The secret garden of Central Park

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Friday. Early evening. A Long Day in the City so I thought I’d have a quiet sit in the secret Conservatory Garden in Central Park. Check out the late-summer flowers. Take a few pictures. Maybe with some bees on those flowers. The conservatory in the Conservatory Garden used to be an actual conservatory. Until it started falling down from neglect just before World War II and had to be demolished. Today, the whole is divided into three parts. You enter through the ornate Vanderbilt Gate, recycled from an actual Vanderbilt Mansion, and down a dozen steps to a large central rectangle of grass, about the size of football field. It’s separated from two other gardens, French-style to the north and English-style to the south, by identical benched allées of crabapple trees. These shady tunnels are always wonderful places in which to sit in their own right and watch people pass by, both the fast and the slow, but I have other ideas today.

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In the shallow basin of the French Garden to the north, the central feature is an oval pool with a trio of wet school girls frozen in bronze—I guess they’re actually supposed to be water nymphs—set on a tall Beaux-Arts tuna tin and dancing in a low circle around a squirt of water. I’ve never bothered to look up its credits but have often wondered what this concoction might have replaced. It seems to have its admirers, but it’s obvious that the ornate tuna tin was really meant for something bigger, higher, better, grander. At the upper level, a hidden path runs the perimeter on the opposite side of a head-high hedge. Four steps and rose-draped arches anchor the corners.

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In its current state, this formal French Garden somehow manages to seem both open and claustrophobic. It’s probably an effect of the hedge, clipped to that uncomfortable height where you really want to peek over but can’t, coupled with the depressed, hunch-waisted nymphs who should be cavorting in the woods somewhere. Besides the brilliant flash of bedded tulips in the spring, the French Garden’s great claim to fame are its masses of Korean chrysanthemums that annually unfold from a lumpy bank of green into a wild and tumbled tapestry of fall color. But it’s still way too early for that pleasure. And I’m actually headed to the English Garden on the south, to the Secret Garden.

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There, is the exquisitely intimate English Garden. Concentric beds planted with small trees, shrubs and perennials, mixed with seasonal annuals and bulbs, radiate outwards from a small water lily pool at the center. Transected by paths linking the concentric beds, the garden is set with benches both obscured by the shrubbery, and free. It’s a place to wander, as every corner unfolds new views and plantings, or simply to sit and peer though them. At the garden’s heart, within a low room of its own, a fountain sculpture of two children by Bessie Potter Vonnah rises at the far end of the pool. A tribute to the author Frances Hodgson Burnett, this is her Secret Garden realized.

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P.S. I did finally look up the fountain in the French Garden. I was only a little off about the wet school girls. They’re actually Three Dancing Maidens. Still wet, of course. The piece is apparently a cast of an original by the German Walter Schott taken in Berlin sometime before 1910 and donated to the Park at Samuel Untermeyer’s death in 1947. Originally found cavorting at Untermeyer’s estate in the Bronx, I’m still not sure why they were retrofitted into this spot and not someplace more appropriate.
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