Sunday, September 7, 2014

Green-Wood Cemetery: History & Horticulture in Brooklyn

I love history.  I adore horticulture. I'm mad about Brooklyn – so the Metro Hort tour of the National Historic Landmark cultural institution was a particularly appealing hortie “hat-trick.”
Metro Hort is an association of horticultural professional group in the NY Metro area. 

Some years’ back, I worked at an iconic, beloved star of Brooklyn horticulture – so it’s nothing short of utter embarrassment that I never hopscotched over to Green-Wood Cemetery – ever.

No, it took the scheduled Metro Hort tour to embrace the full-tilt tour. 
It was probably all the better this way.
I had time to take it all in – and to enjoy the history and horticulture with fellow enthusiasts. I learn so much from their informed questions and plant chatter along the tour.

The recent excursion was led by Art Presson, Superintendent of Ground Operations, Green-Wood – and alumni of The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) School of Professional Horticulture  (SOPH) who obviously knew how to play to his audience. 
(The tour was on one of the very few hot and humid days this summer in what otherwise will forever be known as the “Goldilocks Summer” – as in not too hot/not too cold.) 

Presson’s talk was inspired and enthusiastic over the course of a two-hour plus assembly.  
Art Presson (L) Green-Wood

He tailored the points of interest with a heavy dose of plant selections, maintenance insight, landscape design anecdotes, and just the right pinch of intriguing New York history with a dollop of gossip - about who is buried there along with their stories. 

Art Presson explaining Leonard Bernstein's grave & story at GW

Cemeteries’ Link with Parks and Horticulture

A little background might be in order prior to the tour hort review.

I’ve had the privilege to travel rather extensively and consequently have benefitted from “travel as teacher.” 
Along the way, I’ve so enjoyed the Arcadian beauty of some of the world’s great gardens and cemeteries, including Paris and Havana.
Why, I wondered did the folks there – entire families -- visit the cemeteries in droves?  Did they have a heightened respect for their loved ones?

But it turns out, there’s a somewhat banal yet fundamental reason for what lures the masses to cemeteries.
And the reason is just as overlooked and intriguing from a garden history standpoint.

It's the trees, the gardens, and the open spaces that really attract the people to visit.

See, most European cities – and for a long time here in the “New World” -- there were no parks – no place to go to get out of the squalor of cramped, stale apartments and dirty, disease-laden tenements that was the norm in the 1800s and 1900s.

So citizens flocked to cemeteries. 
They are pretty, well maintained with wide boulevards ideal for strolling, and they offer shade trees and green lawns and as a lucky-strike extra – hardscapes and art in the form of monuments and statues. 

Oh, and history.  Visitors could discover and talk about some of the famous people who had ornate and elaborate edifices built to adorn their final resting place. 
It should go without saying that in those days, it was rich people who could afford to be buried in such style…

A bit of garden history, too, is in order – I’ll be brief so as to get back to the Green-Wood tour – and I’ll just write this mainly from memory so please feel free to correct me if I’ve gotten something turned ‘round!

City parks came about by and large for health reasons. 
City fathers – and they were all men at that time – conceded that urban life would be greatly improved with green spaces. 
They realized the poor needed to get out and breathe clean air and take in the sunshine. If only not to spread disease – and presumably to keep working…  

Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO) and Calvert Vaux won the commission for New York City’s big park dream; drawing up plans for Central Park that were greatly influenced by FLO’s role as the general secretary of the US Sanitation Commission.

Key to understanding all this is: Constructed parks were not land preserved but created landscapes. 
Think about it.  
This acknowledgement enobles and exalts landscape architecture and garden design.  

The parks were a direct link with public health.
The parks’ beauty and romance came later in the planning and design stages.

The enduring landscaping genius of Central Park and Prospect Park is a reminder of what good design can do. 
When showing off Central Park to out of town guests, I always point out how these designers dropped the roads below the park land’s green spaces – like hidden or sunken roads - in order to keep the vistas all garden and idyllic-looking without those carriages and later cars interrupting Eden…

FLO and Vaux (that sounds like a Twitter account) took a lot of their inspiration from the newly built parks in Europe especially Birkenhead Park in England.

