Volume 79, Number 9 | August 5 - 11, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Photo by Susan Poli

Willem Kwist in 1988

Willem Kwist, 78, blind Village rooftop gardener

By Bruce Poli

Willem Kwist, a legally blind and deaf professional waiter and a Village rooftop gardener for nearly 50 years, died of lung cancer June 2 at the age of 78. 

He took up gardening in the 1970s and produced a showcase roof garden at 110 Christopher St. in the Village where he had moved in 1961. He worked as a waiter from 1962 to 1991, mostly at the old Americana Hotel in the Times Square area and later in the Sheraton.

Born in 1930 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, with 10 percent vision due to optical atrophy, he developed pneumonia and asthma and had four near-death hospitalizations in the first five years of his life. 

In 1940, when he was 9, the Nazis bombed Rotterdam, destroying the city. Willem and his best friend, Pete Van Holstein, played in the ruins for several years. 

“We were practically the only people there,” he recalled. He and his family survived because his father worked in a grocery, and they had access to fresh fruit and vegetables. At 15 he answered a call for an elevator operator at the Hotel Rotterdam, learning to sense where the elevator stopped on the floor. 

For his garden on Christopher St., he built floor planking, garden boxes and a fish pond on the roof, while raising exotic birds in the basement. Kwist would plant 400 tulips in April, irises in May and an azalea tree and numerous flowers and plants from all over the world throughout the spring, summer and fall. He also built apartment shelving, several photographic darkrooms and many wooden furnishings for friends.

Kwist also developed a broad and sophisticated knowledge of music, especially jazz. In addition to plants and trees, he knew a great deal about birds. His spirit of sharing was enormous. He volunteered at various gardens and park organizations. 

In 1989 his beloved roof garden was ordered removed by a new landlord, and Kwist donated the entire project to a school in Brooklyn. His friends Idi Henderikse and Ray Kurby, high school teachers in Williamsburg, had just started a school garden on Powers St. Kwist not only donated all his plants, 20 tons of soil and tools to the school, but came along to supervise and take care of the garden. It has transformed the neighborhood.

His Village and Williamsburg friends had a memorial service in the Powers St. garden in Williamsburg on July 18. His body was cremated last month and the ashes were sent for burial to his lifelong friend Josephine Heilmeier, in Akron, Pa.

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