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July 2002

Grass Roots

The English garden–How did that get there?

No other city in the world is blessed with a green oasis comparable to the one found in the middle of Munich. Endemic flora and fauna flourish there in abundance. Millions of visitors flock to this free leisure zone throughout the year. This and more is Munich’s English Garden.
Despite the park’s undiminished popularity over the centuries, it was, at first, doubtful that the project would ever come to fruition. From 1387, the area that is now the English Garden was part of the official hunting grounds of the royal Wittelsbach family—an impenetrable wilderness frequently flooded by the Isar River. Surprisingly, it was an American who, in the 18th century, initiated the idea of a public garden for Munich. Benjamin Thompson (1753–1814) from Massachusetts, who was later made Count Rumford in recognition of his numerous achievements, served as war minister and worked as a social reformer during the reign of the Bavarian Elector Karl Theodor (1724–1799). The philanthropist Thompson ended a famine by introducing the potato to Bavaria. He was also the founder of a charity and an inventor of devices for making everyday life easier and more efficient. Among other things, Thompson created furnaces and stoves that used only a small amount of wood, thereby saving considerable energy. It was this combination of his interest in natural sciences and his dedication to society’s general well-being to which Munich owes this beautiful park.
Karl Theodor never intended the Wittelsbach land to be used as a public park. In 1789 he commissioned Thompson, his war minister, to establish a military garden on the site of the former hunting grounds, where the soldiers could grow their own food in peacetime, thereby saving costs for their provisions. The project was never completed, for two reasons: the first was a heat wave in the summer of 1789, which so exhausted and discouraged the soldiers that not even a generous supply of beer could persuade them to finish it. The other major factor was nothing less than the French Revolution, which began on July 14. Thompson immediately recognized how potentially explosive the political situation was and talked the Elector into converting the military garden into a public park, open to all citizens. Karl Theodor understood the necessity of distracting the public, of keeping them calm and finding work for idle hands. On August 7, 1789, work began on this major task under the combined leadership of Thompson and the celebrated landscape architect Friedrich Ludwig Sckell. It was Sckell who suggested creating an “English garden,” the German term for a landscape garden—a bold proposal, as it was the first time that a city park had been planned on such a grand scale. At the time landscape gardens were very much en vogue and had begun replacing the formal French gardens of the Baroque period.
A vast work force brought this mammoth project into being: volunteer groups worked day and night on the undertaking. Farmers of the area lent their horses and oxen and helped out themselves, too. Gardening experts, technicians, engineers, craftsmen and their apprentices also contributed. Nurseries from Schleissheim, Schwetzingen and Biburg sent thousands of trees and bushes. In May 1790, the English Garden was almost finished—even by today’s standards an incredibly short amount of time to give shape to a huge, completely new park. Apart from the natural landscape that had been planted, decorative bridges and amusements for the people were also built. Any self-respecting landscape garden in those days had to include artificial ruins, miniature temples and grottoes. Those of the English Garden in Munich either no longer exist today or have been replaced by other objects. Where an Apollo Temple once stood, one can now sit on a round bench made of Pompeii marble. On the bench you will find the following inscription, reminding the reader of the original state of the land: “Hier wo ihr wallet, war sonst nur Wald und Sumpf” (Here, where you while away the time, was once wood and swamp).
One of the amusements still existing today is the five-story Chinese Tower. As Chinese objects were very much in fashion among the European royalty in the late 18th century, this tower was a must. It is one of the park’s best-known landmarks. The edifice we see is, of course, only a replica: the original tower was destroyed during World War II. It is unlikely that Thompson, who had the idea for the pagoda, ever imagined that 200 years later there would be a beer garden around this tower serving over ten thousand people on a single warm day and more than one million liters of Löwenbräu beer during the summer season.
