Power, Richard L., horticulturist and landscape gardener; b. 6 April 1841 in Lismore (Republic of Ireland), son of John Power, a gardener, and Catherine Morrissey; m. first 28 May 1866 Ann Phelan (d. 9 Oct. 1888) in Halifax, and they had nine children; m. there secondly 21 June 1890 Mary Ryan (d. 15 Aug. 1905), and they had three children; m. thirdly 5 June 1906 Elizabeth A. Larkin, née Sutton (d. 23 Oct. 1928) in Kentville, N.S., and they had two children; d. 20 July 1934 in Halifax and was buried there in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Sometime around 1856 Richard Power (usually known as Dick) began an apprenticeship in the gardens at Lismore Castle, which was then undergoing an extravagant restoration by Sir Joseph Paxton for William George Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. Power worked under the head gardener, Patrick Keane, and would eventually manage the plant and forcing departments. With the decline of Lismore after the duke’s death, Power decided to look for better opportunities. In his resolve to leave Ireland he was supported by William Chearnley, retired army officer and long-time resident of Halifax, whose family seat, Salterbridge, was adjacent to Lismore.
Power arrived in Halifax in April 1864, carrying a letter of reference from Keane, who extolled the young gardener’s “obliging manners & strict attention to … business,” and noted that he had been “very successful & attentive to all under his management.” Power would later recall that “times were good on account of the American War [and] work was plentiful.” He was immediately put in charge at Thomas Leahy’s Thornfield Nursery, an enterprising operation that offered the city’s “largest and most valuable stock of hot house and other plants.” In 1866 he moved to New York City to serve as a foreman with Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park project, then in its final stages; by 1868 he was back in Nova Scotia, employed at Herbert Harris’s Halifax Nursery.
Although employment in retail floriculture was scarcely commensurate with Power’s training, experience, or ambition, no better opportunity would materialize until the death of Nicholas Shea, keeper of the Halifax Common, on 16 May 1872. Power was hired within the week, but his appointment did not begin well. Being “of a superstitious nature” – and perhaps overwhelmed by his sudden good fortune – he experienced a breakdown, claiming, according to an article in the Acadian Recorder, that he was being haunted by “the shade of Shea, armed with a stick, and accompanied by a dog, walking around the grounds in the dead of night.” In October he was admitted to the Nova Scotia Hospital for the Insane in Dartmouth; his wife, in the throes of post-partum depression, would join him two days later. Neither remained institutionalized for long, however, and Power would never again falter in his resolve or equanimity.
In 1867, thanks to the initiative of Alderman John McCulloch and the endorsement of Chief Justice Sir William Young*, a two-acre public garden had been established on an edge of Halifax’s South Common, just beneath Citadel Hill. The enterprise was an immediate success with citizens eager to have the sort of public park or square that, in the Victorian era, defined a community as both cosmopolitan and progressive. Yet the new public space was slow to thrive, managed as it was by a city-council committee responsible for the entire common, one which in 1868 decreed that the infant garden be sown over with hay.
In 1873, under Power’s direction, a resurrected city garden would begin to take tenuous shape, starting with drainage, clearing, and proper soil preparation; the following year formal pathways and flower-beds were laid out according to a landscape plan conceived by Power and drawn up by city engineer Edward Henry Keating. City council granted $2,000 for this project, and the Public Gardens were opened to great acclaim in August. The insolvent Nova Scotia Horticultural Society had decided to abandon its long-standing efforts to sustain its adjacent botanical garden, which was dependent on admission fees, and by mid 1874 had persuaded city council to purchase the property for $15,000. The two gardens were then consolidated under a board of commissioners, setting in train an uncomfortable period of adjustment as disgruntled society members, anxious councillors, and enthusiastic citizens monitored how 16 acres of prime municipal land, already a source of civic pride, were being managed.
The unrest climaxed in June 1875 with a month-long inquiry, established by city council and reported on at length in the local press, into the general administration of the new venture. Also investigated were accusations “of a very loose style of management, [which] point[s] very strongly to the conclusion that Mr. Richard Power is a very unfit man for the position of Superintendent.” Called to testify, Power maintained his innocence; the charges were dismissed and an apology was published, thus ending the Lilliputian struggle. By 1880 Halifax newspapers were proclaiming that under his “indefatigable and industrious” direction, the gardens were “justly considered one of the few things upon which the money of the tax-payers is satisfactorily expended” and that “strangers who have visited … pronounce them to be the most tastefully laid out of any on this continent.”
