The sturdy roots from which the Tucson Botanical Gardens sprouted started with a family and a dream. The dream had at its core a beautiful old house and gardens, today called the Historical Gardens. Originally, the house was the longtime home of Rutger and Bernice Porter who raised a family, ran a nursery, and participated fully in the life of Tucson.
The story of their life together began in different parts of the country. Bernice Walkley was born in New Haven, Connecticut. Her father, Raymond, worked for a lumber company and her mother, Sarah, was an art teacher and supervisor. Bernice was an only child, well schooled, who ultimately graduated from Vassar in 1923.
After Bernice’s mother died, she cared for her arthritic father for several years until his condition prompted their move to Tucson in 1930. He must have found it salubrious, for he soon built a house in the El Encanto neighborhood. Tucson at that time was an up and coming town of about 35,000 people.
Rutger Bleeker Porter, born in Hollywood, California, was the son of Angus Porter, an Episcopal rector, and the former Sophia Jewett. Angus Porter died when Rutger was a teenager. Soon after, he moved to New York City to live with his mother’s brother, and studied agriculture at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
After suffering several bouts of pneumonia in New York, Rutger decided to move to Tucson in 1927. He lived with an acquaintance of his uncle’s and did landscape work for Alfred and Anna Erickson. (The Ericksons founded the Desert Sanatorium, later Tucson Medical Center.) She nicknamed Rutger “the Kactus Kid,” because he was keenly interested in the local plants. He was commissioned to do the original landscape work for the Desert Sanatorium, an institution dedicated to treat people with tuberculosis.
News of Rutger Porter’s landscape services made its way around the small town. Raymond Walkley hired Rutger to do some landscaping at his El Encanto home; and so he met Bernice. They married on April 22, 1931.
The young couple started Desert Gardens Nursery on the property Rutger had purchased on the corner of Grant and Maple Boulevard (now Alvernon Way). The grounds came to be called “Porterville” as it accommodated the arrival of Rutger’s brother, Angus from New Hampshire, as well as the births of the Porters’ three daughters, Grace, Sophie, and Cornelia. Rutger’s mother, Sophia, was a frequent winter visitor along with many friends and family who visited or stayed.
The property also had a corral and two horses (where the TBG Sensory Garden now stands). In an interview several years ago, daughter Cornelia “Nina” recalled, “It was wonderful. We would cross Grant—of course there was little traffic—and then ride straight up to the foothills.”
In 1947 Edna Johnson, both housekeeper and old friend of Rutger’s parents, came to live on the property until her death in 1974. She participated fully in the development of the garden, planting many fruit trees in the 1950s. Short-lived stone-fruits have not survived, but citrus and pomegranates have.
The Porters’ garden developed from many planting experiments with a mixture of natives and Mediterranean plants. The overall goal was to shade the living spaces, and create color and interest for each season. Over the years, the original garden began to reflect the sturdier choices for the Tucson climate. A wonderful landscape of winding walks, low adobe walls, fountains, and lovely greenery evolved around the home.
The Porters stayed active in the community raising their children, and joined clubs and boards, including Junior League of Tucson, Tucson Medical Center, and Tucson Symphony Orchestra. As Desert Gardens Nursery grew, it moved to 3105 East Speedway in 1936, where it was operated until Rutger retired in 1958.
Rutger Porter died of melanoma in 1964, at the age of 59. The newspaper described him as a “prominent clubman, patron of the arts, social figure, and one time nursery operator.” A few years later, Bernice opened her home to various garden clubs and environmentally related groups. In 1974, the grounds became the permanent headquarters of the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Bernice continued to live in an apartment created out of the east side of the house until she died in 1983 at the age of 81.
The house has undergone extensive remodeling to allow it to be more suitable for the library and the administrative offices of the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Many rooms, including Porter Hall, retain the original look and charm of the warm home nurtured by the Porter family. Their dream lives on with the great gift they gave us all—TBG.Email this page to a friend