When will I stop finding parts of the park I've never been to before? Not yesterday, when I snuck in through a fence break along Flatbush Avenue, scaled the wooded berm, and stumbled onto the Rose Garden. It seemed like a sun-soaked Twilight Zone. One guy sat on a bench behind me as I took this shot; one other guy lay passed out on the grass, his hoodie drawn up over his head and mouth. (Yes, he was breathing; I checked.)
It was very peaceful, but the peace was that of utter abandonment, made more eerie by the garden's stilted formal layout. Only one of the three pools was filled and spouting. The benches evoked a New-York-Seventies vibe of neglect, right down to the urban resourcefulness of these improvised stump seats for absent chess players.
Going down a staircase at the other end of the garden, I found myself in the Vale of Cashmere. (On my first visit there, I had managed not to find the Rose Garden right "next door.") And there, too, was a sorry sight: the lily pool was two-thirds dry, and the water jets were turned off. The birds were still riotous (especially when a hawk glided overhead so low that I could've counted the brown streaks on his breast), but what was up with the muck?
A SHORT, SAD HISTORY OF THE ROSE GARDENA little research turned up a long, weird history of seesawing between grand ambitions, good intentions and goofing off in regard to this little patch of real estate:
1867: The "Playground" is developed here, with a lawn for games, a pool for sailing toy boats, a Summer House, and a maze. A Carousel is added in 1874 (not the current one next to the Zoo), which is moved in 1885 to the area of the Litchfield Villa to take advantage of greater crowds. (Already a sign of trouble?)
1895: The Rose Garden is laid out, over the objections of the aging Frederick Law Olmsted, who decries "such a questionable departure from the established design of the park" (according to this reliable guidebook). The lilies thrived but the roses did miserably due to poor air circulation in the humid space, despite the evidence of this 1914 postcard.
1965: According to a New Year's Day story in the New York Times, the city earmarked $450,000 to renovate the Rose Garden and Vale of Cashmere. The Vale was "now a jungle of wild vegetation, from which the water has been drained, a decorative fountain stolen, and carved granite balustrades removed"; as for the Rose Garden, it was filled with "weeds, thistles and refuse," and Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris recalled finding it filled with beer cans. "One rose was trying to stick its head up," he recalled to the Times. "You wouldn't believe it, but I cried. Did you ever see a Parks Commissioner cry?"
1969: Leave it to John V. Lindsay to seal the Rose Garden's fate with a gesture of bloated grandiosity. According to the Greensward Foundation:
The misfortunes of the Rose Garden continued: in 1969, it suffered a working over by a singularly ungifted firm of landscapers who created a formal terraced garden suitable to Longwood Gardens where it would have received the intensive care -- hand weeding, hand clipping and edging -- it demanded. It was pretentious and totally inappropriate in an obscure corner of the park where predictably it received no care at all.
The main feature of the garden was a series of three pools equipped with multiple fountainheads. These were turned on just once, for one of then-Mayor John Lindsay's breakfast meetings. All the pipes leaked underground, one of the pools overflowed, and the whole place was flooded. When a concerned visitor complained about the inoperative fountains and the faulty plumbing that soaked the grass, August Heckscher, then park commissioner, replied:
"Shortly after the fountains were turned on, it was discovered that there was a defect in the circulating system and that one of the fountains required further modification. The contractor is responsible for effecting the necessary repairs. It is expected that the fountain will be operating during the spring."
Spring has been a long time in coming--about 40 years, apparently. On my visit, there were no thistles, beer cans, or other blight. But only one pool out of three is fountain-fed, and on a glorious summer morning, it played for the enjoyment of just two souls, one of whom was unconscious and prostrate. Oh, and for one Enquiring Blogger, to whom the park's spokesman has promised some updated information shortly on the Fate of the Fountains.