I had the pleasure of visiting Wave Hill in late May on a warm Saturday by way of Megabus, Metro-North Hudson Line, and some urban hiking. Located in the Hudson River Highlands in Riverdale, Bronx in New York City, the property overlooks the commanding Hudson River and the Palisades Interstate Parkway. Views are an important feature of this site, most notably the legendary Palisades cliffs, which were forever protected from further quarrying when the parkway was built. We can mostly thank the Women ‘s Clubs of New Jersey for this major preservation effort in the late 1890’s. Additionally, one of the founding fathers of modern preservation in America, Teddy Roosevelt, spent the summers of 1870 and 1871 here with his family and likely helped developed his deep respect for the natural world. By the way, I’ll also mention that one of best storytellers of of American themes and language through travel, the one and only Mark Twain leased the estate from 1901-03.
Wave Hill has a pretty impressive pedigree of owners and occupants over the years, several of who enhanced the property to capitalize on the beauty in the distance. I call this effort and exercise “borrowed landscape”, and the term was first coined as “borrowed scenery” by the Chinese in the 17th century as a way to incorporate background scenery into the composition of landscape design. Beginning as a country home originally built in 1843 by lawyer William Lewis Morris, the grounds were later greatly enhanced publishing icon William Henry Appleton from 1866-1903, who used the property to host the leading natural scientists of the time. One of these visionaries was Thomas Henry Huxley, who helped Charles Darwin popularize the theory of evolution by natural selection. By 1903, George W. Perkins, a partner of J.P. Morgan, bought Wave Hill House and greatly enhanced the landscape to reflect the turn of the century popular sentiments such as the arts and crafts movement. By this time Appleton had already laid out a sizable garden and greenhouse, but Perkins expanded this vision of inspirational vistas by adding more greenhouses, terraces, pastoral lawns, and select contouring to support the underpinnings of a botanic gardens with specimen trees and woody plants. Best of all, this borrowed landscape vision was designed to blend in seamlessly into the Hudson landscape. Fast forward to 1960, the Perkins-Freeman family gifted Wave Hill to the City of New York, and five years later Wave Hill, Inc., was formed as a non-profit corporation.
Now that i’ve set the scene for how this great garden came to be, I’ll mention a few of the highlights and observations.
- You guessed it… the views and vistas. Terraces were created and earth was moved in strategic places to capitalize on viewsheds, sightlines, garden axis, focal points, and gateways. The estate is composed of various gardens and rooms connected by broad lawns and openings, and the several clearings and high points in the property reveal a great expanse to the west to those wonderful, preserved Palisades cliffs. I’d be real interested in the garden’s provisions for historic viewshed management as stately, specimen trees grow over time.
- Art and Architectural representation. The original Morris house was built in the Greek Revival style in 1843-44. Between 1909-1928 Dr. Bashford Dean, first curator of Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, leased the estate and commissioned architect Dwight James Baum to build the Armor Hall wing. The other home on the property, Glyndor House, was built in the Georgian Revival style on a prime vantage point. Perkins hired architect C. Grant La Farge and later Robert M. Byers to make additions and revisions over time. Cool town and city planning fact: according to their website “The location of the recreation building may have been selected by Perkins to help prevent a future grid system of streets in the area; it is directly in the path of a projected street. ” Vienna-trained gardner Albert Millard laid out the gardens.
- Check out the Wave Hill Chair, a signature commercially available chair designed by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld in 1918 and dressing the many spaces of the garden. The originals are now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
- T. H. Everett Alpine House. I was really taken by the alpine house, wall, and terrace and its abundance of alpine troughs, containers and hypertufa containers. The garden is in an exposed area and the prevailing winds that gust up the river help mimic the harsh conditions of the mountains.
- I mentioned that this garden has many arts and crafts elements, and this theme prevails in the Wild Garden, which was inspired by the informal wild gardens adopted in the English landscape and popularized by garden designer and writer William Robinson. Finding beauty in natural materials and native plants is key here!
- I’m revisiting this post June 2017 to share this interesting article about the important of visual impacts on historic landscape. Advocate for your views and borrowed landscape! Shalimar Gardens may lose World Heritage Site status because of visual impacts
So visit on a nice warm day and find refuge under a stately tree in a Wave Hill chair.