New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden – Garden of the Month
Jane Garmey has written numerous articles on gardens and interior design for newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Elle Décor, and 1st Dibs, and for many years she was the garden correspondent for Town & Country. She has written several books, including Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley, Private Gardens of Connecticut, Great British Cooking, and Great New British Cooking. The following is an excerpt from her newest book, City Green: Public Gardens of New York.
That New York City has an authentic classical Chinese garden on Staten Island is largely result of one woman’s vision, energy, and determination. In 1982, when Frances X. Paulo Huber became executive director of the Staten Island Botanical Garden (later to become part of Snug Harbor Cultural Center), it was not in good shape. The gardens, buildings, walk- ways, and roadways were in disrepair. There were weeds everywhere, the greenhouse had no glass, and the trees—American chestnuts, black pines, silver maples, and Norway maples—needed pruning.
Huber was asked by the trustees to come up with a master plan. Trained as a landscape architect at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she decided that a new focus was needed and that it should be a classical Chinese scholar’s garden. Her goal, she explains, was to emphasize China’s importance in the history of horticulture and to link to the heritage of Staten Island residents who had been engaged in the China Sea trade. As she recalls, “Most people thought I was crazy and no one was very encouraging, but I was not deterred.”
Classical Chinese gardens seek to recreate natural landscapes in miniature and to reflect the metaphysical importance of natural beauty in their design. From antiquity, gardens have played an important role in the cultural life of China. The Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) is considered to have been the first golden age of the classical Chinese garden. During the Mongol invasion of China in the thirteenth century, many scholars, who were part of China’s elite, fled to Suzhou, where they created exquisite gardens.
In the inner courtyard, the Pavilion of Chilly Green opens to the One-Step Bridge. Japanese maple, Chinese plum, and a peach tree are planted in front of the walls. Photo by Mick Hales
Suzhou is a city of bridges, canals, and rivers near the northern shore of Lake Tai. To Marco Polo, it was the “Venice of the Orient.” Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its Humble Administrator’s Garden and Lingering Garden are considered to be two of the four most famous classical gardens in China. Suzhou was where Huber turned to find craftsmen with the skills to make her garden a reality. With the help of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had recently completed its Astor Chinese Garden Court, she got in touch with the Landscape Architecture Company of China and met Zou Gongwu, China’s leading scholar of classical garden design, whom she hired as chief designer for her proposed garden.
Huber made four trips to China to study and learn more about classical gardens. Working with the Landscape Architecture Company, she was able interest the Chinese government in the project, and they agreed to pay for the labor and a portion of the materials. The work would be done in Suzhou, with the cost of shipping the materials to Staten Island and the construction of the garden to be paid by city and state funds, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, private foundations, and individual donors.
In 1998 a team of forty Chinese artists and artisans, along with their own chef, arrived from Suzhou to assemble the garden. Construction took six months, and the following year this extraordinary garden was opened to the public.
A classical scholar’s garden is designed according to strict rules. The entrance is a narrow passageway that serves as a place of meditation before visitors arrive in the garden proper. A white wall, intended to provide a stark contrast to the natural colors of the plants and trees, encloses the garden, which contains decorative rocks, pavilions, and bridges. Water is a key element, and within the courtyard there is an inner garden structured around a pond. Borrowed views are an important design element, and a juxtaposition of varying shapes, colors, and textures is intended to create a sense of infinite space within an enclosed area.
View from the Passage of Tranquility across to the Weeping Willow Window and the scarlet leaves of the Japanese maple.
Photo by Mick Hales
All these elements are to be found in the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, which contains three courtyards, a teahouse, three bridges, five pavilions, three ponds, a waterfall, and a stream. A series of walls, pavilions, and corridors emanate from the main courtyard, offering glimpses of other rooms and garden vignettes. The heavily eroded rocks from Lake Tai jut out of the largest pond while a smaller pond is visible from a moon gate.
At first, this garden seems to be primarily about rocks, buildings, and pathways, but plants are an equally important part of the design, and they have been carefully chosen for their shape, color, bloom time, fragrance, and symbolic meaning. There are more than eighty species growing in this garden, including rhododendrons, peonies, magnolias, Japanese maples, pines, bamboo, flowering apricots, plum, and wintersweet.
Visitors who remember to leave their Western minds at the gate will find themselves in another world and be well rewarded. Frances Huber deserves our gratitude for this singular garden. Making it happen was a remarkable achievement and the garden now engages thousands of students of Chinese heritage and culture through seasonal festivals and meditation practice. Now almost twenty years old, the garden is very much in need of restoration, and a move is getting underway to raise the funds. Not surprisingly, Huber, now retired, still plans to be involved.
City Green: Public Gardens of New York by Jane Garmey, with photographs by Mick Hales, celebrates the richness and diversity of New York’s public gardens. Purchase a copy today from a retailer of your choice: