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The FWVGA Journey

The journey of the F. W. Vanderbilt Garden Association, Inc. began in 1984 when three local residents, Martha Stuart, Louise Martin and Marion Asher came up with the idea to try and restore part of the neglected and ruined formal gardens on the Vanderbilt Estate in Hyde Park, NY. They started with a meeting on a cold February evening with Ron Galente, then the chief horticulturist for the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic site. What started on that evening has grown and continued to prosper for nearly 40 years.

Over that time, many passionate volunteers have worked with us. Our last surviving founding memeber, Marion Asher, was able to be with us for our 25th anniversary in 2009 and was able to provide us with many special memories of the early days of the FWVGA.  Marion passed away in 2016, but her spirit along with the other founding members, lives on in the garden.

​Marion Asher (far right) relates a story to fellow members at FWVGA 25th anniversary.


In 2004, on the occasion of our 20th anniversary, Marion authored a series of short articles tracing the major events in the history of the association.


A Dream Shared, by Marion Asher

Twenty years ago, on a cold evening in February, three Hyde Park ladies sat down to talk with Ron Galente in his office at Bellefield (Hyde Park estate which, then, housed the National Park Service headquarters for the area). Ron was chief horticulturist at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Site, and the small group had been advised to bring their idea to him. The three ladies wanted to form a group of volunteers that would undertake the replanting of the gardens at the Vanderbilt Mansion.

In 1983, the National Park Service finally completed the restoration of the walls and structures of the Italian Gardens at Vanderbilt, a project that began in 1974 with the rebuilding of the crumbling brick walls. Marti Stuart, who often walked at Vanderbilt with her husband, Jim, had dreamed of these gardens for many years. It was her energy, enthusiasm and sheer determination that brought about the meeting that created the Frederick W. Vanderbilt Garden Association. She shared her dream with two friends, Louise Martin and Marion Asher, and it was these three that met with Ron Galente to begin the new undertaking.

To commemorate our 20th anniversary, this newsletter will revisit some of our early accomplishments - we have come such a long way from that evening in February!


Here's To Those Hearty Souls! by Marion Asher

As we head to the Tool House this summer for a much needed respite from the hot sun, and the chance to sip iced tea and chat with fellow gardeners, let's doff our hats to a group of hardy souls! These are the volunteers who came to the garden in the days before the Tool House, before indoor plumbing, before water!

During that first year of planting (1985), the Park Service hauled in one of those marvels of the modern world - the PortaJohn. The end of a hose served for refreshment, unless you were one of those methodical types who remembered to bring a thermos. We threw a tea for our donors that first year, and gathered under a tent pitched on the lawn, with lots of goodies brought in by our volunteers. We served iced tea to our guests, who did not see us mixing the tea (behind closed doors in the Potting Shed) in large tubs, combining Grand Union instant tea mix with water from the end of a garden hose. One or two of the guests even asked for the recipe!

In the first years of the garden restoration the Tool House was occupied by an NPS employee, Susie Pridemore. Susie was site director at Vanderbilt and one of our most ardent supporters, who enjoyed the view of a garden growing before her very eyes. It was not until Susie moved down to the west Gate House, in 1987, that FWVGA was offered the use of the Tool House for its headquarters. It's fun to look back at the early days, and it serves as a reminder of how much we have accomplished and how far we have come.


The Challenge of Becoming Tax-exempt by Marion Asher

Starting a new organization takes paper work - lots of paper work! To be able to accept donations and engage in fund-raising activities, you need to be declared a tax-exempt organization. And that means applying to the Internal Revenue Service! There are questions to answer, forms to fill out, and you must submit a constitution and by-laws acceptable to the IRS.

Our group of three met often in the spring of '84 to draft a constitution and by-laws. We gathered constitutions from other organizations and borrowed freely from all of them, cobbling together our own version. The IRS also requires a budget, and for a group with no money, that was a real challenge. Marti Stuart's husband Jim took over the job of gathering all this together and submitting our application to the IRS. It was promptly rejected!


Along with their rejection, the IRS kindly included the proper legalese that was required. With the addition of "not withstanding", "shall inure", "intervening in" and the like, we rewrote a new and hopefully acceptable constitution. Looking back at the minutes of old meetings, we find that it was February of 1985 when this new application was sent in, and September of the same year that we received tax-exempt status. It only took a year and a half!


