 70’s, Charlie was also looking for a project worthy of his energy and talent and decided working in the garden with Dante provided the answer. His shy, quiet manner complemented Dante’s expansive animated personality and the two became fast friends working side by side at opposite ends of the one-acre garden.
Sierra Club and other hikers were often greeted with Dante’s “Come into my garden and refresh yourselves” and he never missed an opportunity to regale visitors with anecdotes of his early days with MGM Studios when he wrote about the private lives of all of the top Hollywood stars, and lunched with everyone from Clark Gable to Lana Turner. Writing in English for publications here, he then translated to Portuguese for publications in South America where readers were starved for movie star news.
Never in his wildest dreams would Dante have imagined recognition for his beautification efforts from the White House, but one morning he was stunned to receive an official letter from Lady Bird Johnson, wife of then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson lauding his efforts to beautify a part of Los Angeles during her National Campaign for Urban Beautification on Conservation. This validation of his work left him totally surprised, extremely grateful and honored.
Dante had two daily rituals that he rarely deviated from performing. Being fiercely patriotic he never failed to fly his large American flag from his pole upon first entering the garden to let visitors know he was “in residence”. Secondly, each lady young or old entering was treated to a wonderful welcome. With his old world courtly manner he gently and reverently kissed their hands!
Sunday morning parties at the “View” were not to be missed. After the garden paths were swept of any twigs or leaves remaining from the night before, Charlie and Dante were ready for some relaxation and celebrating. Picnic tables were moved closer together in anticipation of the music, dancing and stimulating conversation to come. Visitors brought ethnic foods of every description, homemade casseroles, desserts and various drinks overflowing the table tops, coming from all over Los Angeles and beyond. Musicians carried their instruments up to the garden, sometimes a guitar, saxophone, trumpet, flute and even a big bass fiddle!
Quite often a ranger’s vehicle would be waiting at the Observatory lot to drive musicians up to the festivities along with a senior citizen or two unable to hike. Riders on their horses were lured by tempting food smells permeating the area and often joined the fun. The spontaneous sound of music beckoned party goers to dance on the dirt path while conversations continued well into the afternoon hours. You might find yourself seated next to a bank president, professor, restaurant worker, actor, or famous choreographer, all involved in discussing the hot topic of the day with Dante reigning over all.
As his 72nd birthday approached there was much discussion as to a unique and meaningful gift for him. There emerged one idea everyone thought was a winner – an all-expense trip to Italy. Even though his ancestry was Italian, he had never been there. As an artist himself, he longed to see the magnificent works of art in Rome and Florence where his parents were born. Friends worked to raise funds without his knowledge for this fabulous trip. He was stunned at his birthday party to be presented with a plane ticket and expense money to both cities and surrounding areas where he could view famous paintings, murals, statuary, gardens and museums to his heart’s content. He couldn’t believe the love and generosity shown him by his friends. That trip proved to be one of the most memorable of his life, and he often talked of his Italian adventure for months after.
One fateful day a year later, Dante was hiking down the trail with friends and suffered a minor stroke. Although he recovered quickly with no apparent after effects, his doctor found evidence of a previous heart attack so he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for further tests. Then, after being wheeled back to his room following an angiogram, he suddenly and painlessly passed away. That sad day happened to be the one he always took pride in. It was Flag Day, June 14th, 1978.
Dante’s devastated family and friends couldn’t believe that this “Renaissance” man who had brought so much beauty and joy to others was gone.
Services were held at Wilshire United Methodist Church and over 300 mourners attended, many still in shock. At the close of the service the officiating minister, Dr. Randall Phillips asked each man to turn in his pew and kiss the hand of the nearest woman in silent homage to Dante.
Dante’s oldest son Arnold, accompanied by his mother and children, safely made their way up from the Observatory carrying a beautiful sapling to be planted in his father’s memory. A perfect spot to catch the sun was found near the edge of the slope not far from the garden’s entry.
Of course Dante’s “View” friends wanted to erect a little memorial to honor his memory, something Dante would approve of. Large rocks in the Park were gathered to make a base for a plaque. Charlie cemented them together and with donations, a bronze plaque was purchased, engraved, anchored to the base, and placed in the ground with flowers and shrubs all around: a small but fitting tribute to one man’s tenacity and vision.
There was no question in Charlie’s mind that he would take over the responsibilities of the “View.” Dante often said that if anything happened to him, he would hope and pray Charlie would continue maintaining the garden. Of course Charlie felt it was the least he could do for his best buddy.
A psychiatrist friend was often heard saying about Dante “I couldn’t make any money counseling you” and a violinist friend who often brought him lunch mused, “He’s a universe man” while a young admirer declared “When I grow up I wanna be like him”
Dante’s mantra was always: “I sleep well at night. The greatest gift of my life? When you give something to people and it bounces back to you”.
~Clare Darden is director of the Griffith J Griffith Charitable Trust
and a member of FoGP’s Advisory Board