The recent greenhouse accident at Van Vleck House and Gardens is not the first the arboretum has experienced, and one of those prior incidents has landed The Montclair Foundation in court.

According to court records, police and a parent that reached out to Montclair Local, three children have fallen through the greenhouse on the Van Vleck property, run by The Montclair Foundation, in recent years. 

The most recent incident on July 9 involved a 7-year-old Nutley resident, who was visiting the gardens when he apparently went off the path and began to climb the greenhouse, police said. He fell through three panes of glass, and about six feet, confirmed Van Vleck officials. 

Two earlier incidents were reported in 2017. In February of that year, a 12-year-old fell through the greenhouse roof while visiting the gardens with her family, according to the girl’s mother, Jennifer May. Two months later, in April, a 6-year-old boy who was having his birthday party at the gardens climbed on the greenhouse and also fell through, according to a suit filed in Essex County Superior Court.

There are two greenhouses aligned next to one another located behind the visitor and education centers, and near a butterfly garden. The structure is roped off with a cable, said Van Vleck officials.

Map showing the greenhouse in the center with the paths around it
Map showing the greenhouse in the center with the paths around it

The original greenhouse, 60 feet long by 10 feet wide, was built in 1920 and much of the original glass remains. In 2002, the foundation received approval by the zoning board to build another greenhouse adjacent to the original, in order to provide the space for “educational programs and to propagate rare and interesting plant material that is only found on the Van Vleck property.” The new greenhouse is 15 feet tall, and measures 30 by 50 feet, according to zoning board minutes. What sections of the greenhouse the children went through was not made available for each incident.

In the first incident, the 12-year-old girl was playing hide-and-seek with her sister and father when she went behind the bushes beyond a path which is located above the greenhouse. The greenhouse abuts a hill with a path on top, and the girl slipped down the hill and through the roof, said May.

“Our daughter came upon the sloped roof accidentally, started sliding and couldn’t stop before she crashed through and fell,” said May. 

The greenhouse at Van Vleck House and Gardens.
The greenhouse at Van Vleck House and Gardens.

Hearing the crash and breaking glass, the family ran to the greenhouse, which was locked. A caretaker, apparently hearing the commotion as well, came with the keys, May said.

The girl was treated on scene for small lacerations to her wrists and hands. 

“Luckily she was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt,” said May. Even though she fell nine feet, she did not sustained any broken bones or head trauma, May added.

At the time of the incident the area above the greenhouse was not roped off. May said after her daughter's incident, Van Vleck officials put posts up with a rope marking off the area.

According to a police report, in April 2017 Jay Lehman’s 6-year-old son climbed to the top of the greenhouse and fell through sustaining injuries to his face, legs and buttocks and requiring 40 stitches. The report stated that the roof was “accessible by a staircase as it is cut into a hill.’ 

According to the suit, “the plaintiff then a 6-year-old boy was caused to fall through the roof of a glass enclosed greenhouse structure on the premises due to the dangerous, hazardous and unsafe conditions that existed at the premises.” 

It also notes the February incident. 

“The defendants had actual and constructive notice of the dangerous condition because prior to the subject incident, a different person also suffered injury. Defendants failed to correct or warn of the danger despite their knowledge of the same.” 

The suit alleges the boy sustained severe, painful and permanent bodily injuries, permanent disability, loss of function, emotional distress and economic loss. He will need future medical treatment and will “have to refrain from normal pursuits.” It also states that Lehman suffered by hearing his son being injured and by observing “his son’s traumatic injuries, bleeding and continued cries of pain.”

In a response from The Montclair Foundation's attorney to the court, he argues the foundation is free from liability because Lehman had signed a release with the rental agreement. The suit will go to arbitration in August. Lehman’s attorney, Roy J. Thibodaux, did not return phone calls. 

In the most recent incident earlier this month, the 7-year-old Nutley boy “sustained two lacerations to his lower body,” according to police. Repeated inquiries on the boy’s recovery have remained unanswered.

A Danish visitor to the gardens, Morten Rose Madsen, provided first aid treatment to the boy immediately after the incident, sustaining a cut to his heel in the process.

“I heard the boy’s cry, ran to the greenhouse kicking open the door to get to him,” he said. “I took my T-shirt off and tightened it around the bleeding to stop it.”

The MPD honored Madsen with a life-saving award last week, saying that Madsen’s “immediate actions and effective first aid contributed to the possible saving of the juvenile’s life. A failure to act or action after delay could have led to a tragic outcome.”

Van Vleck executive director Charles Fischer said they were very concerned with the health of the boy following the July 9 accident, and he urged parents to supervise children when visiting the gardens.

“We are not a park,” Fischer said. “We are a house and arboretum that was once someone’s home. People need to stay on the paths for their own safety.”

Although May agreed with Van Vleck officials’ warning that parents keep an eye on their children when visiting the gardens, she feels it’s time Van Vleck take some responsibility as well. 

“Van Vleck is a public space, not a private home anymore,” she said. “Van Vleck should consider adding impenetrable barriers, and more robust signage.” 

Until that happens she advises parents to know where the greenhouse is located and watch children closely.

Fischer told Montclair Local this week that immediately following the most recent accident, additional signage was posted around the greenhouse and throughout the grounds stating "Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times" to remind families that it is not a supervised park.  

“Furthermore we have enclosed the greenhouse with a security fence and replaced the broken glass until we come up with a permanent solution to protecting our visitors and our property,” said Fischer.

Communications director Katya Wowk said “our building inspector says he has not been to Van Vleck House & Gardens and hasn't issued any unsafe structure notices.”

Greenhouses, especially sloping roofs and doors, should be made of tempered glass or safety glass and screened, according to the 1996 Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) Codes, which would apply to the greenhouse built in 2002. The most affordable and familiar glass, annealed glass, breaks under pressure into large, jagged shards, creating a hazard. 

The township code enforcement official said tempered glass is required for greenhouses.

It is unclear what kind of glass was installed in the greenhouse at Van Vleck, but May said that in her daughter’s case the glass broke into shards. 

Fischer said the foundation has not heard from the family regarding the most recent incident. 

“We hope that the boy is recovering well and feeling better after that horrible incident,” said Fischer.