Evolution of "Ways and Means" by Marion Asher

These days the Garden Association enjoys a healthy bank balance, thanks especially to the dedication and hard work of our now retired Ways and Means chairman, Shirley Downing. Shirley, with the help of supportive fellow volunteers, established a successful program of fund-raising that met the demands of an ever-growing budget. Each year a bit of surplus has remained to provide insurance for a "rainy day" in the garden. To appreciate our present good fortune, let's look back!

Our first fund-raising venture was a letter mailed to a list of doctors and lawyers gleaned from the yellow pages. The result of the mailing? Doctors-1, lawyers-0! To pay for the brochures handed out at the Dutchess County Fair, in August of '84, we passed the hat around our own small group and, therefore, became the first donors.

Thankfully, a new member joined our group. Sam Tannen, Hyde Park businessman, Master Gardner and world traveler, became our first "Ways and Means Chairman". His title at the time was Vice-President in charge of finance - a look back at the minutes reveals that we had three vice-presidents in the fall of 1984. All chiefs and no Indians!

Thanks to effective letters composed and mailed by Sam, donations began to trickle in. We ended the fiscal year of 1984 with the tidy sum of $389.22. Next time, we'll take a look at some early fund-raisers.


Our First Fund-raisers by Marion Asher

The first fund-raiser of the new Vanderbilt Garden Association was a flea market, held at Molloy's Pharmacy parking lot (next to the Grand Union in Hyde Park) in the spring of 1985. Louise Martin planned the event, and it was to Louise's porch in the hamlet of Hyde Park that members brought their unwanted "treasures". FWVGA still had no space of its own, except for a dark corner of the Potting Shed where we stored our tools.

Sam Tannen, our finance chair, then proposed a walkathon, with a course that started at Vanderbilt, wound through the village streets and ended at the F. D. Roosevelt Library parking lot. Our loyal volunteers dutifully signed up relatives and friends as sponsors and for the next few years, we all hiked together for FWVGA.

Our most exotic fund raiser was probably the Fashion Show. This event, in the spring of 1986, was held at Stanley Cole Caterers, located on the South Road half way to Fishkill. The clothes and models were provided by the Clothes Horse of Arlington, with narration by Ginny Swartz of Poughkeepsie. We all sat around sipping wine and viewing high fashion for day and evening. The show ended with the grand entrance of the bride and her wedding party. Then it was back to the garden - time to get the perennials in the ground!


1200 "Adopted" Roses by Marion Asher

From the beginning, when the first tentative plans for restoring the gardens at Vanderbilt were being talked about, the rose garden was a special goal. Ron Galente, our NPS advisor, told us at our first meeting that he thought Jackson and Perkins would be interested in donating the roses. Ron and Jim Shearer, the regional Jackson and Perkins rep, were both members of the same horticultural society and had known each other for many years. When the Garden Association decided to move forward with the rose garden restoration, Ron and Jim worked together to select the rose varieties that would be planted.

The sod was removed from the rose beds in the fall of 1986. In the early months of 1987, the Garden Association held a series of workshops to train our future "rosarians" to plant and care for roses. The roses arrived in May, long troughs of water to soak the bare-root plants were ranged around the rose terraces, and the rosarians gathered to prune, trim and plant 1200 roses.

In the years since, the roses have presented FWVGA with many challenges: troublesome insects, mysterious ailments and pesky deer. That first year, however, they behaved beautifully and rewarded the Association with glossy leaves and lovely blooms. The roses also provided one of the most successful fund-raising events ever held.

The community was offered the opportunity to dedicate a rose bush in memory or honor of a loved one, each dedication costing $25. A small engraving machine was purchased to print plastic laminate tags with the name of each honoree, and the tags were attached to the rose bushes. The idea proved so appealing that every rose bush in the garden was "adopted" by a member of the community and many people were told regretfully that there were no roses left to adopt.

The rose garden became a center of loving attention - many people came to the garden to visit "their" roses. The tags were removed after a few years but the record of their dedication remains in the Dedication Book.

History of the Perennial Garden by Marion Asher

When Vanderbilt Garden volunteers gathered at the newly dug perennial garden in the spring of 1986, they found beds marked and plants in pots placed in the beds. All they had to do was dig holes and put the plants in the ground. NPS horticulturist Ron Galente and his assistants had ordered the plants, marked outlines for each variety and placed the plants where they were to go.

Ron had based his orders and his plans on a map prepared in great detail by Walter Ewald of Washington, D.C. FWVGA believed at the time that this map reflected the original Vanderbilt gardens. Further study revealed that this was a map designed to provide the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) with gardens that would be easy to maintain. The map was prepared by Mr. Ewald in 1940, when FDR was president and there were many initials (NRA, TVA, etc.) on the scene. The gardens were never planted, but the map survived.

