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This past weekend was Open House New York.  For a weekend the whole city was an elementary school field trip as cultural, architectural, and industrial institutions throughout the burroughs opened their doors to the public for a sneak peek behind the scenes.  There were a lot of tempting choices, but, in keeping with ferrebeekeeper’s long obsession with all things gothic, some friends and I visited Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery to look inside the catacombs and palatial mausoleums of nineteenth century elite. Green-Wood cemetery consists of 478 acres of lovingly tended forests and gardens where more than 600,000 individuals are buried. The cemetery is sprawled over the terminal moraine left by the Wisconsin ice sheet when it retreated back to Canada about 18,000 years ago.  As the thousand foot tall wall of ice melted it dropped its burden of pebbles, boulders, and topsoil into rolling hills which now form the bulk of Long Island.  The tallest hill on Brooklyn is Battle Hill in Green-Wood where one can stand in the middle of a field of obelisks and look down at the harbor, the Narrows, and lower Manhattan.

 

The Main Gate of Green-Wood Cemetery

A Monk Parakeet at Greenwood

The main gates of Greenwood are a gothic revival masterpiece created by Richard M. Upjohn in 1861 (the cemetery itself dates back to 1838).  Back in the 1960s a shipment of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) being flown from Argentina to Idlewild somehow escaped and the renegade birds set up nesting sites first in the cemetery gate.  Later, as the colony expanded, the birds also occupied the coEdison transformer station next to the cemetery.  So, as you walk into the park, you are greeted by raucous screeches and streaks of chartreuse among the trees.  And what trees!  Since the cemetery is old and is protected by a spiked fence, armed guards, and fierce dogs (along with who knows what sort of malevolent chthonic agencies), the trees have grown to maturity unmolested and the grounds feature numerous huge field oaks, mighty beeches, giant metasequoias and every other ornamental or native specimen which grows in these parts.

It is difficult to convey the scope of the cemetery. Visitors wander through different landscapes going up and down hills, into dark forests, across garden glades, and beside lakes—and everywhere there are tombs of every sort.  There are thin limestone headstones where the text is fading, tall granite plinths with statues, squat obsidian cubes, Egyptian pyramids, and elegant urns.  Sometimes you also pass huge haunting circles of graves which evoke feelings of barrows and ancient standing stones. During the open house my friends and I visited the spooky Greek revival mausoleums of a heartless railroad baron and of a rich tobacconist who turned to spiritualism after the mysterious death of one of his (demi-mondaine?) female employees. We also visited the underground catacombs where workers installed a creepy underground network of burial chambers in the excavation left over from a pebble mine.

Inside the catacombs (lit by bore holes drilled from above)

The princely grave of the stingy Whitney

The largest mausoleum inhumes the remains of Stephen Whitney, one of the richest and most parsimonious merchants of the nineteenth century who eschewed philanthropy. As one might imagine he was not well loved and when he died, the famous social commentator George Templeton Strong remarked that “his last act was characteristic and fitting.  He locked up his checkbook and died.” Although Whitney’s grave was magnificent and the cemetery’s great mourning chapel (pictured below) was even more so, to me the most interesting mausoleums and graves were the smaller gothic ones which I have pictured throughout this post.  We’re getting closer to Halloween (and to peak foliage)—why not take a constitutional through a nearby cemetery and contemplate the ephemeral nature of things amidst a beautiful vista?

The Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery

The latter half of the summer is the silly season for journalism.  During August, in particular, when legislative bodies are on break and the titans of finance are estivating in Gstaad, the papers are filled with stories about pie-eating contests, surfing dogs, and other similar bucolic follies.   The evocative Swedish phrase for this indolent time is “rötmånadshistoria” which literally means rotting month—a time when every Swede is on holiday elsewhere and the forgotten leftovers rot in the fridge.

Silly Season 2011?