It’s said that Green-Wood’s landscape and design was an inspiration for Central Park’s landscape design.

The parks were designed primarily in the Romantic style of landscape design – popularized by Lancelot Capability Brown and America’s first landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing   
Downing embraced and promoted the natural style of landscape gardening.
This look sought to borrow from Nature and amplified and celebrated the Arcadian view of life.
Natural landscaping was in contrast to the sculpted – some say tortured  -- landscape design of Versailles and the Le Notre era of landscape design.

I’ve attend quite a few lectures and presentations on the history of these two landscape design periods and find that the contrasting approach and execution of the designs are not only fascinating; likewise the relationship with and impact on urban planning, public policy, health, lifestyle, real estate…
If you want to ahem, dig deeper on subject of garden history be sure to visit Garden History Matters maintained by my esteemed colleague and garden friend Toby Musgrave.
Garden History Matters offers online classes, too.  Check it out.
You can also get lost in garden history reading about the Pioneers of American Landscape Design at The Cultural Landscape Foundation

OK, so now we can see how cemeteries can be thought of as PP: Pre-Parks and BB: Before Botanical (gardens).
Viewed in this way, it’s easier to understand why Green-Wood is such a cultural attraction and why it's a must-see for history and horticultural buffs.

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood was founded in 1838.  It’s bluffs and vistas are breathtaking. 
In fact, it’s the highest point in Brooklyn.
You can see Manhattan’s skyline, the Statue of Liberty and beyond.
The statue of Minerva in Green-wood, salutes Lady Liberty from her line of sight -- just three and half miles apart.  
Art Presson & Minerva

I can tell you that just walking into the cemetery is transporting – the gates and architecture can’t help but make you feel like you are indeed crossing over into an otherworldly place. 

It’s all a bit of Chutes and Ladders – or illusions and dreamscapes -- as the landscape is up, down, round because of the topography.
The plants are weeping, creeping, and act as shape-shifters - often taking on the look of an animal or bird.

Now a National Historic Landmark, visitors have used the main road to take in what is referred to as “The Tour” of the nearly 500 acres there.

Why not start this tour with the majestic trees? – especially as so many trees in our area took a hit after the three, “Evil Sister Storms” of Irene, Sandy and Athena.   

Then there was the Million Trees NYC Bloomberg initiative (haven’t heard much about that in awhile).

Green-Woods’ grounds host some truly majestic tree beauties…

For “Arboreal CSI” enthusiasts, Green-Wood’s Chestnut Hill is a rare opportunity to see what Presson says are the King’s (as in British – hey - this is an old place!) markings on the trees.  Plus the pre-blight chestnut trees are a true gift because the trees now claim to be a blight-resistant breed of Chestnut tree.

Presson and his staff of 37 seasonal workers lovingly care for the huge, old trees at Green-Wood. 
For example, the team inoculates some of the infected beech trees with phosphate once a year to arrest their bleeding canker plugs.

In addition to the Chestnuts, we saw Beech, London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia), the stunning Camperdown Elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’), showy English Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum) – Presson urged us to come back in the fall for this orange color show, and “senior-citizen” Kousa Dogwood: that are 60-70 year olds!
There are also Chinese Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retsus), Turkey Oak (quercus cerris), and Linden, (Tilia cordata), whose lifespan is measured in centuries. 
Isn’t it comforting to know that if you are buried here there is a stately tree such as the Linden to be your eternal companion -- or what passes for eternity?
Plus the Lindens have a heady, distinctive fragrance …
Green-Wood also features one of the most curious trees: the Franklinia alatamaha.
I’ve used this “racehorse” of a landscape tree in my design clients’ garden art because I love the “lost camellia,” its history and near-death extinction that in spite of everything continues to live on.
So it all that surprising that the rare Franklinia marks the Green-Wood grave of the father of the painter of Whistler’s Mother.
Presson, too, is incredulous that the Franklinia tree marking Whistler’s grave continued to thrive even after being moved. 

Further along our tour, Presson and his team visibly winced showing a couple of elephantiasis/pachyderm-looking 130 year old beeches that have been tattooed: scratched and scraped into by visitors leaving their mark. 

Why do people hurt trees? 

