I love history.
adore horticulture. I'm mad about Brooklyn – so the Metro Hort tour of the
National Historic Landmark cultural institution was a particularly appealing
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
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 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|
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
|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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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 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,
If you want to ahem, dig deeper on subject of garden history
be sure to visit Garden History
maintained by my esteemed colleague and garden friend Toby
Garden History Matters offers online classes, too.
Check it out.
OK, so now we can see how cemeteries can be thought of as PP:
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
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
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
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
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
‘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
: that are 60-70 year olds!
There are also Chinese
(Chionanthus retsus), Turkey
(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
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
Pandora’s flora Fantasy Botany pops out to almost touch
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.
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
As a somewhat humorous anecdote, we were told that
sometimes, the hort team might be cutting a tree only to find a gravestone on
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!
distance they look like something out of a Lord of the Rings movie: haunting,
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.
Presson says Paladino, a former gardener for Martha Stewart
has a good aesthetic and design sophistication, inspires his
Often too, “I leave it to Michelle
to work up the garden design and plantings.”
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
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
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.
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
I wanted the shot for my sweet cousin, Teri who is a loyal
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 “trés
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
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
It was said he even hated the Good Humor man!
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’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.
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
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
If you didn’t adhere to genus
before – well, surely this was “divine design!”
Presson said, “Maybe it’s trying to tell us something.”
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
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
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
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 |