Volume 74, Number 51 | April 27 - May 03 , 2005

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Susan Sipos, right, presented Lynden B. Miller with the Jefferson Market Garden’s Brooke Astor Award for Outstanding Contributions to Urban Gardens at the garden’s 30th anniversary celebration on Tuesday evening.

Where ‘The House of D’ once loomed, garden blooms

By Ed Gold

Built on the rubble of a prison, created by hundreds of hands young and old, financed by rich and poor from near and far, Jefferson Market Garden, a multicolored oasis at the center of Greenwich Village, is celebrating its 30th birthday with a flourish.

This past Tuesday it became the scene for the bestowing of the first Brooke Astor Award for Outstanding Contribution to Urban Gardens — a mouthful, but deserved — to Lynden B. Miller, a public garden designer, noted for rescuing the Conservancy Garden in Central Park, designing in parks throughout Manhattan and currently working on a section of the Hudson River Park.

Tuesday night was time for fundraising, a necessary and continuing effort to maintain a very special garden. The Friends of Jefferson Market Garden threw a cocktail party at 24 Fifth Ave. with tickets starting at $125.

Long before the magnolia trees, the yellowoods, the hedge roses and holly bushes, there was the lengthy community struggle to obtain the site for the garden. Blocking the way was the Women’s House of Detention, 12 stories in art deco style, but not an artistic site for people living in the community.

It had been built in 1931, replacing a jail, a food market and a firehouse, and it was hailed as serendipitous since it stood next to Jefferson Market Courthouse — now a library — where only cases involving women were heard.

In the 1960s, Village groups began organizing against the prison, at the time calling for a “passive recreational area” on the site.

Opposition intensified as friends and relatives of inmates would gather along Greenwich Ave. at all hours to converse loudly with the incarcerated on every subject imaginable, often in language fit to be barred on TV. Nearby residents couldn’t sleep. Gawkers would come to watch the show.

The Village jail had its moment of celebrity. Mae West was once hauled in on an obscenity charge. She was appearing in a play called “Sex.”

Activist groups in the community, elected officials and city agencies formed an army of protest, uniting 13 Village block associations, outspoken leadership members of Community Board 2, like Ruth Wittenberg and Verna Small, open-space advocates, officials in the Parks Department, officers of the Parks Council and city councilmembers representing the area.

Finally, in 1973, Mayor John Lindsay, wearing a hardhat, earned a special place in Village history when he swung a heavy hammer against the House of Detention wall, symbolizing the prison’s demise.

The prison wall didn’t come down easily. A quirky group in the community insisted that the building should be converted into a residence for senior citizens. The group took its case before the Board of Estimate, then the most powerful governmental body in the city. The proposal was rejected to the relief of all the garden supporters who had gathered in City Hall for the hearing.

One more hurdle had to be cleared. The New School on 12th St. — now New School University — wanted the site for a Center on Urban Studies. They indicated substantial donor money to build the center was available. But by the time a final decision on the land had to be made, the donor money had dried up and the New School had to abandon the effort.

The garden people had to endure one short-lived irritation. A group in the Village asked that a dog run be included in a garden plan. But the idea did not have legs.

Four garden activists took the lead in the mid-’70s to develop the garden, forming an organization called, simply, Jefferson Market Garden. Gerri Mindell, feisty and energetic, was chairperson, and the other officers, all very devoted to the project, were Anne Spira, Allen Pilikian and Jack Messerole.

Money, of course, was an early concern in maintaining and enhancing the garden.

As Pilikian has noted: “Our critics called the early garden ‘pigeon alley,’ and it didn’t look like much. It was, after all, built in rubble over which was installed a sprinkling system and a layer of topsoil.”

The early money to create the garden had come from the Vincent Astor and J.M. Kaplan funds. The Parks Department provided the pipes that brought water into the garden. Much later, in the late 1990s, the Astor Fund would provide $225,000 to replace a hated chain-link fence with a proper one made of wrought iron and steel.

Aside from providing water, Parks gives no money to the garden, according to Pilikian.

Spira, who survives along with Pilikian from the founding quartet, spent a quarter of a century with the garden, a good part of the time down on her hands and knees moving earth and planting.

She recalls seeing some women in the very early days of the garden digging holes and placing bulbs in the ground. She asked if she could join them and was told she wouldn’t get paid. And she would have to bring her own trowel.

But she persisted, becoming a key officer in the garden organization, and spending time dreaming up ways to raise money. At one point, she purchased voter registration lists — $25 for Republicans and $30 for Democrats — covering people who lived near the garden, and sent them fundraising letters. She also walked through the neighborhood, copied down the addresses of well-to-do residences, checked on the owners’ names, and sent them letters too. One spring mailing, after the tulips had bloomed, a mailing brought in $12,000 and the garden leadership was thrilled.

Spira also once was in charge of volunteers, who are crucial to the garden’s success. “We got a lot of students,” she recalls, “including many from the New School and N.Y.U.”

The garden, despite its struggle on the financial front, has become an institutional celebrity.

It has served as a site for weddings, memorial services, Easter egg hunts, painting classes, visiting school groups and movie and TV filming.

“Sex and the City” used it for a virtual wedding, and actor Robin Williams was there for the new David Duchovny film, “House of D.” Recent guestbook records show more than 5,000 signers annually visiting the garden from more then 30 states and about 20 countries. Even Andy Warhol signed in during the ’80s.

The garden backdrop has become popular for weddings, with six so far this year. Virginia Giordano, a special events director, has called it “one of the most economical places in New York to get married.” No fee is charged but contributions are accepted. The garden can handle up to 65 guests.

Aside from the attractive fence, there have been other recent enhancements. A rock path has replaced gravel, making the walk accessible to the young and disabled. And more and more benches have been added. The bench was once a controversial object, with anti-benchers insisting they would encourage derelicts to visit the garden. As Pilikian has noted: “We want to share the garden with as many people as possible, and let people get as close as possible to the beauty.”

One beauty spot is the so-called “butterfly garden,” a bush that delights butterflies. P.S 41 students would raise butterflies in the classroom and bring them to the garden, where they quickly glided to their favorite bush.

The garden has one full-time employee, Susan Sipos, a horticulturist who has been refurbishing and redesigning since 1999. She has enriched and enhanced the rubble-based soils, and created a central grassy area. She’s changed colors and textures, and opened the tree canopy areas for both sunlight and shade.

Sipos is not at all responsible for some of the items that have been discovered in the garden. These include a gun with bullets to match, several shoes and several radios, a bottle with crossbars signifying poison and a knife. (Spira, who found the knife, says it wasn’t bloody, and took it home.)

Also found were keys. Which brings up last year’s major garden event, the Summer Solstice Ceremony, with the current Jefferson Market Garden chairperson, Jeanine Flaherty, officiating.

Before and after the ceremony, Flaherty rattled a set of keys, presumably from the former prison, which were discovered 15 years ago during tulip bulb planting.

The key rattling was a symbolic final farewell to the women’s prison. So wishes for a happy birthday to the superb garden on its 30th birthday are in order!

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