I digress to emphasize cultures – even artful ones – who revere their trees.
I just watched “Avatar” in 3-D on our new home screen last night  - wow. 
Pandora’s flora Fantasy Botany pops out to almost touch you. 
Point here is in the film, the tree is so revered by the native Nav’vi – their Hometree is sacred – it embodies their life force and they worship it as they do The Tree of Souls – the link to their ancestors via their mother: Mother Nature.   
I wrote about it on Garden Glamour in 2010 the year the film debuted: The Glamour of Planet Pandora in the film, Avatar - even describing the fantasy botany’s taxonomy!

But I have to believe many more visitors to Green-Wood come to admire the trees -- grand monuments unto themselves – giving the ornamental statues and mausoleums some serious competition in the beauty department. 

Plus the outstanding bird watching is like viewing “tree jewelry.”

As a somewhat humorous anecdote, we were told that sometimes, the hort team might be cutting a tree only to find a gravestone on the inside! 

After the “three-sister storms,” Greenwood applied for a grant in order to recreate their cultural landscape. 
Presson’s team is also in the process of completing a tree survey of every tree on the grounds.  They will look to accession plants in their future database.

The tour presented yet ever more beautiful trees: the Weeping Beech are astonishing!  

From a distance they look like something out of a Lord of the Rings movie: haunting, cool, purple-dark 
Inside it’s like being in a cathedral.  

It’s a spiritual experience to commune with trees like this…

From a horticultural, plant perspective; Presson described how he and his team – have been looking to move the design to one that embraces more perennials and shrubs – and certainly more Native Plants. 
He pointed out astilbes, lilies, and allium, noting the Natives are not only good looking but easier to care for than the lawns that once occupied so much of the grounds.

He gets a lot of his plants from Michelle Paladino at Gowanus Nursery 
Presson says Paladino, a former gardener for  Martha Stewart Living has a good aesthetic and design sophistication, inspires his work.  Often too, “I leave it to Michelle to work up the garden design and plantings.” 

Firsts & War History

The first Civil War Memorial is here in Greenwood.
Not just a tale for buffs or Ken Burns fans, this is a heartwarming story – as most every noteworthy personality buried there is. 
This intrigue is about the two Prentiss brothers, Will and Clifton, who died in the Civil War fighting on opposite sides.  
None other than Walt Whitman was tending to them in the hospital.
Later, he paid for them to be buried in Green-Wood.  

Here, the two brothers finally rest side by side. 
What lies between them is a story worthy of a book and a movie. 
Find out how the VA changed its monument policy because of Green-Wood and the Prentiss brothers

Green-Wood now is home to not only New York’s Civil War Soldiers’ Monument, but the Civil War Project that has documented more than 3,300 Civil War veterans and their stories.

Green-Wood offers more than a few war stories – starting with George Washington’s Battle of Brooklyn.  

There is a garden area and series of monuments there that Presson described as the statues of soldiers based on a George Custer model that later became the default cemetery infantry memorial.  “We asked the Veterans group and there was no argument there.” Their molds were widely distributed in the US and were remade of Brooklyn zinc.

Subsequent to the tour, I researched the background history of the copper-plated cast zinc process.
Painted Cast-Zinc Statues sold by J.W.Fiske -  “The earliest known zinc solders were made for the City of New York Civil War Monument (1869) in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.  

Famous folks buried at Green-Wood

There are just sooo many famous people here. 
Presson’s ready knowledge and sweet gossip about the illustrious dead made the visit like one of those parlor games where you’re asked if you could assemble a dinner party with anyone from history what would the guest list look like?
Well at Green-Wood, the party is on!

We saw Leonard Bernstein’s grave – his wife and daughter next to him with a ring of rhododendron marking the spot.

Presson pointed out Charles Ebbets’ from the road -- and me and another Metro Hort baseball fan just had so scamper up the hill to take a photo.  

I wanted the shot for my sweet cousin, Teri who is a loyal Yankee fan. 
I don’t think Mr. Ebbets – who famously owned the Brooklyn Dodgers wouldn't mind as she is a true lover of the sport. 
And aren’t the Dodgers sorry now that they moved from “trĂ©s Brooklyn?!”
PS.  Mr. Ebbets' middle name is Hercules – god of strength and adventure – a rather fitting moniker don’t you think given all his Brooklyn dealings?

