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The Schwab House
On an Upper West Side Garage Roof,
a New Garden Welcomes the Seasons
July 31, 2013 — By all accounts, the original Schwab House was a beauty to behold. An extravagant, 75-room mansion located on Riverside Drive between West 73rd and West 74th Streets, it was constructed for steel magnate Charles M. Schwab and has been called “the grandest and most ambitious house ever built on the island of Manhattan.” It combined details from three French Renaissance châteaux and took four years to build at a cost of $6 million. After Schwab’s death, however, the building fell on hard times. It was demolished and replaced in 1951 by a 17-story, 633-unit building that was also called the Schwab House. It went co-op in 1984.
Now, in a small way, some of its predecessor’s grandeur may be returning to the property.
'Edge of the Woods'
When it was built, the new Schwab House had a street-level, 8,500-square-foot garden that sat on the roof of the underground garage. That garden had seen better days: when garden designers examined it in 2011, it was overgrown with weeds and debris and had a number of 30- and 40-foot tall trees sitting in barely any soil.
Then leaks began appearing in the garage, according to Mitch Levine, a longtime board member. Since everything had to be removed to replace the leaking roof, the board decided that this was an “advantageous time to change the structure of the garden.”
The board members had specific ideas. “They wanted things that were colorful throughout the year, things that changed through every month of the year,” says Patricia Olmstead, the principal of Urban Explorations, who was chosen from a field of five contractors to remodel the garden.
Olmstead came up with a concept that matched those ideas. Dubbed “An Edge of the Woods Garden,” the design included low-light plants that grow at the perimeter of a forest under dappled shade (perfect light requirements for a building that faces north); magnolias, a redbud grove, and Heritage birch (in sunny areas) to frame both sides of the garden; and a pondless waterfall with a dry stream. Heritage birches planted on raised areas enhance each corner. Olmstead color-coded the design for every season: evergreens, hellebore, and rock gardens for winter; early blooming plants for spring; perennials and annuals for summer; and trees with colorful foliage for autumn.
Heaps of Ideas
The board may have liked her ideas, but what cinched matters was her plan to save money on the $250,000 project. “The first problem was how to get 740 cubic yards of lightweight soil onto [the garage roof],” she says. “Manual delivery of bagged soil would have exhausted my crew before we started planting. We solved this by hiring a company that blows the soil into the space. It saved the co-op about $25,000 and got us the job. Another problem was that we only had about 2 to 2.5 feet of soil to plant trees and shrubs. We created mounds, so that we could plant larger trees and allow for better viewing from the lobby windows.”
Before the project was approved, Olmstead appeared before the gardening committee (some of whom had done extensive gardening at some large projects, reports Levine), and also conferred with the board of directors. Finally, her approved designs were presented to the residents at a public meeting. “We had a list of all the flowers and everything else,” Levine recalls, “and then we put the information out in the lobby for the entire scope of the project, so people could see the garden itself evolving. This was a long project, and we wanted them to see what progress was being made.”
Levine, who has nothing but praise for Olmstead, met with her regularly to answer questions and monitor progress on the project, which was funded from the reserves. It began in October 2012 and ended in July 2013. The finished garden, which is meant to be seen but not visited, has drawn praise from shareholders, ranging from longtime residents who started renting there in the 1950s to young professionals with growing families who bought in the 1990s and later.
Everyone is pleased, Levine reports. “We have gotten a lot of thank-yous from people who live or walk on 74th Street. This is a flowering garden with trees that are still in their infancy, but it is a much more colorful, much more open-designed garden than its predecessor. A lot of people walk by, and a lot of people stop. People are happy with what they see.”