Situated atop the cliffs overlooking the Willamette River, in the Abernethy Heights neighborhood south of downtown Portland, this estate built by Scottish immigrant and entrepreneur Peter Kerr is among the oldest, largest intact private gardens in Oregon.
In 1888 Kerr arrived in Portland, where he soon started a successful grain business. In the early 1890s Kerr used his profits to purchase a modest parcel of land, adding three adjacent lots over the next five years to increase the site’s total size to over thirteen acres. In December 1909, Kerr hired landscape architect John Charles Olmsted and architect D. E. Lawrence to design and construct a house and garden. In addition to laying out roads and pedestrian paths on the property, Olmsted sited the residence with vistas of Mount Hood. Upon the house’s completion, Kerr, an avid amateur gardener himself, began implementing his plans for a sprawling hillside garden. From 1916 to 1919, Kerr and Olmsted began to realize a Picturesque-style garden, utilizing intertwining paths and streams to portray a wild, albeit highly manicured and idealized, version of the natural landscape. In 1917, Kerr hired Emanuel Mische, a former Olmsted firm plantsman and former superintendent of Portland’s parks, who designed much of the landscape that survives today—with expansive lawns immediately surrounding the house, and a hillside garden with pathways that take full advantage of the views of the Willamette River toward the town of Milwaukie.
While Olmsted’s association with the design ended in 1919, Kerr spent another thirty-eight years meticulously planning and maintaining the garden until his death in 1957. Kerr ultimately planted an eclectic mixture of Scottish species and Pacific Northwest natives. Following his death, both the house and garden were given to the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, with the stipulation that the property be open to the public.