Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Gramercy Park and the Chrysler Building

I work on Park Avenue South, near Gramercy Park. Every morning, after parking on 18th Street, I make the short walk to the office, crossing Irving Place, which presents a view of Gramercy Park just two blocks up. This area is still relatively small scale, with a feeling of the old New York. Gramercy Park is privately owned by the residents of the buildings around it. If you don't have a key, you can't get in. The park is an oasis of peace in the bustle of the City, wedged at the end of Irving Place, between the roaring traffic of Park Avenue South on one side and Third Avenue on the other. Most of the buildings are relatively low, and some very elegant 19th century townhouses remain, particularly a beautiful row on the west side of the park. Looking across the park, you see the Chrysler Building towering far up the narrow cleft of Lexington Avenue. Quite a contrast.

This rather incongruous image makes for a beautiful view, one I take delight in each morning. The contrast between the Art Deco icon with its theatrical verticality and the guiet little island of Gramercy Park suggests how such contrast might be used in the garden. The rather crude image below (my Photoshop skills are very limited) gives you the idea:  tall, square hornbeam columns amid the blousy perennial garden. Placement and size are only for trial; the positions and relative sizes will certainly change when I get around to the actual planting.

My garden consists mostly of herbaceous perennials. While the many large perennials do give a sense of height, the overall effect is of a wild horizontal planting. Some strong, clean verticals would add an element of formality and a feeling of height. I've ordered some English hornbeams (Carpinus betulus) to grow into vertical topiary columns. I chose hornbeams because they make great looking hedges, even retaining their brown leaves into winter, and they may be able to thrive in my wet clay. One full year should tell the tale.


  1. James,
    I think you are on the right track. You might try mocking them up with 2X4's wrapped in burlap. I like to do that and walk around the garden checking out different configurations from different directions. Winter is a great time to do it, too. Good luck.

  2. Your photos of the Chrysler Building, Irving Place and Gramercy Park conveys the energy of the city! I miss my more regular visits! Good luck with your choice of English hornbeam... you can do so much with it. You are so right that verticals add to our garden's interest and beauty.

  3. Love the idea of adding geometric green structure to the informal naturalistic plantings. Piet Oudolf and Tim Stuart-Smith both use this idea to great effect in their gardens. Oh, for enough space to play with these ideas in my own home garden...

  4. Michael,
    Very good idea; sounds like a lot of work but effective way to determine both position and relative scale.

  5. Carol,
    I realize the comparison between the Chrysler Building and a hornbeam column is rather tenuous, but I have been thinking about the vertical hedge and realized I was seeing an analogous situation in the city. What I like about Irving place is the relative slowness and quiet, probably because it's a cul de sac and traffic stays out.

  6. Susan,
    I did have a fleeting vision of those cloud-pruned hornbeams in Tom Stuart-Smith's top place Chelsea garden two years ago. But I think those had taken 20 or 40 years to grow. I really need more of this, but can't risk the cost since they may fail in my conditions.

  7. For the longest time hornbeam in the UK was seen as poor man's beech, and not used much at all. Things have changed now thankfully, it has a nicer leaf compared to beech and you can clip it just a little bit tighter when necessary for uber straight lines.

    What about some pleached hornbeam hedges for structure in your garden? your definitely not short of interesting under-planting looking at some previous blog photos.

  8. Will you be using a columnar variety or do intend on keeping them pruned?

    The fact that Gramercy Park is private, reminds of similar parks in London.

  9. Peter,
    Since I did this post, I've been thinking I may do hedges instead. The immediate question is whether the hornbeams will survive my saturated, wet clay conditions. Perhaps with judicious placement. I considered beech, which grows in the woods around here naturally, but in more well drained situations than I have.

  10. Les,
    I'm not using a columnar variety. They cost much more, and the only place I can find them is Forestfarm in Oregon. Shipping costs a fortune.



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