The 1880s and 1890s were the heyday of the gardens. Power had created an outstanding indigenous example of the English landscape garden. The panorama of trees, flowers, shrubs, beautifully manicured lawns, and pathways was highlighted by groupings of rare tropical plants, the province’s best collection of native ferns, and distinctive raised carpet-beds featuring flowers arranged in intricate designs. The English tradition emphasized the importance of pleasure grounds for relaxation and wellness, especially for the working class, and Power worked diligently with the board to see that the garden fulfilled this aim. Each year, thousands of citizens enjoyed twice-weekly regimental band concerts, a children’s playground, a public skating rink and dance hall, and, on special occasions, fireworks, electrical illuminations, and balloon ascensions. Power understood the role of the gardens in fostering civic pride. Public celebrations were mounted in honour of distinguished visitors such as the Marquess of Lorne [Campbell*] in 1880, Lord Minto [Elliot*] and Lady Minto [Grey] in 1894, and Lord Aberdeen [Hamilton-Gordon] and Lady Aberdeen [Marjoribanks] in 1895, and to mark national occasions such as the quelling of the North-West rebellion in 1885 [see Louis Riel*]. Monuments were also built to commemorate significant imperial events: the bandstand (designed by Henry Frederick Busch*) in honour of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, the Diamond Jubilee Fountain in 1897, and the Boer War Memorial Fountain in 1903.
Power’s scientific curiosity and determination to educate his fellow citizens were typical of the Victorian age. Writing to the chairman of the park’s board of commissioners in 1885, he suggested labelling the plants “so that anyone interested … could study them there.” The Public Gardens today bear the imprint of his belief that “the finest scenic effects that are to be obtained from cultural labor should be those that best reproduce the natural. Wherever it is possible to work with the natural trees and shrubs of the country, they should not be disturbed unless it is to give them greater freedom for their growth and development.” Beginning in the 1870s he had directed the planting of shade-trees along the main thoroughfares that bisect and border the swathe occupied by the North and South Commons; Halifax’s enduring reputation as the City of Trees is a direct legacy of this work.
Operating funds were problematic since the annual city grant was never sufficient. At first, additional money was raised by selling bedding plants, vegetables, surplus trees, and geese; this effort stopped when charges of preferential treatment provoked the public inquiry. Subsequently, revenue would come from concert fees and the sale of grass, as well as rental fees for grazing lands, the rink, and the lawn-tennis courts; the gardens and commons were also made available for circuses, exhibitions, and athletic events.
For the most part Power practised financial restraint and enjoyed harmonious relations with the board of commissioners. In 1884 they underwrote a six-week tour of Ireland, Scotland, and England for him to “see and learn how parks and gardens are conducted there; and with the hope that we may beautify ours, year by year.” He was impressed with “the great improvement in bedding of all kinds of plants, carpet, sub-tropical and Alpine rockeries,” and returned with many specimens. A visit to Boston in 1895 was less rewarding, Power reporting that he “saw nothing of any importance” other than the Arnold Arboretum.
Noticeable shifts in public taste came with the 20th century. Attendance at band concerts dwindled, while efforts to develop a small zoo generated little interest. Pressures on the operating grant increased as demand grew for beautification of the city’s other parks, squares, and public places. World War I further eroded public support and the capacity for general upkeep, a situation that coincided with Power’s retirement in May 1917. After 45 years of service, he was pensioned off at $1,000 annually and given life tenancy in the distinctive red-brick superintendent’s lodge.
Power was succeeded by Richard Lawrence Power Jr, who had trained under him for several years. At first it appeared that the gardens might be revitalized, but his son died suddenly in 1921 and was succeeded by W. H. (Harry) Hall; the decline would continue until Power’s youngest son, George, became superintendent in 1946. Until his death in 1934, Richard Power, Halifax’s “grand old man of gardening,” lived on in the lodge, regularly dispensing horticultural wisdom and watching over his beloved gardens – “his one and only thought ever.”
A fine informal photograph of Richard L. Power, taken outdoors with the Public Gardens as a backdrop, likely during the 1920s, was published on a few occasions in Halifax newspapers, including as an accompaniment to his obituary in the Halifax Mail, 21 July 1934: 3. No probate file has been identified.
Halifax Regional Municipality Arch., 102-7, ser.7A, 1874–1940; 7B, 1914–34. NSA, MG 100, vol.88, no.8.7 (list of organizers of the Halifax Horticultural Society Gardens); vol.209, nos.32 (Richard Power documents), 33 (family documents), 33b, 33k (letters of reference); “Nova Scotia hist. vital statistics,” Halifax County, 1934: www.novascotiagenealogy.com (consulted 14 May 2010). Acadian Recorder (Halifax), 23 Oct. 1872. Evening Echo (Halifax), June 1925. Halifax, City Council, Annual report of the several departments of the city government of Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1871/72–1921/22. N.S., Statutes, 1875, c.45. Alex Wilson, “The Public Gardens of Halifax, Nova Scotia,” Journal of Garden Hist. (London), 3 (1983): 179–92.