A more accurate reflection of the Vanderbilt perennial gardens was probably the plant inventory taken by the National Park Service when it took over management of the estate. There are many photographs of the gardens during the Vanderbilt years, but these are all in black and white, and it is difficult to pinpoint plant varieties. Mr. Vanderbilt commissioned several landscape plans, and the last, by Robert Cridland, was done in 1934. These plans, and the list of plants to be used, are among the documents FWVGA has on file.

No one knows if these plans were ever followed - possibly the gardeners (and Mr. Vanderbilt) planted what they knew and felt comfortable with. These uncertainties and unanswered questions make the restoration of the perennial garden a continuous puzzle and an on-going challenge. The perennial gardens today reflect both the Ewald map and the 1934 Cridland plan, with liberal dashes of the 1940 plant inventory. We can all agree on one thing - today's perennial garden is "a thing of beauty" and "a joy forever".


Restoration of the Pool by Marion Asher

For several years after the Cherry Walk and Pool Gardens were replanted, the beauty of newly blooming perennials ended abruptly at the pool. The white marble figure of Barefoot Kate looked out over an ugly concrete basin, full of cracks and scattered with gravel from the adjoining path. After much discussion the NPS gave permission to the Garden Association in 1989 to restore the pool, and the project began.

There were many problems to solve. The pool could not be deeper than 18 inches, the depth of the Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. A pump would be needed to keep the water fresh, and the electric lines ended at the Tool House. A committee was formed to solve these and other problems.

Central Hudson came to our rescue, bringing electricity to the garden, Ken Burke, our groundskeeper, persuaded John Mack, the head of Central Hudson to donate the expertise and labor to lay the electric lines. In early March 1990, Central Hudson trucks and workers arrived in force to dig trenches and lay the lines along the road from the Tool House to the Potting Shed. From there the lines were continued down to the Pool House and the Rose Garden.

The welcome addition of electricity gave us light for the Potting Shed. Lights were installed down the length of the shed and we were able to make use of all the space that had been hidden in the dark recesses beyond the door and window. One problem solved - many to go! We'll finish the pool story next month.


The Reflecting Pool, Part 2 by Marion Asher

Bringing the electricity to the pool house meant that a pump could be installed in the pool to help keep the water fresh. But how to manage a water depth of 18 inches! Several ideas floated (no pun intended) at pool committee meetings.

At first, the simplest solution, and the one initially supported by the NPS, was to fill the pool with gravel, up to a level that would allow for only 18 inches of water. The drawbacks to this idea were soon apparent. The drain for the pool is in the bottom of the basin - how could the pool be drained or cleaned? Where would the pump go, and how would it be connected to the electrical outlet?

It soon became obvious that the best solution would be a platform within the pool, and after much discussion wood was selected as the best material. The master craftsmen on the grounds crew set to work to design and build a platform to fit the pool, in sections that could be more easily handled. While that work went on, the other committee members researched water lilies and the pros and cons of goldfish.

James Lowry of Waterford Gardens in New Jersey gave the group lots of good advice about water quality and water lilies. It was Mr. Lowry who suggested black pylam dye to conceal the platform from the eyes of viewers. As for goldfish - we learned that the pool drain was a direct link to the stream flowing through Vanderbilt land and on to the Hudson River. New York state law prohibits the possible introduction of fish species that could destroy the natural balance of the river. And those of you with pools know the habits of goldfish! Next month, the pool is finally filled.


The Reflecting Pool, The End by Marion Asher

As the summer of 1990 drew to a close, the restoration of the Reflecting Pool seemed complete - just in time to celebrate at our Annual Tea. The hoses were gathered and spigots were turned on - the water rose gradually and as it did, the platform rose also and floated to the top of the water. A minor problem! Concrete blocks were laid on each section of the platform to weigh it down, and black dye concealed the whole thing.


A more serious problem soon became apparent. The pool leaked badly and the water level was hard to maintain. The solution was postponed to the spring of '91, when the entire surface was reworked and coats of Thoroseal were applied. The pool was filled, the water stayed in the pool and water lilies from Waterford Gardens were potted and put in place.


One final note on water lilies. These days the pots of water lilies overwinter in the pool house. In those first years of maintaining the pool, it was thought necessary to put the lilies into deep water during winter. Every fall the heavy pots were trucked to a pond on the Roosevelt estate and lowered into the water. Every spring, the heavy pots were fished out of the pond and brought back to the Vanderbilt garden. That was true volunteer dedication.

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