May 7, 2012


"This is Harlem? Are you kidding me? What other places like this exist in Harlem that I am unaware of? I want to live here." Those were my thoughts as a kind tenant let me through the tall gates to a lengthy, high-arched entrance supported by pinkish-brown polished granite columns. I stepped into the courtyard of Graham Court. In front of me stood the slightly elevated oval garden constructed of concrete with a circular planter siting in the middle. A cross axis divided the oval and created four large beds and four paths and on either side of each path entrance were square pedestals. My research later revealed that globes of electric lamps on spindly iron posts once stood on these and the circular planter was the base of what originally was a water fountain.

Built at the end of the eighteen hundreds in the style of Italian palazzo buildings, Graham Court was prized as the stylish and exclusive luxury residence of the wealthy. It was designed by architects Charles Clinton and William Russell, the same designers of the Astor Hotel and the Apthorp, for William Waldorf Astor. Made of limestone, brick and terracotta, the building spans the entire block between 116th and 117th Streets with the entrance on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Graham Court has been compared to the Dakota for its bulky, fortress-like structure and stables which occupied the basement level. The apartments are suited with mahogany and oak floors, high ceilings and the ones I was privileged to visit had multiple bedrooms, separate dining rooms, claw-foot baths and original molding details. Over the years the building and courtyard have been featured in films including a scene that was to be set in Russia. In fact at the time of my last visit, a crew was preparing a few apartments to shoot another film.

It is a garden in part sun enclosed by eight stories of apartments. The large gated entrance which leads out to the street allows for air circulation and I was surprised to see some sun-loving plants thriving there. It appears that the original garden design contained a few shrubs including rhododendron (one in each bed), a tallish vase-shaped shrub which I am guessing is Hibiscus, some yucca and other small plants placed to create symmetry among all four beds. No lavish plantings or horticultural feat.  There was also a low-growing ground cover, possibly grass. The original design was not meant to encourage seating.

Photo Courtesy of Architectural Record, 1901

Currently the plantings consists of a multitude of hibiscus, a few taxus, cotoneaster, euonymus, some scraggly roses and Hydrangea macrophylla. In the bed at the north east corner stands a Cornus florida next to purple-leaved Japanese maple which was smothered by a giant hibiscus. At the south end of the south west bed grows a Lagerstroemia (crape myrtle). I was pleasantly surprised to find this shrub with its elegant cinnamon bark. It stands at about twelve feet tall and is the largest crape myrtle that I've seen in Harlem. Crape myrtles are marginally hardy to this area but this one may be helped by the protective barrier created by the surrounding buildings. One bed contained a massive mildew- covered droopy euonymus shrub. Grass has since then been replaced by vigorous creeping euonymus. The oval garden is separated from planting beds near the entrances of the buildings by a paved road, wide enough for a car or horse carriage. These beds are covered by a mixture of Vinca minor, English ivy, liriope and hostas above which tower hibiscus and an occasional yew. On the north side there is a Eunonymus alatus, again smothered by a hibiscus bush and on the southeast side stands what appears to be one Aronia melancarpa.

I was brought in to help manage the overgrown shrubs. There was no budget for regular garden maintenance and volunteers had in the past done whatever and whenever they could or saw fit.

Numerous hibiscus had re-seeded and created hundreds of small trees and saplings. These may all be from generations of offspring from the original shrubs planted over a century ago, and each one, even the saplings, was covered in unbelievable amounts of sap-sucking gray aphid colonies. Also, these shrubs were not pruned in late winter and there was much new growth on top of the old seed capsules. The unusually warm winter and following dry spring only added to the aphid situation which is so out of control that it will take immediate and regular spraying to reduce the population. I did some light pruning of the shrubs and found that I needed goggles to keep aphids out of my eyes. I was covered in them.

Thick winter creeper had climbed into the tops of shrubs. I discovered that there is a terracotta edged planting circle buried under vines in the midst of each bed. This deep carpet, while providing year-round greenery, coupled with the ivy, masses of green hostas and deep green liriope has made the garden green, too green and a bit somber-looking. Broken terracotta and plastic pots sat among the shrubs and spindly trumpet vines slouched along walls of the buildings with no support in sight. There is little variation of shades of green and no variegation. Apart from the deep red of the maple, a few remaining flowers on the dogwood and one rhododendron, there was no color in mid-April. Dead or dying branches and stems needed to be pruned from the maple, crape myrtle, yews and rhododendrons. Some residents had tried to remove unsightly growth by breaking of the limbs, leaving unsightly stubs. Other dead limbs just hung there.

