I recently discovered a wonderful place, the Chinese Scholar’s Garden in Staten Island.
I have been reading about Chinese gardens and learned that the first private gardens in China were created by Scholars and poets around the year 700. Many ideas used in designing gardens today, are in fact very old and originate in China.
The Scholar’s garden is tucked away in the Snug Harbor complex. I entered the garden through a walkway of a very tall bamboo, with the sound of the wind moving the canes that felt ancient. No photos can compare to the slow unfolding as you move through the garden. The experience of ‘not seeing the garden all at once’ is originally a Chinese idea that has been absorbed into many cultures, and still used today by landscape architects and garden designers the world over.
The garden was constructed by 40 Chinese artists and artisans from Suzhou, China in 1998, and completed within 6 months. Fifteen years later, the plants are mature and while some of the hardscape is in need of repair, that hardly distracts from the beauty of the many layers of architectural details, and textured plantings that include, tall stands of bamboo, pine, cherry, plum, set against the contrasting white walls. Every space I moved through was both intimate but spacious as I could always see beyond to the next area, artfully hinted at by open patterned windows onto a ‘borrowed view’ bringing what was in the garden beyond, into the composition of the present garden – masterful.
The ideas behind this garden, is to create infinite space within a limited area – like life. By stepping through a moon gate you make a transition. View the garden from a pavilion, a bridge, or covered walkways, represents different points of view. The winding paths imitate the twists and turns of life, and waterfalls, pools and water in general, represent the vein of life. Artfully placed rocks give the feeling of being in the mountains.
I am currently working on an essay for the spring issue of Kaatsille Life which will go deeper into the many ideas the Chinese developed about gardens over 3000 years. In the mean time I hope you will make a trip to Staten Island and explore this extraordinary garden. If you do decide to go, I suggest taking lunch, and plan to spend some time – you will not be disappointed.
To get to the Scholar’s Garden in Staten Island, I took the Staten Island Ferry across the New York harbor which if you haven’t done it, is not only free, but has some of the best views of the city. Once in Staten Island, I took the S40 Bus at Gate D and that ride, about 5 minutes, which dropped me at the doorstep to Snug Harbor- a Cultural Arts Center and Botanical Garden consisting of 28 buildings and beautiful grounds.
My great aunts used to live up the street from Snug Harbor. I’ve walked there many times. Too bad the garden went in after they died.
Deirdre -Snug Harbor is quite the complex. I plan to go back and explore the Botanical Garden. They had an area were they were growing farm produce. Also galleries. I heard there was a Tibetan Monastery at the top of the hill- separate from Snug harbor. Do you know anything about that? Best Don
Back then, Snug Harbor had the old sailors home building and the rest was park. I remember coming across a Broken Obelisk sculpture under weeping willows. The University of Washington has a Broken Obelisk in the middle of what we call Red Square. Under trees was a very different effect than in the middle of a large bricked space.
Wonderful to see these photos and to hear of a Chinese garden unfamiliar to me. I’ve visited similar gardens, at the Huntington Gardens in California and at Montreal’s Botanical Garden. Having lived in China during the Cultural Revolution, from 1969-1971, I developed an interest in the way Chinese societies have viewed the landscape, and they ways they’ve incorporated it into their gardens. I hope you will let readers know when your article is published — I look forward to reading it. And your entry has encouraged me to write a blog post about Chinese garden ideas.
Hi Pat, That’s so interesting that you lived in China. I want nothing more then to go and see Chinese gardens. I found the Scholar’s Garden to have such rich planting and a deep understanding of garden spaces. I just read the Yuanye: The Craft of Gardens 1631.written by a Ming Dynasty Chinese garden designer: Ji Cheng (c1582 – c.1642) It’s the first garden manual of its kind. I love the relationship of the 3 disciplines of garden making, painting and poetry. Please let me know when you write your post. Best Don
It may be some time before I get around to writing it, but I will — eventually. Do you know the Sakuteiki, the Japanese 11th century manual on gardening? I find it inspirational. I now need to read the Yuanye: The Craft of Gardens. I agree, the combo of garden making, painting and poetry is very powerful. And similar to the much later English version of the same three disciplines.
I believe the British call it the Sister Arts. I have not read the Sakuteike garden manual. I have seen it mentioned it one of my books. I started with Chinese garden history because I believe the Japanese borrowed heavily from the Chinese way of making gardens up until a certain point where they then created their own hybrid distinct style of gardening. In many way I prefer Japanese Gardens but I love the ideas that Chinese came up with and the poetry of their gardens astounds me.
The peace and serenity of this Scholars Garden is truly magical. Michael and I went there following 9/11. We were working in New Jersey and the smoke over Manhattan was too much to bare. We sought solace on Staten Island in this garden. Inside its walls we found assurance that despite this horrific event there is beauty in what we are capable of creating. Every visit before and after that has renewed our faith in the potential for goodness.
Very interesting post, Don, thanks for sharing and good luck for your essay.