At the Capitol, rose lovers use their favorite flower to send a message
By Terry Kaufman
Quick: Name the one place at the State Capitol where there are no politics, divisiveness, egos or agendas. If you said the World Peace Rose Garden, then you are familiar with the work of its creators, TJ David and Sylvia Villalobos.
The Capitol garden was not the first International World Peace Rose Garden. David and Villalobos created the concept back in the 1980s when they saw the deplorable condition of the Gandhi rose garden in Pacific Palisades, volunteered to reimagine and renovate it, and ended up producing a spectacular site that combined beautiful flowers with messages of peace. The duo began installing similarly themed gardens at other sites, but no project was as agonizingly complex or time-intensive as the one in our own city.
“A resolution was adopted by the legislature in the spring of 1995 to authorize the garden,” says Villalobos. “It took eight years to get it built.” There were committees and meetings and plans and more plans and enough red tape to discourage all but the most diehard or demented. In an incredible leap of faith, David grew 2,000 roses on a farm for two years while awaiting the OK to put them in the ground. “I probably donated more than 10,000 hours of my time to bring that garden to the Capitol,” he says.
How the rose gardens even came into being is a tale. David grew up in the Central Valley with a passion for the beautiful flowers that was beyond the budget of his working-class family. He came to Sacramento, became a manager at an auto repair shop, got a house with its own little plot of land and populated it with as many varieties of roses as he could squeeze in. “Amongst the things I wanted was a few rosebushes out back,” he says. “I got the home, and 17 roses became over 120.”
Enter Villalobos, who had no real floral background but happened to have a car that needed repair. While he was fixing her car, David was infecting her with the rose virus. Says David, “For me, anything worth having is worth sharing. Thus, Sylvia and I began giving roses at UCD during one growing season to patients who lacked family or had serious health issues. It was heartwarming beyond words. Then Sylvia told me the story of the Lake Shrine Gandhi World Peace Rose Garden.”
Today, their roses beautify World Peace sites in Assisi, Italy, Mexico City and Atlanta. Gardens have been proposed for Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and, with the aid of removable walls, inclement Detroit, Mich. Approvals for both are pending.
What makes the World Peace Rose Gardens unique is their message of peace and embrace of youth. For each garden, Villalobos has established a youth program that involves children from nearby schools and teaches them that “world peace begins with me.” For the Capitol garden, schoolchildren from throughout California were invited to submit writings about peace; the best of these appear on markers throughout the garden. Twenty-one benches along the walkways pay tribute to the state’s diversity. Cesar Chavez, Muslim-Americans, gays and lesbians all have been recognized through donations that support the garden.
“It’s a sacred space,” says David. “Each walkway is its own little sanctuary.” As the roses mature during the year, he says, they grow to different heights and provide a changing, colorful display for office workers looking down from neighboring buildings. On weekends, limousines pull up so that couples can pose for photographs. Greg Plath, a state worker who commutes each day from Lodi, enjoys having lunch amid the roses. “It’s the crown jewel of the capital,” he says. “When it’s in full bloom, the fragrance is amazing. It’s just a peaceful place to be.” David notes that Sunset magazine named the rose garden one of four “must see” sites in the capital.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Capitol rose garden. In celebration, Villalobos—who now lives in San Diego—has planned a star-studded event on May 5, including a salute to Sacramento’s 10 sister cities, words from a Yaqui tribal chief, official presentations, an interfaith ceremony and visiting students from China and Mexico. “It will be a spellbinding event,” he says.
“The gardens are silent ambassadors of peace,” says Villalobos. “More than a million people see our gardens every year,” David adds. “That’s the reward for us. That’s how we realize we’ve done the right thing.”