Montclair 150: Gardens connect to community
By PATRICIA CONOVER
For Montclair Local
Montclair is home to several magnificent gardens that are open to the public. These gardens have strong connections to our community. They provide a place of respite and peace. They are also educational. The gardens encourage everyone in the community to participate in the life of the garden.
For many Montclair residents, the gardens and their environs are a source of wonderful memories. John Sanders, who grew up in a house near the Van Vleck House & Gardens, recalls that Howard Van Vleck was a force to be reckoned with.
“When I was a little boy I used to see Mr. Van Vleck planting flowers, raking leaves or picking up stones in the neighborhood. He wore a big sun hat and he was strong. Some neighbors thought he was a landscaper,” said Sanders.
For Sanders, the memory was a life-long lesson.
“He wasn’t working only on his own property. Mr. Van Vleck believed in beautifying the whole of Montclair. This was his town and he was proud of it. If we all pitch in, we can enhance our community,” he said.
Elsa New, who lived in or near Montclair for most of her life, is a lifelong gardener.
“My father was a terrific gardener and he had a greenhouse,” she said. “I had my own victory garden during the Second World War. After I married and had children of my own, they became gardeners, too.”
New’s mother, Helen Shiman, knew Howard Van Vleck well. They worked on several community projects together.
“My mother used to say that he was a generous man who supported many local initiatives. She thought he was an incredible human being. She thought the world of him. He was that kind of person,” said New.
New moved to her own home in Montclair in 1960.
“I used to take the walk to the Avis Campbell Gardens because I lived off of South Mountain Avenue. What a beautiful area to walk in,” New said.
She took the Master Gardeners of Essex County course in the 1990s.
“Jonathan Forsell was my instructor. Our group met at the Presby Iris Gardens. He was a lovely man and a marvelous teacher. He had a wealth of knowledge about gardening,” New said.
New tended her own large garden for many years and grew vegetables and flowers. After her beloved husband, Bob New, passed away, she moved to a condominium.
Although she occasionally misses her extensive gardens, she’s still an active gardener.
“Now, I’m growing lots of magnificent flowers in pots. I’m growing every kind of flower– and they’re absolutely gorgeous,” she said.
VAN VLECK HOUSE & GARDENS
The gardens known today as Van Vleck House & Gardens once belonged, as the name suggests, to the Van Vleck family, who have had a presence in Montclair for over 150 years. Joseph Van Vleck Sr. moved to Montclair from Brooklyn, New York in 1868. He was the original owner of the property and he built the first family home in the early 1870s. That home was torn down in the 1960s.
The current U-shaped mansion was designed and built in 1916 by Joseph Van Vleck Jr., an architect. Howard Van Vleck, a skilled architect and horticulturist, inherited this house and its extensive gardens. He moved into the home in 1939 and raised his family there, living there for 50 years.
Howard Van Vleck planted the remarkable wisteria that graces the Doric columns at the back of the house. The lavish wisteria twists clockwise around one column and counter-clockwise around the other. Many garden aficionados make the pilgrimage to Van Vleck House & Gardens every year during the first weeks of May to see the gorgeous flowering vines of this 75-year-old tree. Howard Van Vleck hybridized rhododendrons and these beautiful hybrids are named for family members. He also planted many colorful perennials and annuals.
The magnolia grandiflora “Edith Bogue” has pride of place beside the elegant mansion. The
magnificent magnolia tree was a gift to Howard Van Vleck from Edith Bogue, who cultivated this winter-hardy tree, in 1961.
There are only two: one is at Van Vleck, and the other in the home of local rocker Warren Zanes, formerly the home of Edith Bogue herself. Zanes told Montclair Local that when he has questions about how to care for the tree, he calls Van Vleck.
In 1993, Howard Van Vleck’s heirs donated the house and gardens to the Montclair Foundation. The Montclair Foundation supports local nonprofit organizations and established the Van Vleck House & Gardens as a separate entity. The house is a center for nonprofit groups and is available to them for meetings, retreats and fundraisers. The Montclair Foundation and The Van Vleck House & Gardens at 21 Van Vleck St. have a significant influence on the community, providing education, music, and community outreach programs that enhance life in Montclair.
BROOKDALE PARK ROSE GARDEN
For almost 60 years, the Brookdale Park Rose Garden has provided a place of tranquility and beauty to Montclair residents.
In June 1959, the North Jersey Rose Society and the Essex County Parks Commission established the Brookdale Park Rose Garden, with a full name the Essex County Rose Garden at Brookdale Park. The Rose Garden spans 15,000 square feet and features 25 beds of colorful hybrid tea, floribunda, shrub, hybrid musk, polyantha, rugosa, and antique roses. The Brookdale Rose Garden partners with the Rutgers Master Gardeners of Essex County and the Essex County Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department and features more than 100 varieties of roses.
The Rutgers Master Gardeners of Essex County, the Brookdale Rose Garden Committee and community volunteers fund and maintain the Rose Garden. It is located in the Montclair section of Brookdale Park; visitors can access it from Grove Street.
AVIS CAMPBELL GARDENS AND GROUNDS
It’s been called a secret garden. That’s because even some old-time Montclair residents don’t know it’s there. Avis Campbell Gardens is one of the state’s most beautiful gardens, located behind the United Way Building at 60 South Fullerton Ave. The Garden Club of Montclair and gardening volunteers maintain it. They tend to the garden on Tuesday mornings from April to November.
Avis Campbell was a professional landscape artist. She was known for creating lovely patterns of color and texture. She developed the design for the gardens, creating the “wheel of life” which was constructed around a fountain.
The mission of the Avis Campbell Gardens, an organization created in 1982, is to create and promote beauty and to educate the public about gardens and gardening. There is also a memorial to Essex County residents who lost their lives on 9/11.
The Avis Campbell Gardens feature many annuals and more than 100 varieties of perennials.
PRESBY MEMORIAL IRIS GARDENS
One of the best-known gardens in New Jersey is the Essex County Presby Memorial Iris Gardens. This iris garden is one of the largest in the U.S., with more than 1,500 varieties.
The Essex County Presby Memorial Iris Gardens were founded in 1927 in tribute to Frank H. Presby, founder of the American Iris Society. John C. Wister, a landscape architect and horticulturist, designed the gardens. Barbara Walther was the president and curator of the Iris Gardens for its first fifty years. The gardens are managed by the Citizens Committee of the Presby Memorial Gardens of Montclair in partnership with the Essex County Park System.
The iris is centuries old. The old French kings used the fleur-de-lis as their icon, representing the wild Iris found everywhere in France.
In this article:
• Van Vleck House & Gardens, 21 Van Vleck St., vanvleck.org
• Essex County Rose Garden at Brookdale Park, Watchung Avenue, essexcountyparks.org
• Avis Campbell Gardens, 60 South Fullerton Ave., tinyurl.com/y8uwfxl9
• Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, 474 Upper Mountain Ave., presbyirisgardens.org/wordpress/
sources: Jenny Bakshi; Charles Fischer, executive director of Van Vleck House & Gardens; Montclair Public Library Archives; Elsa New; John Sanders; Caroline Seebohm and Peter C. Cook; “Great Houses and Gardens of New Jersey.” Rutgers University Press: 2003.; vanvleck.org; MGEssex.org; presbyirisgardens.org/wordpress/