By Justin Matthews
The West Village contains a variety of parks and gardens, several of which, along with hosting native bird species, preserve or complement the abundant historical heritage of the area. Here, we’ll explore two in particular.
The Gardens of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields
The Anglican Church of St. Luke in the Fields is located on Hudson Street, just below Christopher Street. The church and bordering houses date back to 1820, though its grounds have gradually developed over time.
The church itself, though from the federal period, has relatively few distinctively federal traits (those it has are muted). Despite its subtle neoclassical moldings along the pediment and low-pitched roof, it recalls an older, more timeless provincial English style, with rectilinear lines and a square, plain frontal tower. It resembles the Jamestown and St. Luke’s churches of Virginia, and somewhat those of the Anglo-Saxon period. The church’s archaizing tendency allows it to blend with the red brick rectory, which is newer but contains Gothic windows and decorative Romanesque recesses.
The garden is made up of several sections. The Rector’s Garden, the oldest, from circa 1840, lies at the church’s south side in front of the attached rectory. One small path leads along the church. The rest is like a small wilderness largely covered by low vegetation, with trees growing gradually denser away from the gate. Further back, part of the Rector’s Garden behind a ruined stretch of original wall (with Gothic windows), appears to preserve much of the area’s original pastoral character—an English park style, meadow-like, and thinly interspersed with bushes and trees. Many of the oldest trees are in this area.
Although the graveyard has been removed and the graves relocated, several prominent trees survive in the Rector’s Garden. They evoke the tradition of focal churchyard trees—associated with the souls of the dead in a British tradition with pre-Christian roots—preserving the aesthetic of the English churchyard. Some are century-old maples, and some descend from a graft of the Glastonbury Thorne (of the Hawthorne) brought from the sacred site in England in 1840.
The other main section, the Barrow Street Garden further south, is made up of four triangular quadrants with a variety of plant species. Though created in the 1950s by landscaper Barbara Leighton, its four-sectioned bed design, with low-shrub margins and brick borders, recalls a design most common in country gardens. Indentations in the quadrant’s inner corners accommodate benches facing a small bed centered on a Kentucky Yellowwood, which fosters a contemplative mood.
The garden and church are sheltered from the street partly by a mid-height red brick wall and partly by an iron fence. Though small, and away from the street, the garden seems expansive, sheltered, and pastoral.
The Jane Street Garden
Though only several decades old, the Jane Street Garden also follows the naturalistic English style. Even in its small triangular space on the corner of Jane Street and 8th Avenue, it suggests—with its distribution of low-medium and tall shrubs and trees—a small, compact forest. Its center, surrounded by a path, is planted with low, often flowering plants, and ends at the holly toward the northeast corner.
In winter, the three or so mid-height evergreen holly trees (a plant sacred to both Celts and Saxons, and common in gardens of the English style) dominate on the east. With the lower bushes, they evoke a sort of sacred grove. The branches of a few taller trees overhead overlap for a forest canopy effect. The garden overall has, especially toward its margins, the look of a naturalistic grove.
Sadly, the naturalistic woodland effect has been compromised by the creation of a discrete metal-bordered gravel path (replacing a more subtle trail of embedded stones). This path, circling the middle, and in front of the various benches, has affected the continuity of the planted areas, more definitively isolating them and occupying more of the available space.