The English Garden, however, wasn’t intended only for leisure and amusement. The park was also designed to serve educational and scientific purposes. Thus a tree nursery, an agricultural school and a school of veterinary medicine—which is now the university’s veterinary faculty—were incorporated into the park. Some areas of the garden were also left to shepherds, a tradition that has continued up to the present. Those who stroll through more remote corners of the park may find themselves confronted by a herd of sheep.
Of course, back in 1790 this extraordinary project, created in front of the citizens’ own eyes, was the talk of the town. Many people were even caught sneaking into the park for a preview before it was officially opened to the public in 1792.
Since its opening, the garden has been subjected to numerous positive and negative changes. In 1798 Reinhard von Werneck, Count Rumford’s successor, laid out the Kleinhesseloher See, a lake with three islands, where, today, rowboats can be rented. In 1837/38 Munich architect Leo von Klenze created another of the garden’s famous sights. On a specially designed man-made hill Klenze erected the Monopteros, a circular temple in the Neoclassical style. A walk up the steep path to the Monopteros, especially at sunset, is rewarded by a breathtaking view of the Munich skyline.
The obsession with promoting mobility and an increase in motorized traffic, which characterized the 20th century, resulted in the Court Garden (Hofgarten) being separated from the park by the newly built Prinzregentenstrasse. In 1934, the English Garden was violated even further by the construction of a street running from the Chinese Tower to the Königinstrasse. This street was open to traffic until the 1950s. Fortunately, the only motorized vehicles that are allowed to use this street today are public buses (54/154) and police patrol cars. Since the massive drug problems of the 1980s and 1990s, the police have become a common sight in the park. Sometimes they stir up dust by driving their cars on the paths. At other times they come on bicycles and horses. The park also maintains a 12-km equestrian path, which makes civilian horseback riders a part of the garden’s public life.
During the 1960s the idyll of the English Garden was encroached upon once again when the Mittlerer Ring street was extended right through the garden. Even today there is a startling contrast between the peaceful northern and southern parts. A small bridge over the Autobahn-like street, which slices through the park, connects the two.
The northern and southern halves differ from each other in certain respects. In the north a wilderness of trees, bushes and animals flourish freely. Most meadows are not even mowed until late summer. The area remains uncrowded; even on hot weekends, when over two hundred thousand people visit the English Garden, one hardly comes into contact with large groups here. Only the very end of the northern section is more crowded. There the Aumeister, one of the three beer gardens in the park, offers a pleasant Bavarian atmosphere in contrast to the raucous merriment found at the Chinese Tower or the Seehaus area (on the shore of the Kleinhesseloher See), which is crawling with local yuppies.
On hot days it is hard to find a grassy spot in the southern section of the English Garden—easily accessible via the Leopoldstrasse or the Prinzregentenstrasse—on which to relax. The grass beneath the Monopteros and the Werneckwiese (Werneck Meadow) by the Kleinhesseloher See is filled with members of Munich’s multifaceted urban life. Rhythm and music groups frequently hold sessions here; Tai Chi and meditation groups work tranquilly and unperturbed by their music-making neighbors. Some people play soccer, baseball and badminton, while others sleep, read, philosophize or sunbathe. Sun- worshippers can bare all, much to the amazement of many first-time visitors to Munich. The Freikörperkultur (FKK, nude culture) is as much a part of the English Garden as the Chinese Tower and is nothing to be offended by.
Even surfers have found a mini-paradise at the Eisbach, right next to the Haus der Kunst. As the picture on the cover of MUNICH FOUND’s May issue shows, the Eisbach produces a constant wave at one point in its course, where surfers can train for their next trip to Hawaii. A little further down many others refresh their bodies in the calm part of the stream, despite the water’s questionable quality. Opposite the Haus der Kunst you will find a Japanese teahouse. It was specially built for the Olympic Games in 1972 by Mitsuo Nomura. Tea ceremonies led by a Japanese tea master are held here every second and fourth weekend of the month.
The English Garden is one of the world’s largest city parks, easily upstaging London’s Hyde Park and Central Park in New York. As the first European public garden it is of high social-historic significance as well as being an exceptional example of classical landscape architecture. As important to flora and fauna as it is to Munich residents, it should not only be enjoyed, but also protected.

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