Unique-to-Alaska church cloister on the list for the annual city garden tour


The annual Anchorage Garden Club tour of area gardens has a couple of interesting twists this year. For one thing, all of the featured gardens are east of Muldoon Road, either in East Anchorage or Eagle River.

The yards of participating homes include beautiful displays of flowers, rocks, trellises and water features — all things Alaskans will be familiar with from previous summers, only tended to and designed with more talent and patience than most of us have.

One stop on the tour, however, will not look familiar. It doesn't look like anything else in Anchorage. The courtyard or "cloister" at St. Patrick's Parish. You can't even see it from the parking lot. But behind what looks like a long translucent wall connecting the main buildings is a hidden refuge that calls to mind the plazas of the Mediterranean.

The design is dominated by right angles. A stark contrast with the untamed wilderness of Alaska, a natural randomness that many Alaska gardeners play off of, the cloister is as much an architectural and artistic showplace as a botanical one.

The ground is paved, not a lawn. The plants — and there are plenty of them — grow in containers. The most prominent floral feature is a dolgo crabapple tree at the north end of the rectangular space, positioned to recall the tree of life in the Garden of Eden.

As one might expect in a church garden, biblical themes abound. The St. Patrick's space is an on-the-ground version of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with a series of "courts" lining the length of the place, each dedicated to specific Old and New Testament subjects. Water features alternate with statues and translucent glass walls that will eventually bear the names of benefactors.

The water features are particularly elegant. In the Court of Moses two waterfalls face each other, reflecting the passage through the Red Sea in the story of Exodus. On the base of one waterfall is written the word "slavery," on the other "freedom." Another pool with three fountains represents resurrection.


The statues are modeled on well-known pieces from the old world, Bernini's "David" in the Court of Kings and Michelangelo's "Pieta" in the Court of Sorrow. The plants for each location speak to the theme of each court. Meadow plants accompany the shepherd David, for instance, and the Court of Sorrows is adorned with blood-red roses and snapdragons.

The cloister is open to the sky, but the sound of traffic on Muldoon Road is muted by the buildings and a columbarium holding the ashes of deceased parishioners on the west side. The glass wall on the east is clear at the top, allowing a view of the Chugach Mountains.

In the winter the water features will be covered with boxes and lit with colored lights tied to the themes of the individual courts.

The Rev. Scott Medlock, the pastor of the church, got the idea for the space after visiting churches in Austria, which typically included cemeteries with formal gardens next to the main building. (Mission Dolores in San Francisco is perhaps the best-known example on the West Coast.) Work began in earnest about 10 years ago, he said, and the space began to take on its current form four years ago. It's intended as an outdoor sacred space open to all, he said, "But nobody knows that it's here."

The structure was designed by Bruce Williams of Black + White Studio Architects of Anchorage and it was built by Neeser Construction. Landscape architect Sally Arant created the garden design.

On my first visit, it seemed to me that the place remained unfinished.

"A garden is never finished," quipped Jean Watson, who with Kimberlee Larrabee leads the cadre of volunteers who tend the grounds. But she also informed me that the plan is far from complete. Eventually some of the blank spots will be filled with stained glass, mosaics, bas-reliefs and more sculptures by Roberto Santo.

It will be up to the artist and design team to finish the project in a way that doesn't overwhelm the wonderful open feeling of the cloister.

THE 2016 ANCHORAGE GARDEN CLUB CITY GARDEN TOUR will take place noon-5 p.m. Sunday, July 31. The tour is free, but please respect your hosts, the gardens and the neighborhoods. Garden tour rules include: Do not block neighbors' driveways or walk through any yards. Do not pick flowers. No strollers, high heels or dogs. Children should be supervised by parents at all times.

East Anchorage

8661 Muir Court, Patricia and Michael Kasterin

Description: This garden is larger than it appears from the street. It is an English cottage-style garden made for people and dogs to co-exist.

8631 Muir Court, Fran and Robert Flint

Description: A whimsical garden that uses recycled items in the landscape. There are rock walkways, a natural wood arbor near the street, sitting areas and a wide variety of plants that do well in a woodland setting.

Directions: These two sites are on the same cul-de-sac. Take Tudor or Muldoon roads to Pioneer Drive, at the big curve where the two roads meet. Follow Pioneer in a long curve to Muir, just past Rendezvous Circle.

2111 Muldoon Road, St. Patrick's Church Inner Courtyard

Description: A serene and meditative garden with several different styles of water gardens, marble hardscape, statuary and various niches for reflection as well as a variety of plants.


Directions: Take Muldoon to East 20th Avenue. Turn toward the mountains. The main entrance to St. Patrick's is on the right, a divided road with a grass strip and line of ornamental trees in the median. Enter the cloister through the gaps in the wall on the west side of the parking lot, looking away from the mountains. Note that church will be letting out at around 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. It should be less crowded if you stop by after 1 p.m.

Eagle River

17342 Baronoff Avenue, Alison and David Morse

Description: A pond is next to a sitting area with a unique way to disguise utility boxes. Espaliered cotoneasters are in many places along with a variety of containers. Recycled items are used in interesting ways and Alison uses old raspberry canes to make trellis arches. Several items are ideas she got from previous garden tours.

Directions: Take Hiland exit (first Eagle River exit) off the Glenn Highway, turn left onto Eagle River Road at the Wal-Mart, going downhill, turn right onto Baffin Street, go straight to the intersection with Baronoff, turn left. House is on the left.

10011 Baffin Street, Teresa and Paul Martin

Description: A large selection of flowers scattered throughout a woodland setting will greet you in this garden. Several sitting areas allow you to relax. Teresa has been gardening for over 31 years. She was an original worker and then grower for P & M Nursery when they first opened. Part of the garden was designed with small dogs in mind. There are many hostas and containers, as well as a greenhouse full of tomatoes.

Directions: Take Hiland exit (first Eagle River exit) off the Glenn Highway, turn left onto Eagle River Road at the Wal-Mart, going downhill, turn right onto Baffin Street, just past Chain of Rocks Street. House is the first one on the right.


11016 Brendl Way, Sheila and Benny Neves

Description: Only the front of this garden is open for view. This is a terraced landscape with various evergreen trees and shrubs that give a sculpted look. The shapes and colors of the plants give contrast and interest to the garden. Vegetable beds sit on the small grass lawn at the bottom of the terraces. (Please stay off of the terraces.)

Directions: Take Hiland exit (first Eagle River exit) off the Glenn Highway, turn left onto Eagle River Road at the Wal-Mart, going downhill, turn right onto Eagle River Loop Road. Turn right on Sun Beau Drive or Talarik Drive (Sun Beau will turn into War Admiral Road.) Turn left onto Kaskanak Drive and proceed uphill. House is the only one on Brendl, a short street on the left. The sign is easier to see coming downhill. If you get to the hairpin turn with the 10 mph speed limit, you've gone too far.

9837 Wren Lane, Elena and David Mabeus

Description: This garden has a collection of thyme plants in the front and a hillside with large rounded boulders. There is a waterfall to a pond located by a large fire pit for family gatherings.

Directions: Take Hiland exit (first Eagle River exit) off the Glenn Highway, turn right onto Eagle River Road at the Wal-Mart, going uphill, turn right onto Wren Lane, which is marked by a large boulder painted yellow and is also the road to Ravenwood Elementary School. House is on the left, across the street from a home with a large wrought-iron-and-concrete pillar fence.

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.