Well that is how it is supposed to be anyway. This summer the paper is filled with disasters.  America’s leaders have collectively decided they would prefer to see the country ruined as long as the opposite party is blamed.  US Government bonds have been downgraded. The markets are crashing. Darpa’s experimental scramjet is lost.  London is on fire.  Internecine wars grind on in west Asia. Bullet trains are crashing in China. Syria is taking another step on the road to genocidal civil war.   This year seems like a dark literal version of rötmånadshistoria–in which everything is revealed to be rotten. The silliness is simmering over into madness.

Rushton Triangular Lodge (1595)

Sadly there are no facile solutions for any of those problems here.  This post is not meant to be a blueprint for fixing society, but rather a paean to the traditional summer silliness we should be enjoying.  Instead of concentrating on the bad news, let’s pretend none of it is happening! Sit back, imagine that it is a traditional silly season, and enjoy this post dedicated to frivolity.  In keeping with the finest tradition of Erasmus we will embrace absurdity and literally praise folly—or actually follies. So here is the first half of a two-part post concerning garden follies–extravagant ornamental structures intended solely for the amusement of bygone aristocrats. Such structures were expressly built not to be useful.  Oftentimes follies were purposefully manufactured as ruins or were designed with a glaring structural anomaly—like a tower without stairs, or a greenhouse without windows. A folly was often the centerpiece of a large garden and tied together the disparate themes.  Additionally, like powdered wigs, hoop skirts, and most other luxury goods, the very uselessness of a folly was testament to a nobleman’s power and prestige: he could afford to throw away princely sums on a decorative building.

Rococo Folly from Painswick Garden (Ca. 1750s)

Follies originated just prior to the 17th century. It was customary for gentlemen of that era to take a grand tour of southern Europe when they came of age.  As they traveled through Italy and southern France these elite tourists were exposed to actual Roman ruins.  When they returned to England or northern France they built copies of Greco-Roman temples to symbolize various classical virtues and ideals (which were already enshrined in the educational system of that time). Although the first wave of garden follies in the Seventeenth century was motivated by classical and religious ideas, the craze for extravagance and eccentricity deepened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  As France and England reached the apogee of their economic power, the ruling classes of those nations went all out to show their taste, sophistication, and rank with increasingly lavish and increasingly novel garden architecture.  Follies proliferated and took the shape of the eclectic pursuits of the lords commissioning them.  An interest in the Levant filled England with orientalist fantasies. The gothic revival led to a host of spooky medieval towers and pseudo-crypts.  The Earl of Dunmore, a Scottish Earl who loved tropical fruit commissioned an immense stone pineapple as a cupola for his hothouse.

Painshill Turkish Tent (mid 18th century)

The Dunmore Pineapple (1776)

Follies were meant to be beautiful and/or striking. Since they were designed specifically to be interesting ahead of all other concerns they often possess unique fantasy flourishes. In many cases the purpose of an architectural folly was to provide a direct allegorical lesson, however, even when no clear lesson was meant the structures clearly reflected the nature of human beliefs and desires…

The Chanteloup Pagoda (1775)

Perrott's Folly (1758)

To be continued tomorrow

The Huntington Botanical Gardens

Yesterday’s post concerning Pluto, Greco-Roman lord of the underworld contained a photograph of a beautiful two-thousand year old statue as well as one of the greatest and most harrowing of classical myths–but I am afraid it incorrectly tinted my recent trip to California with somber shades.  So today I have decided to describe the roses from the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino (just outside Pasadena).  This garden was once the home of a railroad baron who grabbed control of the steel rails which tied California together.  He was a rare book collector (which I will get back to on Monday) and a lover of gardens.

A Tiny Portion of the Chinese Garden at the Huntington Gardens

All of the gardens at the Huntington were unreasonably lovely.  The grounds contained both a large Japanese garden and a magnificent Chinese garden.  I didn’t even get to see the world famous desert garden and I am still regretting it.  However the real highlight for me was the rose garden.  Pasadena styles itself as the city of roses. The city hosts a rose parade and some sort of huge rose bowl for college sportsmen.  There is a reason for all of the fanfare—the roses everywhere in Pasadena and the towns nearby were beautiful. But the roses at the Huntington Botanical Garden were ineffably transcendentally gorgeous.  It was the most splendid rose garden I have ever seen.

