By Jon Schuppe
WASHINGTON HEIGHTS—When landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. set out to turn John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s sprawling estate into a park, he inserted two carefully manicured gardens that became neighborhood treasures.
Eventually, they disintegrated. One, the Heather Garden, with views of the Hudson River, was restored in the 1980s. The other, the Alpine Garden, on a steep slope facing Broadway, remained lost under a thicket of vines and overgrowth.
A few years ago, a park administrator was browsing through the Olmsted family archives saw an old photo of the Alpine Garden, including a cave-like grotto, where water pooled among rocks of Manhattan schist excavated from the construction of the nearby A train. She thought: We need to save this.
Now it is nearly done.
The Alpine Garden project has become the centerpiece of an ongoing initiative to refurbish the eastern side of the park in time for its 75th birthday next year.
“It’s a destination,” said Jennifer Hoppa, administrator for northern Manhattan parks. “We knew it would attract people to this side of the park.”
Seeking the source of the grotto’s running water, parks department plumbers looked up 1935 drawings and found that the original underground pipes were still intact. They fed the return of water service to the Broadway side of the park, which allowed a complete horticultural makeover and the activation of long-dry drinking fountains.
The project has expanded to encompass a “Broadway promenade” with refurbished benches, new sidewalks, and thousands of new plants, trees and shrubs.
The two-year undertaking has cost about $765,000 so far, most of which has been provided by charitable groups, including the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation and the Ft. Tryon Park Trust. The parks department estimates that volunteers have worked over 8,400 hours removing invasive flora.
The Alpine Garden has been outfitted with new ferns and other plants, and the narrow stone staircases leading to it will be reconstructed. Instead of a pool, which raises safety hazards, the grotto will feature water trickling from spigots hidden among the rocks. A formal unveiling is expected next spring.
The garden, near the crest of a 150-foot slope topped by the Cloisters museum of medieval art, is now visible from Broadway. Still, looking down at the busy street, Hoppa admitted that it wasn’t any easier to reach.
“It’s a steep climb,” she said. “We wanted to make it inviting.”