The 1931 Historic Rose Garden in the Rose Garden Park

A Rose Fest! On June 26th, the West Side of Bethlehem will celebrate the 90th anniversary of the historic Bethlehem Rose Garden, situated in the Rose Garden Park. Thanks to a Lehigh County grant, the garden is currently being restored and reimagined for the 21st century.

Image of geometric design
Figure 1. Brown Design Corporation

A unique architectural landscape site dating from 1931, the garden was purposely planted in the shape of an oval with eight central rectangles enclosed in four quadrants. Straight lines of Sycamore tree were planted on the surrounding avenues, celebrating the George Washington bicentennial at the same time. Although a local project, the garden was in fact part of the larger City Beautiful movement that was sweeping early twentieth century urban America when parks like Philadelphia’s Longwood Gardens and the Ben Franklin Parkway were being developed. Faced with the economic uncertainty of the Great Depression, social chaos and disease, city dwellers were seeking safe spaces and fresh air. Hence the rise of suburbs, like Bethlehem’s West Side.

image of Bethlehem Steel Brochure
Figure 2. Private collection

The structural harmony of the geometric layout of the Rose Garden mirrored the quest for security and order that was motivating suburban West Side development and its new residents. Eugene Grace, President of Bethlehem Steel and esteemed West-Side transplant, wrote to US President Theodore Roosevelt that Bethlehem was ethically a Square-Deal town. Driven by marketing from Bethlehem Steel, the hometown industry, workers moved out of the dirty, over-crowded downtown “hole”, and shifted up to the healthy Mount Airy section of West Bethlehem. There, workers found American Four-Square homes and a public recreational space in the shape of a perfect oval. The local newspaper heralded the Rose Garden as a “mecca” where visitors –in the thousands—were “enthusiastic about the magnificence of the layout”.

Undeniably, the Rose Garden was the floral pillar of the new suburban development. True to City Beautiful philosophy, Bethlehem notables, like Councilman Ario Wear, believed that design could not be separated from social issues; it should encourage civic pride and engagement (1). The oval Rose Garden was intended to provide visual structure and order in troubled times and the garden plantings reinforced this geometric design; roses and perennials were color-coded: yellow in the center, then white, pink and red bands.

President Herbert Hoover rose
1931President Herbert Hoover rose

In the newly renovated garden that will open this coming June 26, visitors will find roses that harken back to the garden’s early days. There will be twelve 1930 President Herbert Hoover roses. Drifts of Caldwell Pinks are planned for the center quadrants. The Caldwell Pink, an old rose originally from the 1800’s, has been recultivated and classified as an earth-kind rose, i.e., heat tolerant, disease resistant, minimal up-keep, low water needs. We celebrate the 90th anniversary of the garden, all while reimagining it with more sustainable plantings (hybrids, new cultivars, native species) for the next 90 years.

Figure 4:

It would be remiss not to note that the rapid rise of suburban Bethlehem and the subsequent creation of the Rose Garden Park were made possible by the automobile. One newspaper described “A continual parade of vehicles and pedestrians that (sic) can be seen traversing the well-paved roads to the garden during the twilight hour of the weekday evenings” as well as on weekends. In fact, no fewer than nine car dealerships and two filling stations sprung up along the West Broad Street corridor.  These included Miller Motors (1921) at 3rd Avenue, selling Buicks and the Ideal Motor Company at 1104 Broad which sold Chandler cars made in Allentown. The Victor Motor Car (1919) building still stands at 1140 Broad.  As part of the June 26th, 2021 Rose Fest, America on Wheels will be displaying cars from the 30’s. 

  2. This article was first published in the 2021Spring-Summer edition of the City of Bethlehem newsletter.