Some of the Roses at the Huntington Gardens

Here is the description of the garden as lifted wholesale from the Huntington website:

The three and a half acre rose garden was designed by Myron Hunt and first planted by William Hertrich as a display garden in 1908. In the 1970s, the garden was reorganized as a “collection garden” with more than 1,200 cultivars (approx 4,000 individual plants) arranged historically to trace the development of roses from ancient to modern times beginning with the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

The entrance pathway leads to an 18th-century French stone tempietto and statue, “Love, the Captive of Youth,” encircled by “French Lace” roses. The beds north of the arbor next to the Shakespeare Garden have a paved walk, and feature Tea and China roses and their descendants, first introduced into Europe from China around 1900.

On the south side of the rose arbor are nineteenth-century shrub roses, descended from old European varieties. Climbing and rambling roses—from all periods and groups—grow on the arbors, arches, and pergolas.

The central part of the garden contains Hybrid Teas, Floribundas, Polyanthas, and miniatures, with separate beds for classic pre-1920 hybrid teas and for roses from the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Other beds feature roses introduced since the 1950s and introductions from abroad, including recent plantings of roses from India.

This somewhat dry text indeed explains the basics of the garden, but, alas, there is a terrible frustration in trying to convey the true nature of such a place.  The roses were all perfect.  Each blossom was the size of a dinner plate and every rose was blooming.  By some magical circumstance we visited the garden at peak season.  The heady scent of roses wafted on the warm breeze and time seemed to dilate. Yesterday I wrote about the mythical gardens of the underworld.  Today I am writing about the gardens of paradise—which, somewhat surprisingly, are real and are located just to the southwest of Pasadena.

The Temple of Love from the Rose Garden at Huntington Gardens

Claude Mollet, Innovator and Gardener to the Kings of France

Devoted readers may have noticed that I haven’t written a garden post for a while.  That’s, um, because my garden is kind of…well…flat.  It got hit by triple punches in the form of a tornado, a giant hail storm, and now winter.  All that’s left is to plant my bulbs, put my roses to bed, and sadly stare at the little yew bush in the corner until Spring comes again with its ancient magic.

During this cold dead season, gardeners fantasize about spectacular gardens they can never have or even see in person.  I personally have been reflecting on parterre gardens and wanted to present a little gallery with pictures of great parterre gardens around the world.  Parterre gardens are highly formal gardens which make use of gravel walkways, flat planted beds, and tightly clipped hedges and topiaries to create extremely precise geometric designs.  They were created at the end of the16th century by Claude Mollet (ca. 1564 – shortly before 1649), the first gardener for three French kings.  The Mollets were a dynasty of exalted gardeners who were much in demand by the French nobility.  Claude’s father was chief gardener at the Château d’Anet where young Claude saw formal style Italian herb gardens being planted.  He admired the geometric precision of these small geometric her beds or compartimens as they were known in France and wondered if they could be made larger.  From this concept sprang a vast world of “embroideries (passements), moresques, arabesques, grotesques, guilloches, rosettes, sunbursts (gloires), escutcheons, coats-of-arms, monograms and emblems (devises)” to quote Jacques Boyceau, another luminary of the early parterre movement.

But enough words!  Enjoy this tiny gallery of parterre gardens from around the world as you plan your spring gardens and get ready to pass the long winter.

Waddesdon formal flower garden

Villandry garden

Tatton Park Gardens

Parterre at le Chateau de la Hulpe

Longwood Garden Topiary Garden

Leaning Pine Aboretum at CalPoly

La Casa Pacifica flower parterre

West Parterre of Hatfield House

Parterre Garden at Hampton Court Palace in London

Parterre at Château de Courances

Bourton House Topiary

Brodsworth Formal GardenHillwood Garden Fountain

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2021
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