I recently took a free tour of the Conservatory Garden in Central Park. Joe, who hails from Wisconsin, was the volunteer/gardener leading us on this tour. His love for the garden showed as he went into detail about the annual and seasonal plantings, while winding us through the 6 acre maze. It was mainly a horticultural event with a few history facts tacked on. We learned that this was the 2nd most dangerous spot in Central Park in the 1970′s. Good to know that criminals appreciate beauty as well. A lot has changed since then, in terms of safety, and now this part of the park is dominated by wedding ceremonies, Women’s Luncheons of the Central Park Conservancy, and tourists.
It’s worth noting that perhaps the end of summer is not the best time to visit, nonetheless, the majestic year-round beauty of the Central Park’s only formal garden, keeps everyone’s senses on high alert. If one wanted to be awed by nature at its very extreme, then it would be worth to visit at the end of May when the wisteria blooms. Not to be missed are the crabapple trees that come into their own around the same time, with blush pink that fades to white.
The Garden’s main entrance is through the Vanderbilt Gates located at 5th Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets. These gates were made in Paris in 1894. They later graced the Vanderbilt mansion on 5th Avenue and 58th Street before being donated and installed in 1939 at their present location. Once you enter you are immediately confronted with the Italian Garden, one of the three gardens that make up the Conservancy Garden. The other two being the French and English gardens. The Italian Garden includes the great expanse of lawn, the central fountain and the surrounding hedges bordered by two allees of crabapple trees. The steps at the western most end of the garden lead one up to the pergola, which is covered with wisteria. There are 13 medallions located on the walkway underneath the pergola. They are inscribed with the names of the 13 original states. When you’re perched up high on top of this walkway, you are confronted with an amazing view of the garden as well as the Cardinal Cook Health Care building, just across the street on 5th Avenue. It has this Spanish/Florida style, confusing many into thinking they’re not in the middle of NYC, but rather on some grand Palm Beach estate.
The north side of the garden is known as the French Garden. It includes a very pleasant fountain topped with a statue of “Three Dancing Maidens” which was once part of the Samuel Untermyer estate in the Bronx. This part of the garden is known for it’s seasonal display of tulips, about 20,000 in all. Many of the flowers are donated by the public and later given back. Come late autumn, the public is invited to pull out the mums and take them for themselves. A win win situation.
The southern part is known as the English Garden. In its center is a sculpture by Bessie Potter. It’s a tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the Secret Garden. When I visited there were a couple of painters enjoying the serenity of this intimate spot. Hostas, calla lilies and many other fragrant flowers surround the fountain in the middle and add to the sensory overload. It’s no wonder why artists choose this spot.
During a seething summer evening in 1953, Lexington Avenue on the corner of 63rd Street received a sprinkling of clothing, an entire wardrobe really, thrown from the rooftop of the Barbizon Hotel. The intoxicated young woman, demonstrating her unhappiness during her last night in the city, was Sylvia Plath. Her summer stay at the Barbizon Hotel would later figure prominently in her most famous autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.
The Barbizon hotel’s story begins in 1926 when it was built specifically as a “Club Residence for Professional Women”. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that its reputation blossomed as THE hotel for young single and gorgeous females. There were other hotels in New York City specifically for women, but the Barbizon stood apart, namely due to its exclusivity. A woman had to have two letters of recommendation along with impeccable manners and dress in order to be allowed a room at this semi-dormitory style hotel.
Between 1940-1970, such famous names as Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Cybill Shepherd, Candice Bergen, Joan Didion, and Betsey Johnson made the Barbizon their home. Eileen Ford who ran the Ford Modeling Agency regularly rented rooms at the Barbizon for many of her models. In the 2010 April issue of Vanity Fair, the author Michael Callahan describes it well; “If the Barbizon had a face, it was that of Grace Kelly in “Rear Window”: A-Line dresses, opera gloves, and smart pillbox hats with netting”.
With so many beautiful and talented women in one building, it was no wonder men were always trying to find a way to sneak it. Security would not allow them above the first floor, but with enough motivation, some would try posing as a doctor or father to gain entry. The hotel officially started to admit men in 1981 as times were changing and all-women’s hotels were a thing of the past.
Nowadays, this former hotel is known as “Barbizon 63” after its conversion to condos in 2006. The insides have been gutted and refurbished and one would need a pretty penny in order to own an apartment there. Nonetheless, it will always be a city icon, symbolizing a safe retreat for career women during most of its existence. The recent landmark status it gained this past April will keep its beautiful coral brick façade from changing and its memory from becoming a pretty thing of the past.
The Brooklyn Women’s Exchange is the oldest continuously operated exchange in our nation, dating all the way back to 1854. It operates as a retail store where artists and craftspeople have the opportunity to sell their one-of-a-kind items. As one of the most unique stores that I have been to, I can only say that it carries with it the essence of a long gone era that still permeates throughout. You’ll just have to visit and see for yourself. Here’s a video link.
There are adorable baby clothes and toys, craft items, books and special gifts. On the first sunday of each month, there’s always an inspiring craft project for children 3 and up. Another foregone era treasure is when the Artist Deborah O’Connor, who specializes in Silhouette Portraits, is in town. This year she will be visiting on April 19th, 20th, and 21st. Always best to make an appointment. I was able to take my son to one of these sittings last year where they even had a camera crew filming. It’s a dying art and therefore quit a special experience.
The best part about the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange, is that you’re only 2 blocks away from a stroll on the Promenade. Before you go traipsing down that magical path, with Louis Stettner views, don’t forget to stop into “Connecticut Muffin” (115 Montague St.) for a tasty treat.
“The Lane” is a gated, yet at rare times, open passageway leading one from Central Park South onto 58th Street. It semi-resembles a Parisian Shopping Arcade, yet unlike for example the Vero-Dodat in Paris’ 1st arrondissement, “The Lane” does not have any shops, just a few windows with a jewelry display, minus the jewels at that. It is perhaps a poor example of an arcade, but the best New York example, probably the only one the city has.
“The Lane” is part of the Hemsley Park Lane Hotel. It has a courtyard in the middle, with an open sky, and views of magnificently lit buildings on 58th Street. On a recent stroll after a visit to the Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle, I made my way across Central Park South and noticed the gate to “The Lane” was left open. Being a very curious and one might even say, nosy New Yorker, I went on in and snapped a few photos just as the day was coming to a close.
Galerie Vero-Dodat (Paris, 1e)
At the easternmost end of 57th Street, there’s this little known park with a wild boar at its core. Known as Sutton Place Park, it has a remarkable view of the 59th Street Bridge as well as the East River. Very few people visit this park so you are mostly assured of a quiet time. The wild boar was a gift from philanthropist Hugh Trumball Adams and was installed in 1972. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that there are little toads, crabs, lizards and mice around the hoofs of the tender beast. The sculpture and its intricate details were copied from a replica done by Pietro Tacca called “Porcellino” in 1634. The original marble version, which both of these copies were based on, is housed in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
Sutton Place Park is relatively small but could very well be on the course to expand. The adjacent Co-op, 1 Sutton Place South, has lost the privilege of leasing what could be termed their “backyard” from the city. As of November 2011, plans are being set to turn 1 Sutton Place South’s former greenery into a public park. Of course the shareholders cannot be too thrilled.
The is one of those parks you accidentally stumble upon, never imagining such a space exists in a metropolitan area like NYC. Not only does it have a long history within the community, it’s also an extremely serene visual indulgence. The Garden is open to the public. You can be a member for a minimal contribution and partake in some planting, weeding and all forms of “getting dirty”.