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Eyesore is an ugly word. Yet compared to how Maria Meniago described her hospital’s 10,000 square foot asphalt courtyard, ‘eyesore’ is diplomatic. Meniago is vice president of facilities management at the 451bed The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
“Our hospital was built on three sides around this horrible monstrosity,” Meniago says bluntly. “There were a few planters scattered around with ugly bald trees. That’s it.”
When the hospital renovated its underground conference center in the mid 2000s—the courtyard is actually the conference center’s old roof—it was also time to do something about the ‘monstrosity.’
Franklin Lakes, New Jersey landscape contractor Steve Wilson wanted the job. Having done maintenance there for years, he knew the space intimately. He wanted the job so much that he did a plan on spec, envisioning a welcoming garden with a lawn, sculptures, trees, benches and pathways.
The hospital loved his vision, gave the Wilson Horticultural Group a budget, and told him to get to work. They named it the Friendship Garden.
That was more easily said than done. Access would be a problem. There was but a single opening to the west. Nor was the roof strong enough to support heavy equipment. That meant that everything needed to be toted in by hand, under a sweltering mid-summer sun.
Of major concern was that, no matter what work was to be done, it had to be done quietly. Patients were recovering in rooms on two sides of the courtyard. “Plus, we didn’t want Dr. So-and-So to worry about construction noise while he was doing open heart surgery,” Wilson recalls with a smile.
“We put down thousands of pavers,” Wilson recalls. “Each paver weighed up to 62 pounds. My guys carried those in, one by one.” When the garden was completed, there were 3,000 square feet of pavers on the ground.
As for paver placement, the roof would have been too stressed if the pavers had been laid directly atop the asphalt. To distribute the weight more evenly, and to help with drainage, each paver was laid atop a “waffle” of rubber pedestals about 1/4" thick and the size of a cigarette pack. Wilson varied the height of the waffle to account for variations in the roofing. Water drained out from under the pavers into the regular sewage system.
Planting was done in four-foot-by-four-foot boxes eight inches deep, in a custom blend of topsoil, sand, peat moss, and humus. Like the pavers, these boxes were brought in one-by-one, because of their weight.
The courtyard’s configuration, with structure on three sides, spelled major temperature variations. No matter what the season, half the garden is in constant sun, while the other is in constant shade. Wilson had to account for these variations in everything from plant material choices to turf and bench placement.
Finally, there were elements that could not be moved. A permanent stairwell leads from the center of the roof down into the underground conference center. There was an external air conditioning unit, piping and the like. All needed some sort of design treatment.
Wilson says the best entrance to the Friendship Garden is from the west, where it abuts the hospital parking lot. (There’s another door leading in from the employee cafeteria). He notes that those looking east from the parking lot can’t see the garden, and those looking west from the garden couldn’t see the parking lot. A large stand of bamboo trees planted between the two created a green barrier.
From that entrance, you step onto one of the Friendship Garden’s paver paths. This one is three-feet wide. On the right side is native plant material: rhododedrons, azaleas, dogwood trees, and various shaded perennials. A copper beech tree provides color not far from the stand of bamboo. On the left are liriope, clethra, and flowering plants appropriate for full sun.
From here, you reach another stand of bamboo. This one is larger —probably 20 feet high. Wilson reports that it’s teeming with life: both birds and butterflies call it home. There are benches on both sides made of Ipe wood. The three-foot wide walkway continues for another 40 feet.
There, the path opens into a larger seating area, with more benches. In front of you now is one of the two original sculptures in the garden—a three-pillared water-spilling piece by the Culver City, California artist Sean So. This sculpture rests on an artistic stainless steel catch-basin, which seamlessly recycles the water up to the top of the pillars.
“It’s built in such a way that it’s not a cigarette butt receptacle, and not a place for people to toss good-luck pennies,” Wilson explains. “In our original design, we were thinking about the concept of a sculpture or a pond—I think I wrote in, ‘water feature’—and I contacted So. His piece is that water feature. If I had been thinking some soothing, waterfall, cutesy thing, his sculpture showed me what could really be done. It was flown out in pieces; he assembled it in place, and I just said, ‘Wow, wow, wow!’ when I saw it.”
The second piece of art in the Friendship Garden is by Brooklyn, New York sculptor Ron Mehlman. Placed in the middle of the garden lawn, Wilson represented it in his original plans simply with a circle and the word, “sculpture.”
“The hospital president saw that notation on the plans and just ran with it. She found the artist. The piece represents life. It’s two people becoming one,” Wilson explains.
“Two sides of the lawn are bounded by the building, and two sides by pathways. One of the paver paths is narrow, but the other is a full ten-feet wide. On the wide pathway are four Ipe wood planters. In those planters are our magnolia trees.” (Since the time of the garden’s creation, a third sculpture, by Vermont artist Richard Erdman, has been installed.)
Wilson took special pains with the planters, custom-building them from Ipe wood, and crafting an 18-inch wide shelf around each of the planter’s decks. “They’re big enough for people to sit on,” Wilson relates proudly. “I’ve seen some people leaning on them, eating their lunches, or reading.” In between the planters are specially crafted backless benches, so garden visitors can face whatever direction they would like.
As for that unsightly stairwell, Wilson hid it behind a gleaming black granite wall. Hospital donors can have their names carved into that granite.
Wilson not only built the Friendship Garden, but also maintains it. Maintenance requires making special allowances for the garden’s location, particularly in terms of noise. Mowing, for example, is done with a 21" push mower, during off-hours. Leaves are raked in- stead of blown. Shrubs are hand-pruned, perennial plants are hand-pinched, and snow-and-ice removal is done with shovels and picks in- stead of power equipment. Much is accomplished during off-hours— even in the dead of night!—so that visitors won’t be distracted by the maintenance.“You should see it now,” Meniago says with pride. “I’ve watched people in the lobby stop in their tracks, move to the big window, and gaze at how beautiful it is. Four thousand people see that garden every day.”
Patients, visitors, and staff aren’t the only ones who took notice of Wilson’s work. The project earned the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association’s (NJLCA) prestigious “Award of Excellence for Commercial Design/ Build: Over $150,000 Category” in 2007. In addition, since Wilson’s firm does all the maintenance for the Friendship Garden, his company also garnered the 2011 NJLCA “Award of Excellence for Maintenance: Commercial.”
Gail Woolcott, in charge of operations at the NJCLA, confirms that it’s the first time in the Association’s history that a landscape contractor has won awards for both constructing and maintaining the same project.
“Hospitals are emotional places, so I wanted to construct a spiritual environment,” Wilson says. “I wanted it tranquil and welcoming— a place that represents the continuity of life, in a location where life is fought for. I’m telling you, there’s something holy about that garden.”
It’s hard to argue with Wilson’s assessment. A story he tells about the grand opening of the garden in 2007 underscores his point.
“On opening day,” he recounts, “I was there at six a.m., setting up for the ceremonies. I came into the garden, and I see some guy walking along, and I wonder, ‘Who’s out here at this hour?’ ” It turned out that the sunrise visitor was a friend of Wilson’s, a deacon from his church, who had made an unannounced visit to the garden to offer a blessing. “Well, he blessed it in front of me,” Wilson reminisces. “Immediately after, it started to rain. It was like tears of joy from heaven.”
Sanctified from on high or not, there’s no doubt that the Friendship Garden is a year-round center of calm amidst the high emotion and intense effort of saving lives and helping the sick and injured get better. That’s a blessing in and of itself.