Russell Page wrote an article for House & Garden Magazine in 1977 entitled The Shaping of a Garden. “Imagine a small plot of ground behind high iron railings that enclose it from the street on the south. On the west side is the new Frick pavilion with a classical facade on the lines of a 17th century orangery. Elaborate 18th century style stone walls 20 feet high complete the northern and eastern sides. Beyond are the rather sleazy backs of high buildings. The whole faces south, so there is light and air…
The Russell Page Garden known as the 70th Street Garden at The Frick Collection was been the center of controversy. In August 2014 plans were announced to dismantle the garden for a proposed addition to The Frick Collection. Defenders of the garden organized and the garden was saved. Last night The Garden Conservancy organized a conversation, “Restoring the 70th Street Garden featuring Lynden B. Miller, Public Garden Designer, Richard Southwick, Director of Historic Preservation at Beyer Blinder & Belle and James Brayton Hall, President and CEO of the Garden Conservancy.
Lynden Miller is one of the most prominent public garden designers and has been hired to direct the “restoration” of the 70th Street Garden. The garden will be dismantled in order to construct several new features. Under the pool is a WWII bomb-proof shelter that was built as storage vault for the Fricks’ paintings and has been leaking for years. In addition, an auditorium will be built under the garden. After that the garden will be restored.
It was obvious Miller had done extensive research on the garden: looking through the archives, Page’s sketches, purchase orders and his extensive comments about the garden. Miller’s insights into the design mirrored Page’s writings about the garden.
“I first set a planter 60 feet long, 5 wide and 4 1/2 deep, on a steel framework behind the top of the north wall. Planted thickly with trees,this suggests a neighboring garden at a higher level. The buildings cease to dominate.
“To give spaciousness, I decided to make it mainly lawn with low plantings concentrated in narrow beds at the foot of the north and east walls. Even this central lawn would not give me the sense of distance I thought was needed, so set axially on the great central French windows of the new wing, I made a rectangular pool as large as I dared (it takes up a third of the lawn area). This pool with a narrow flat stone rim is dead level with the grass. Water between buildings helps to cheat on distance… At the Frick Garden a visitor looking from the street sees a narrow strip of water, which seems to make the back wall recede. Seen from inside the building, the rectangle becomes square – so already I have two quite different compositions in a very small area.” Russell Page
What did I learn about the garden that could not be gleaned from reading Russell Page? Hardly anything. It is a cliche to say that all gardens change over time. This restoration will remove 400 box, numerous shrubs, trees which are now out of scale, etc. Miller has counted all the plants, trees, etc. in the garden. She mentioned that T Fleisher well-known soil expert and Andrea Filippone, renowned diva on boxwood will be advising on the restoration of the garden.
Miller worked on Paley Park. “We took everything out. When we were done, the neighborhood, who were up in arms about the restoration process, came to the garden and said, It looks exactly the way it did before. That is what we intend to do at the 70 Street Garden.”
Galen Lee, Frick Collection Horticulturist and Special Event Designer sat in the audience. Miller often called out to him to identify a specific tree planted in the 70 St. Garden or a detail of the design. Lee knew Russell Page. For seven years following the design of the garden in 1977, Page stopped by the Frick Garden, twice a year and spoke with Lee. I wondered why Lee was not on the stage with those hired to restore the garden. Asked about the seasonal plantings, Lee related what Page had told him “Flowers were for the nannies to look down on from the higher floors.”
The most important take away from last night’s event: re-read Russell Page’s The Education Of A Gardener.