The Cleveland Cascade was born in Oakland, California, in 1923, conceived and midwifed by noted landscape architect Howard Gilkey. At some point in the past decades, the Cleveland Cascade was given up for dead, euthanized. Buried, not out of respect or reverence, but to hide it, to suppress and invalidate the memories.
We have recently disinterred the Cascade and found its skeleton. Our future efforts to enliven and reanimate the Cascade must be guided by the details of its past eighty years ago.
What we know about how the Cascade looked and worked when it was a youngster we have learned from three complementary sources.
A March 11, 1923 article in the San Francisco Chronicle — published probably not long after the Cascade's inauguration — provides a verbal description and a photograph of the entire Cascade from the pool at the bottom up all three tiers.
A photograph with caption, published in a 1931 article by Howard Gilkey, of the lowest tier of the Cascade provides the clearest and most-detailed visual record we have of what the flowing water looked like and of the details of the concrete basins, the bowls, and the shell-shaped light shields.
Our excavation of the Cascade during May and June 2004 has yielded essential details not available from either the 1923 article or 1931 photograph. Foremost among these are the actual sizes of the components, as well as how the bowls and shields were attached, and the contours of the water path from bowl to bowl.
The cascading water feature ran between two sets of concrete stairs. The cascade and the stairs are arranged in three tiers. Between the tiers, the stairs and cascade pause at a landing.
The basic unit of the cascade is a rectangular basin. There was a string of seven basins in both the top and middle tiers, and a string of six basins in the bottom tier. At the bottom of the lowest tier the water flowed into a pool. An electric pump recirculated the water to the top to begin yet another roller-coaster ride.
Each basin is 41" wide (inside measurement), adjoined on both sides by 6.25"-wide concrete walls running the length of each tier. The back (i.e., uphill side) of each basin rises 24.75" deep above the basin's floor; the front (i.e., downhill side) of each basin rises 6" above the floor. The wall separating each basin is 6-3/8" thick.
Near (3" below) the top of each basin-separating wall was a slot (10-3/8" wide, 1.5" tall) through that 6-3/8" wall, which allowed water to flow from the basin above. This water flowed into, filled, and overflowed a shallow saucer-like bowl, which was attached to the back vertical wall of each basin and spanned the basin's width.
Saturday and Sunday evenings — according to the 1923 Chronicle article — the Cascade’s falling waters were illuminated by colored lights.
Atop each basin, on both the right and left, a colored light sat in a light socket embedded in the side retaining wall just above the inter-basin divider. A concrete shell-shaped shield covered the light from view from the front, so that the light shone backwards upon the water falling over the bowl in the basin above.
According to the caption from the photograph of the Cleveland Cascade from Howard Gilkey's 1931 article, the colored lights were “arranged in spectrum sequence.”
Cleveland Cascade at The Organic City
Our big thanks to filmmakers Seamus Byrne and Sarah Mattern, creators of TheOrganicCity.com, an awesomely creative interactive site chronicling the stories of the Lake Merritt area. It’s open source, so you can contribute your own stories.
Your opportunity for major, long-lasting impact
If you are a philanthropically inclined individual or organization or a public-spirited company, and if the restoration of the Cleveland Cascade is a project that might align with your interests, values, and goals, please email.
There are exciting opportunities for you to have a major, long-lasting impact on Oakland, its residents, and visitors — by simultaenously honoring Oakland’s past and enriching its future — and for you to receive the recognition you deserve.