New York Roof Gardens

Posted by @Bubbles on
Gordon Hawkins' Brooklyn roof garden is well known in gardening website circles. He frequently posts photos of his exotic and eclectic collection of brugmansias, passifloras, clerodendrons, and more. The source of many brugmansia collections has been his generous free cuttings in late fall each year. Gordon also freely shares his clever directions for building planters and patio furniture from foam insulation boards.

When I mentioned my daughter and I had planned a spur of the moment trip to New York City, Gordon invited us to visit his garden.  Better yet, he offered to drive in to Manhattan and pick us up.  In his own words, he suggested:

"Come for a late afternoon/ early evening visit . . . that way you'd get to see it in the light . . . And as it went into dark . . . when it shows its best. Always offer a complementary beverage on the tour . . . but I've also included this year . . . ice cream . . . I recently got a new high end Italian ice cream maker . . . so I usually keep 4 or 5 flavors on hand . . . I made a lovely mango and habanero swirl . . . into a great vanilla . . . and I have a white chocolate ice cream w/ white chocolate chunks . . . and a black raspberry swirl . . . running through it . . . MMM the best." 

Now, who could possibly pass up that kind of an invitation?  We could hardly wait!


The day we were to visit, Gordon called and suggested we meet him at the historic Hotel Chelsea in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea.  This landmark hotel had recently been closed to guests and was due to undergo renovations to convert it into condominiums.   He had friends there who offered to invite us into their twelfth floor roof apartment to see their garden before we went on to Brooklyn.  I believe it was then that I revealed to Gordon that we were also traveling with a five year old boy, albeit a very well behaved five year old boy. We grabbed a cab to the Chelsea about six in the evening, and were greeted at the door of the hotel by a guard who curtly told us the hotel was closed.  We decided to linger outside and slipped into Dan's, a great guitar shop next to the hotel. After a few minutes, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and spotted Gordon waiting for us. We made our introductions, chatted briefly, and then were signed in to the building as guests of our hosts.  What is it about gardeners that gives you an instant connection, even if you're meeting for the very first time? 



The art installations in the hotel lobby and stairwell were cool, fabulous and bizarre, all at the same time.  There were the usual paintings, but  also hanging installations and a few I can't describe. We were told several were left behind by near famous artists who were unable to pay their rent.  Although we would have liked to have taken more photos, the new management discouraged us from lingering very long, so we reluctantly made our way to the elevator.  I had the feeling we were fortunate to be viewing a bit of history that would soon be forever lost.


Our charming hosts welcomed us to their apartment and led us out to their garden.  It was lovely, even as it was being razed.  Gordon had designed and built some of the large planters for their garden, as well as for other gardens of the hotel apartments. All of those had to be removed.  The original brick and copper fireproof roof, from the late 1800s, would have to be replaced before the renovations could begin.  Every roof garden was in the process of being dismantled.  Huge ornamental trees, that years ago had snaked their roots through cracks in the brick roof and into the copper pan below, had to be hacked out.  We were witnessing all this for the last time.  Most of the large installations had already been uprooted and were waiting to be taken down in the elevator.  We were able to walk freely from garden to garden along the roof with our hosts.  I could just imagine having breakfast, reading the morning paper and looking out to those skyline views.  Halfway through our visit, a security guard appeared and watched us all at a distance.  It was clear that the new management was suspicious of us.

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Two days later, while we were still in Manhattan, we learned that all the art in the lobby and stairwells of the Hotel Chelsea had been removed and stored.  Although most pieces were acquired by the previous owners, some of the paintings and installations belonged to residents. They would have to present proof of ownership before they would be returned. It was a sad ending to such a historic hotel.

If you're not familiar with the history of the Hotel Chelsea, I would suggest "Googling" it.  You would be surprised and entertained at all the famous and infamous writers, artists, actors, and musicians who lived and died there in the last century. Oh, and there are ghosts.

We said thank you and goodbye to our congenial hosts, and walked to Gordon's car. He offered to take us on a mini-tour of the city before crossing the bridge to Brooklyn.  Noticing us snapping photos of the Statue of Liberty from the car,  Gordon suggested we wait until he could offer us a better view.   Over the Brooklyn Bridge, down a rutted brick alley adjacent to the water and out to the end, we spotted the statue.  It was magnificent!  We jumped out at the edge of Long Island and captured outstanding photos of Lady Liberty in the fading sunlight.

