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A Short History of Roof Gardens
No matter where it is on the roof, gardeners are a different breed. Since space is at a premium, I see grass growing under the eaves and roses growing in the sky. In the most exposed spaces I see mature trees thriving, and in protected urban gardens I see orchards and allotments.
Growing in the sky is never easy, but you’ll be amazed at what can be achieved with a little planning and a solid understanding of what you have to deal with. It’s harder than gardening on the ground, but boy is it more inspiring!
With more than half of new homes built today being apartments, roof gardens and terraces are becoming increasingly popular and vital to a green environment. If you think that’s too much work and you need financial motivation, research tells us that generous roof space, minimal balconies or patios can increase the sale price of a home by 8% and a restaurant’s turnover by 25%!
In this post, I just want to show you where we started building roof gardens, as many consider it a very modern phenomenon.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are probably the most famous roof gardens ever built. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it was probably built by Nebuchadnezzar II during the rebuilding of Babylon to comfort his wife Amytis as she missed the greenery of her native Media. We only mention gardens in writings written 200 years after they were destroyed by Xerxes I around 482 BC. Describe the towering stone platform, the realistic mountain scenery, and the beautiful mountain scenery created by the plants. Siculus (1st century AD Greek historian) described them as 100 feet long by 100 feet wide, and built in tiers like a theater. The vaults carry the weight of the plants and reach a height of 70 feet. Gardening on a large scale, but still be mindful of the weight limit!
The next big thing about roof gardens is the Roman roof gardens at Pompeii. We know very little about them, but the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 almost perfectly preserved a building that we define as roof garden terraces. The Villa of Mysteries outside the northwestern gate of Pompeii has a U-shaped terrace around its northwestern and southern perimeter, with plants planted directly in the soil. The terrace is supported by colonnades on three sides. This became the grave of those who escaped from the ashes. The plants used have been identified by careful excavation, including pouring plaster into the root space.
There are other medieval gardens, such as those of Mont Saint-Michel in France, the Medeci Gardens in Careggi, Italy, and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, razed by Cortes in 1521. One of the most famous roof gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries was the Moscow Kremlin, which was razed in 1773 to make way for the Kremlin we know today. The garden was a luxury for the Russian nobility, and an expansive two-story hanging garden was built in the 17th century, with the upper floor covering 10 acres and two terraces extending almost to the edge of the Moskva River. Built again on vaults, surrounded by stone walls and featuring a 90m2 pond fed by water drawn from the river. The lower garden was built in 1681 and also has a pond. Plants are placed in boxes with an emphasis on trees, shrubs and vines with paintings to give the illusion of visually expanding the space.
Beginning in the early 20th century, one of the most successful movements and the birth of the term roof gardens refers to theater roof gardens in the United States, such as the American Theater in New York City seen here.
Inspired by Parisian theaters and the high cost of land, New York conductor Rudpolph Aronson built the first theater! The Casino Theater he built was the first to have a stage on the roof dedicated to summer performances. The most imaginative garden theater is Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Music Hall, built in 1895, completely enclosed in glass, with a constant flow of water pumped to the outer edge of the roof, to cool tourists and mask the sounds of the street. Even then, they used the look of a rocky mountainside and included mock lakes with live swans gliding across the water. The introduction of air conditioning and changing tastes meant that these theaters closed in the 1920s, and one by one they were demolished.
Now, two gardens built before World War II have inspired roof garden designers for many years and will continue to do so. These are Derry & Toms Gardens in Kensington and Rockefeller Gardens in New York. Some would also say that San Francisco’s Union Square Gardens are influential, and indeed, the gardens’ recent redesign has been widely praised.
The Derry & Toms Roof Garden opened in 1938 as part of the famous department store. It hosted nobles and royalty until the store closed in 1978. Now part of the Fraser House group, it has been restored and brought back to life. The original gardens had more than 500 trees and shrubs. This has declined and planting has been simplified as poor maintenance, aging and drought have taken its toll, but is still a great example of what you can grow. The Spanish Gardens, Tudor Gardens and English Woodlands are divided into three main areas. To meet modern requirements such as lifts, the garden has undergone dramatic changes, with the once prolific summer bedding replaced by a lawn.
Some of the buildings at Rockefeller Center were designed by the same architect as Derry & