The backyard at the Cornelius Van Buren house on Green Street features Japanese-inspired gardens and a koi pond.
The Hidden Gardens of Kingston
Amid urban streets, a trove of backyard oases
By Deborah Medenbach
Photos by Steve Borland
HUBS AND HAVENS, GRAND FACADES and intimate retreats. The hidden gardens of Kingston emerge from four centuries of blending urban and country living.
A surprise throughout the city is the number of elaborate gardens that are designed for private, personal enjoyment rather than as street-level public showplaces.
Take the Cornelius Van Buren House on Green Street. The quiet street turns sharply at this property, and all that is viewable from the road is the formal stone facade and fenced side yards, creating an inscrutable visual wall that directs passersby to keep on going. It didn’t keep the British from burning it in 1777, and the only nod to grace is a cursory row of flowers between the bluestone sidewalk and the foundation.
It’s what’s behind the fence that drops the jaw in wonder. The handiwork of nearly a century of cultivation, the Japanese-inspired gardens feature a koi pond, waterfall, footbridge and a rock garden, as well as rolling lawns and specimen trees. A painting of the garden from the 1930s remained with the house after its recent sale. The former owner had attempted to fully recreate the 1930s garden, but relinquished the idea after her husband’s passing.
Finance writer Firth Calhoun works from his garden-level office in the Van Buren House, which he calls “The Bunker.” A Dutch door gives him the benefit of flowered breezes, yet safely contains his 7-year-old rescue dog, a snoozy bull mastiff named Maxwell.
He rises before dawn each morning, taking in the restful views and bird song or sipping coffee with his wife, Heddy Matteson, from the screened porch one level up. He doesn’t mind the distant sound of passing freight trains at night, though Heddy starts awake at their 3 a.m. crossing blasts. Firth always lived in a 17-something-or-other house and the lack of predictable symmetry and unique idiosyncrasies are part the charm of living in one.
“I like the Japanese garden just fine, but will probably add a vegetable garden on the side. I know there’s a farmers market and all, but I like the act of growing them,” Calhoun said. His apartment in New York has four balconies that serve as a vertical farm. “It’s ironic that I probably can get more vegetables from my city garden, and here I’ll have to hunt for a good place with all of these mature trees.” Still, it’s the act that makes the difference and he hopes for homegrown tomatoes and kale.
35 acres of forest, flowers and water
In the same vein, Tom Pfeffer’s 1803 Federal-style stone house on Albany Avenue appears to be on a small lot on a major thoroughfare. Aligned with the sunny front wall are a row of bee hives that hint at his and his sweetheart Susan Hereth’s affection for honey and blossoms. An ill-advised stand of bamboo nearby was ripped out and replaced with a jewel-toned tumble of wildflowers. The compact use of the front yard is misleading. Tucked behind the historic six-bedroom Jacob Ten Broeck stone house is a wide terrace that overlooks an expansive 35 acres of forest, marsh, a willow-fringed pond and gardens. Not too many years ago, Pfeffer raised sheep there, which escaped regularly and ended up pictured on the front page of a local newspaper as they browsed placidly on the Senate House lawn.
A collector, Pfeffer has peppered his home with neatly organized surveys of everyday objects, from the progressive development of camera design arranged in a stairway, to homey yellowware pottery, to natural history specimens of skulls, feathers, shells and rocks. Not everyone can say their coffee table sports both a hippopotamus and giraffe skull. Shadowboxes of family mementos pin life events in place as neatly as a butterfly collection.
Champagne and wisteria
Rosemarie Maresca coveted her neighbor’s driveway. “It’s one thing to move your car in the middle of a snowstorm when you’re young, but when you get around Medicare age, it’s a big deal,” Maresca said of her St. James Street home.
When her neighbor’s house on Fair Street came up for sale, she and her husband, Don, snapped it up, also gaining a yard that backed up against their own.
With the purchase of the second house, they owned the most expansive rear yard in the neighborhood, outsizing even that of horticulturist neighbor Herb Cutler, who’d designed many of the historic public gardens around the City of Kingston and whose own shady lawn sported a Verrocchio cherub framed by trimmed boxwoods and a towering Dawn Redwood.
When Cutler was a young horticulture student in the 1930s, he learned to propagate boxwood from cuttings at the Williamsburg Gardens. This formed the foundation of his own garden, now registered with the Smithsonian, and also the boxwoods of Rosemarie’s.
“He taught me how to do it. If anyone could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, it was him,” Maresca, who is now a Master Gardener, said with modesty. The elderly mentor and student formed a solid friendship after she bought the second house. “I had tea with him every single day for 10 years. It was always a cup of tea with the fireplace going. It was only the last six months of his life that we couldn’t do that anymore.”
Cutler also initiated her into a charming garden tradition that was the invitational “get” of the season through the 1990s.
“He said, ‘If you have wisteria and it’s in bloom, you must have a party.’ He was close to 90 then, but I did it for him. It started with just his friends. I found a violinist who would perform from 2-4 p.m. Before long it was neighbors and friends of friends. It was an easy way to show the garden. We’d have dessert and champagne and fresh strawberries,” Maresca recalled. The tradition ended when the champagne order exceeded five cases and she couldn’t quite identify all the guests who flocked to it.
Maresca now has 400 feet of boxwood parterre with a continual flower display at its edge from spring to fall.
“Every morning I put on my garden clothes, even if it’s just for the walk around the yard, and think about what needs to be done,” Maresca said. “Then I’ll pause in a particularly beautiful part of the garden. That’s what it’s all about.”
