Manito Park – Generations of Work

By – Karlin Andersen


In 1904, Manito Park was a small zoo with a few flower beds, but over 100 years later the park has grown to a 90-acre showcase in the South Hills of Spokane, Washington. Much of this progress can be attributed to the efforts of the park’s second superintendent John Duncan who built or proposed four of the five main gardens over 100,000 visitors see each year.


The stone bridge in the park spans the road over the loop drive.

The stone bridge in the park spans the road over the loop drive.

Superintendent from 1910-1942, Duncan began his work by redesigning the Sunken Garden. Originally dug by the first park superintendent, it was designed to mirror classic European Renaissance gardens. Stone staircases lead down into the garden with symmetrical annual flower beds lining walkways. A large stone fountain sits elevated with surrounding benches and flower beds in the middle of the garden. Renamed in 1941 to honor Duncan, the garden’s final addition, a gazebo, was added to celebrate Manito Garden’s centennial.


Duncan brought 128 lilac plants from New York in 1912 to create the Lilac Garden. Today a variety of light blue, blush pink and purple buds cascade down in bunches. Visitors are pressed closer together in the rows as the lilac bushes spread their branches. Twenty-three species including a double pink lilac create “one of the most important lilac gardens in the west,” according to the Spokane City Parks Department.



Tulips in the Ferris Perennial Garden.

Tulips in the Ferris Perennial Garden.

Small trees, large flower beds, grass plants and benches are spread around the Joel E. Ferris Perennial Garden in an informal and welcoming manner. Duncan designed this garden in 1940 to provide contrast to the Duncan Garden’s formal appearance. While Duncan Garden features neatly organized symmetrical beds, this garden invites visitors to meander around its less structured beds filled with a mix of flowers, under overhanging trees and through large grass areas.


West of the Ferris Perennial Garden, thorny green stems with budding pink and red roses grow around the columns of a white pergola in Rose Hill. The pergola, now the backdrop for many photos, honors a photographer and benefactor to Spokane Parks, Erna Bert Nelson, according to the Spokane City Parks Department. Duncan developed the rose garden as joint project with the Spokane Rose Society. A smaller pergola and gazebo were later added at the opposite end of the garden. In between the structures, rows of white, red, pink and yellow roses fill a grassy area. Hybrid tea, grandiflora, floribunda and miniature roses are some of the 150 varieties growing in the garden, according to the Manito Park walking brochure.


“I really like the rose garden,” Nikki Dehle, a Spokane resident, said. “It’s pretty and unique, there’s not much like it outside that area.”


The newest addition to the five major parks symbolizes Spokane’s relationship with its sister city Nishinomiya, Japan. Built in 1974 and named to honor the founder of the Spokane Nishinomiya Sister City relationship, the Nishinomiya-Tsutakawa Japanese Garden offer an unusual mix of traditional Japanese and Washington plants.


“I believe that the re-naming is an excellent way to honor Mr. Tsutakawa and to pass on a record of his great legacy to future generations,” the mayor of Nishinomiya said upon the announcement of the garden’s name, according to the City Parks Department. “The garden is truly a symbol of our friendly relationship.”


Visitors enter the garden under an archway and are greeted by a large pond fed by a waterfall at the back of the garden. Amidst the pine trees sprout a variety of cherry trees, small bushes and miniature trees covering the grounds. A bridge spans the pond connecting the path to a wood pagoda. The garden is open April 1 through November 1 and unknown to many photography is not permitted.


The park’s large size creates multiple street entrances. Each of the five main gardens can be reached by driving through the park or parking at one of the five parking lots and walking. Manito Park also includes a cafe open during the summer, a playground, a picnic shelter, a conservatory and a mirror pond.


Manito GraphicMany of these elements have been modernized from their original functions. Built as a zoo, the park was renamed in 1903 with its new name meaning “a supernatural force that pervades nature,” according to The Friends of Manito.


During original construction, power poles were used as framework for the playground swingset since the city did not have money for equipment. A dance hall on the banks of the mirror pond showed motion pictures while two concession stands sold popcorn, ice cream and tobacco. By 1905 a zoo was set up in the park with 165 animals on display at its peak.


Until the Great Depression, the zoo was the park’s main attraction. After the zoo closed improvements to the greenhouses and flower gardens were made. With Duncan’s appointment in 1910, Manito began to resemble the park visitors see today. Duncan’s 32 years of hard work combined with the efforts of the superintendents after him have added to the park creating the variation of gardens and diverse plant life currently seen in Manito Park.


A map of the gardens and other attractions can be found here.


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