Interesting, the dynamics of working with a group of volunteers. Gardening is a great pastime and has rapidly become a popular American hobby. There is pleasure and a sense of pride in watching the bulb planted a few months earlier pushing its way out of the ground in spring and knowing that you are doing a bit to improve your immediate surroundings and the environment. Gardening is relaxing and when done at a leisurely pace and without strain it can be very therapeutic. It prevents visits to the doctor and shrink. Unfortunately though, many do not understand that there are distinct lines between gardening as a hobby and gardening as a profession and on both sides there tends to be varying degrees of knowledge and experience. I've found that almost anyone who has done a bit of gardening considers themselves a gardener and some may even think they are experts. During the eleven hours, (spread over two days) that I worked in the garden at Graham Court there were strong opinions about the ivy growing near concrete and inching up the walls; about the "deadly" euonymus that would "strangle" the shrubs; how and when certain shrubs should be sheared or cut to the ground and opinions on what was considered a weed. Many residents stopped to give positive feedback and thank me for "finally doing something". Others simply made comments to each other or on the phone as they walked past, expressing their opinions or detailing their gardening experience and knowledge some gained through having been related to a landscaper. One made it known that gardening "was his other life" and another chronicled his past as a professional gardener.

The situation is the same in community gardens that I've visited in the city where opinions are rife and I am careful about giving feedback even when it is requested. So often I would notice someone doing something that would be harmful to the life of their plants, their plot or the entire garden and I bite my tongue for fear of offending. As with each of their five by ten foot raised beds, community gardeners are often territorial and resist encroachment on their gardening styles. Some consider themselves experts in the field and many are willing to dispense information rather than accept it easily.

I also encountered strong opinions about how much a gardener should be paid since volunteers had been gardening for years without pay (hence the word "volunteer"). The notion that a gardener is the hired help to mow the lawn, pick up the dog poop and do whatever he or she is instructed and be paid as such is not uncommon. Further compounding the situation is misinformation about the differences between the person who may adequately cut the lawn, add mulch and shear hedges and a gardener. Or the differences between a gardener and garden or landscape designer. I have witnessed groups under supervision of an "expert" planting in waterlogged soil, plantings with root balls half way above soil level and throughout the city you can see evidence of horrifically butchered trees, by experts of course. Around Harlem I have noticed red and orange mulch placed under the perfectly manicured shrubs, all looking like they belong outside Ms. Havisshram's cottage. It seems to be the look that many maintenance crews emulate. There is little to be done when it comes to teaching aesthetics in gardening. As with so many areas, taste is subjective and very much so with a group of volunteers with little or no gardening experience or trained eyes who may be of the opinion that gardening is a no-brainer; anyone can do it. After all, how difficult can it be to pull a weed or two or plop a plant in the dirt and cover up the roots? Lawn Boy, Gardener, Horticulturist, Garden Designer, Landscaper, Landscape Designer, Landscape Architect - all the same, right?
With a limited budget, thus limited time, my goal was to establish a bit of order to the overgrown plants, give advice about what could be done to enhance the garden and arm two capable and committed potential group leaders with a few steps to share with volunteers. There was no lack of interest or eagerness to garden. There was also an obvious willingness by residents to lend financial support. As with the garden near my apartment building and other new gardens, a bit or organization, regular meetings, commitment, planned events like trips to other gardens and garden exhibits and lectures, incentives like group dinners and refreshments during or after work sessions and recognition, this group may well be successful at doing regular seasonal plantings and weed management.

Ideally I would overhaul and redesign the beds to include plants for creating light, contrast, color and more symmetry. Especially since the garden is viewed from above and is the centerpiece of the building it should be enjoyed at ground level and be beautiful from every floor. Adding a few tall shrubs and repeating the red of the maple (which matches the upper facade) will create balance. Although they will provide color in summer, I would remove and transplant many of the hibiscus that are dominating the space. I'm not particularly fond of hibiscus but some would stay since they were part of the original design. It may be costly to replicate the original lamps (which I think overshadowed the original plantings and there is a pair at the entrance of each building) and water fountain but the garden can be restored to its original glamor with elegant stone planters of clipped boxwood on each of the pedestals. As with the original design, seating is not encouraged but residents sit along the edge of the oval and often remove any lightweight planters placed on the pedestals. Heavy, sturdy planters and obvious attention and care for the garden may curb this habit. Maintaining evergreen and colorful plants in the circular planter and replacing the urn with a larger, taller one would also make an impact. Along with supplemental seasonal plantings like annuals in spring and summer, bulbs for spring flowers, fall planting in September and winter greenery the garden can be an interesting and beautiful oasis all year long. Immediate pest management and regular pruning would be crucial.

I am very happy to have found this beautifully constructed garden and building in Harlem, a very exciting place to live in New York. Graham Court has inspired me to learn more about the history and preservation of other buildings and gardens in in the area. I am thrilled to have had brief access to this historic building and I bet many landlords and realtors would also like access. Over the years there have been attempts at converting the apartments to condominiums and while some are eager for this move, others are comfortable with their rent-control status. With the ongoing gentrification of Harlem, construction and increasing ownership of once-rental apartments, I think that change will come to Graham Court sooner that many occupants would like. Some have stuck it out and continue to struggle through obstacles and uncertainties surrounding management and its future. Graham Court, the apartments and the garden, are very much worth fighting for, landlords, unlawful and unruly renters, aphids, weeds and all. It also needs to be restored and maintained as the landmark that it is and be forever highlighted as one of the jewels of Harlem.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...