The Tiffany clan is here too. 

And talk about a "girl" that get’s around. 

There is also a somewhat naughty statue that has come to its final resting place in Green-Wood.
It seems the very, very big topless statue was never popular with NYC’s Mayor La Guardia when it was placed near City Hall in lower Manhattan.  
In fact he hated it so much he had it moved to Queens.

I’m convinced La Guardia hated a lot.
I just finished writing three chapters as a contributing author for Savoring Gotham, a book that will be published early next year on the history of NYC food.
My research found Mayor La Guardia hated everything from food push carts and farmers markets so much he banned them, leading to indoor markets and eventually supermarkets. 
It was said he even hated the Good Humor man!

Back to topless statue.
The story is that while she called Queens home after being exiled by La Gardia, Anthony Weiner (of Twitter fame) insulted the – ahem, art – and so she was sent to yet another borough, Brooklyn, when Green-Wood said they’d take it.  Travel expenses were a cool $50K.
Today, it has its own spit of an island and doesn’t appear to moving any time soon (despite not having traveled to the remaining two boroughs on its Gotham passport!)

We also saw the fancy graves of some of New York’s notorious: Boss Tweed, Bill the Butcher – from Gangs of New York, and Peter Cooper.

Cooper’s grave is extra special. 

We came upon it after emerging from the giant weeping birch tree composition so I was already feeling rather ethereal.
Here is a Peter Cooper’s circle.
It is poised on a landscaped design and engineered spot, marked for prestige and efficiency - right where the glaciers stopped. 

Beyond is a very high ridge hill and out of sight but beyond the ridge is Flatbush Avenue.  Now it makes sense how this boulevard got its name, right?

Cooper was a patriot, philanthropist, a sage, a designer, a revered New Yorker – key to so much of the city’s history. 
You can spend an afternoon learning how he formed the fire and police departments, and Cooper Union for Science and Art.
And a curious link to Jell-O!

But his design aesthetic might explain the beauty of his simple, elegant grave.

But not everyone at Green-Wood is rich and famous.  We learned that one could buy a grave for $15 in 1850 on the Hill of Graves located on the edge of the cemetery that looked surprisingly open in terms of land and plot availability.  

Presson said he’d love to put a meadow landscape design here. 
There is a wall that elevates the land up to around knee or waist high and London Planetrees topping the sweeping ridge.
We Metro Hort members agreed this garden concept would both respect the landscape and the simple, regular folks who are laid to rest there.
Sealing the affirmation was when we learned that it was Meadow Avenue we were walking on bordering the Hill area for the proposed meadow!   

If you didn’t adhere to genus loci before – well, surely this was “divine design!”
Presson said, “Maybe it’s trying to tell us something.”  Indeed.

Plant lovers will thrill to learn that all the streets in this special, natural place are named for all kinds of botanicals.  Presson said GW got the idea from Cambridge.

It seemed too, that the monuments are as unique as the people they are celebrating. 

They seem to whisper stories of achievement, intrigue, and romance. 
I wondered if monuments were designated by the deceased or created and put there by family members…

A more classical, ornamental pleasure garden design was on display in the area surrounding the Castle, built in 1910 by the architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore – the same firm that designed the resplendent Grand Central Terminal.

With respect to cultural landscape and sense of place, Green-Wood added an Asian element nine years ago to its portfolio.
Here is a superior, more modern or contemporary landscape design that pays homage to the area’s burgeoning Asian population and culture with a Tranquility garden comprised of classic elements of water, fish, bamboo, and plants, including cherry trees and bamboo.

It goes without saying that the famous, infamous, notorious, and noteworthy are laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery.  Pre Plan your visit via the website: Green-Wood  

You’ll be talking about the horticulture and history for a long, long, time.  

Enjoy the beauty and the stories.  

Here are more of my images.  Like Italy and the Hamptons - the light at Green-Wood is ethereal.  
It changes the landscape perspective; it inspires.  
And like a true work of art compels you to gaze upon it over and over and over again.
Metro Hort talent & friend 


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