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After crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, we saw the Statue of Liberty

Arriving at Gordon's handsomely appointed third floor apartment, we still had about a story and a half of winding staircase in his hall to navigate before reaching the roof.  It was well worth the hike.  The garden was spectacular. All three of us, including the grandson with his mother's iPhone, were snapping photos of the plants and the skyscrapers in the distance.  As a gardener, I was captivated by how many exotic flowering plants Gordon had expertly and attractively squeezed into such a small, but enchanting space. 

As a tourist, I was just trying to grasp the spectacle of the everchanging skyline.  The panorama from the roof was reminiscent of photos in coffee table books, but much much better.  Missing from that vista were the twin towers of the World Trade Center which, until ten years ago, had been keenly visible  from the corner of Gordon's roof garden. In their place, we could see the massive, nearly completed Freedom Tower. The Statue of Liberty was mostly blocked from his roof view, also for those ten years, by two enormous construction cranes just off shore. He was not sure when they'd ever be moved from his view.

As we were nosing around the garden, Gordon would point out a particular plant, and relate how he acquired it.  Nearly every plant seemed to have a story, even the grass.  Yes, there is a small grassy area with stepping stones up there on the roof.  Gordon's grass is the same turf provided for Yankee Stadium.  Some of his plants were sent to him by members of our gardening community.  It seemed we knew a lot of the same gardeners and had quite a few of the same plants.  My only disappointment was we visited a few weeks too early to see his brugmansias blooming.  I've had to be content to enjoy Gordon's later photos of them instead.



I visualized three distinct garden rooms on his roof.  Emerging from the stairwell, I first noticed the dining area with the knockout views of the New York City skyline. There was a fountain in the corner and the entire area was rimmed with large tropical plants.  It was from that vantage point that we could see the skyline transition from light to dusk to dark. My daughter and I spent a considerable amount of time in that corner watching the lights of NYC flicker on and shimmer. It is, without exaggeration, a million dollar view from Gordon's roof.

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In the middle of the garden, the second room was a lounging area with a couch that backed to a skylight and the entry to the stairwell.  This looked like a great napping spot.  Across from this space was a clever safety enclosure for another  skylight.  There was a work area here too. I'm sure the lounging couch was another of Gordon's creations.  His roof is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, and has the sign to prove it in front of the skylight enclosure.

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The room I dubbed the conversation pit was the largest. Two inviting couches were cornered together and covered with pillows.  Gordon had made those couches out of insulation foam boards that he had previously used for an outdoor enclosure to keep some of his tropicals from freezing over the winter.  Even the glass topped table in the middle of the couches, he had fashioned from the foam board.  The entire area was surrounded by planters filled with tropicals and brugmansias about to bloom.  He explained that most of the planters were also crafted from the insulation board, so they were raised off the floor of the roof. This distributed the weight of the plants and soil, keeping them from damaging the roof.  Quite a clever invention, I thought.

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Even as we visited, we were clearly aware of the sky fading from pink to purple and then to black, as the lights of the garden began to sparkle. We positioned ourselves in the corner by the fountain to capture every change in the skyline across the water.  I can't imagine anyone ever taking that view for granted.

Our roof tour ended with the most delicious homemade ice cream choices, and hanging on to every word of Gordon's anecdotes about people and places he knew.  Prodding him for more stories, he then took us downstairs to the living room, where he pulled out photos and articles that had been written about him and his many projects.  There was even one featuring him in the New Yorker magazine. 

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A sequence of the skline as the sun went down.  Visible in the center are cranes rising from the top of the Freedom Tower


Not wanting to press our luck with such a well-behaved kiddo, we reluctantly called it an evening and Gordon drove us back to our hotel. He was truly the perfect, gracious host.  It was an unforgettable, delightful experience for us.


 Japanese Maple in the evening light

It is said that “One picture is worth a thousand words.”  I believe these photos below of Gordon’s garden, mostly provided by him, will certainly speak for themselves.

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I also hope that Gordon will drop in and answer any questions you may have about his garden. 

Comments and discussion:
Thread Title Last Reply Replies
Wonderful! by plantladylin Nov 4, 2011 2:33 AM 15
Wow How great is that by shirley Nov 3, 2011 6:20 AM 1
What a treat. by valleylynn Nov 1, 2011 10:13 PM 44
Part of Florala Ala group by DisneyButterfly Nov 1, 2011 8:24 PM 4
Gordon, I think I met you once? by Dutchlady1 Oct 30, 2011 9:36 PM 1

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