Form and function
What happens when a “certified master composter” meets a boarded-up house with a yard the texture of bricks? Julian Lesser and Philippe Trinh saw opportunity knocking and the word “remediation” is their battle cry.
The house, distinguished as the last Social
Rosemarie Maresca’s garden features 400 feet of boxwood with a continual flower display from spring through autumn.
Services dwelling owned by the city before it got out of low-income housing, was vacant and vandalized for two years. The dirt driveway was a rutted pit and tracks cut through the yard by impatient pedestrians was the only thing beating back the unmown grass. On May 11, 2012, as a scraggly rose in the front yard optimistically put out imploring buds, Lesser and Trinh took ownership of the house that is now a beautifully appointed bed and breakfast called The St. James, which houses visiting film stars on location shoots.
How did they begin? The soil was hard packed and infertile. When they dug post holes for the fences they found garbage: plastic bags, medicine bottles, broken glass, siding and bricks. Lots and lots of bricks.
“We planted 100 trees and swore there must have been a brick road behind our house,” Trinh said.
Today the picket-fenced front yard is landscaped with benches, flowers and fruit trees. The roses have been tended. The back yard has a full perimeter garden of hostas, flowers and a koi pond with little toad houses tucked into the mulch. There are two large raised-bed organic vegetable gardens. Where a dirt pit once was is now a riverstone sitting area with a bluestone patio.
“Our goal was remediation of the land, so for every hole we dug, we’d make it two to three times larger than it would normally have to be so we could backfill it with rich soil to benefit the roots of our plants. What we didn’t create from our own compost, we’d buy from locally sourced compost materials, like Croswell’s,” Lesser said.
Their own land remediation led to noticing that there was room for local businesses and residents to hire a hauler to take away home and business food waste and give back composted “shares,” similar to the local CSA model.
“There’s a lot of focus on local farm-to-table, so we wanted to create a business that was from table back to local farm/gardens,” Lesser said. The two formed the company Compost Valley (compostvalley.com) and partnered with Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency to develop pickup routes through New Paltz, Rosendale, Kingston and Woodstock as well as exploring options in Dutchess County.
The grand and historic
It was 1977 when businessman Taylor Thompson and his wife, Elizabeth, an interior designer, came across a neglected Calvert Vaux house that the celebrated 19th-century architect had designed in 1886 for prominent Rondout merchant Frank Griffiths. With 18 rooms on three floors, the Shingle style home was oriented toward river views instead of visitors arriving from West Chestnut Street. Over the ensuing 20 years, the Thompsons redid the functional infrastructure of the house with new heat, plumbing and electric, and refurbished the elaborate interior woodwork. The outer living spaces included a large screened-in sitting area where the main entrance once stood. Taylor pointed out where the driveway formerly circled to the house from a valley to the rear, giving the impression of added height and grandeur on approach. The Thompsons blocked off the old entrance and added a horseshoe drive with flowered slopes, a large contemporary sculpture by Ernie Shaw and meandering bluestone paths to the street side, where guests now enter through what was once the servants’ entrance. Passersby often mistake the front yard for a park and the Thompsons frequently shoo picnickers off the teardrop-shaped lawn.
The rear of the house is terraced with rock gardens and a bluestone swimming pool. There, instead of picnickers, the Thompsons battle insurgent groundhogs. In the end, the Thompsons prevailed and their restoration efforts earned them a Friends of Historic Kingston Preservation Award in 2011.
Small is beautiful
Across town on Crane Street, a modest brick house sits on a small lot just paces from the bustling Children’s Home of Kingston. Garden designer Scott Zimmer, who studied at the New York Botanical Garden and also holds degrees in fine art and architecture from Pratt and SUNY New Paltz, sees small as beautiful. Accustomed to transforming urban rooftops and storefronts into pocket gardens for his clients, Zimmer turned his Crane Street residence into a hedged, private retreat in what otherwise would be a very public piece of property. Zimmer’s 20 years of garden experience guided his ability to bring in all the classic garden elements of a private deck sitting area, specimen trees, ivies, garden art and ceramics with tumbling flowers and borders in a space the size of a living room.
Behind the Cordts Mansion
A few blocks away on Lindsley Avenue, the Cordts Mansion perches on a hilltop with expansive lawns and views of the Rondout and Hudson River. Built by brick magnate John A. Cordts in 1873 of bricks from his own work yard down the hill, the 30-room mansion is now owned by neo-expressionist painter Hunt Slonem.
“Mr. Cordts could watch his workers from various balconies of the mansion,” estate manager Marty Roberts said. “He could see the Hudson River on one side and the Rondout on the other.”
The grounds include peony beds, daffodil and wisteria gardens in the spring with show-stopping displays. A central lawn fountain surrounded by hostas is more fragile than it appears and Roberts has rebuilt it more than once.
Slonem owns several historic estates around the country and cycles objects in and out for visual inspiration. A man of eclectic tastes, it was rumored that Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles planned a film about Slonem’s creative process. When the mansion was to be sold a couple of years ago, Slonem emptied the building from basement to attic, Roberts said. When the deal fell through, Slonem soon refilled the rooms and rearranged furniture, art, and color schemes in a continual flow of change.
As Slonem is a devoted meditator, a glass-enclosed meditation balcony with the best views of the flowering landscape is where he closes his eyes to go within.
Artist Hunt Slonem owns the Cordts Mansion on Lindsley Avenue. His grounds include a central lawn fountain surrounded by hostas and floral displays.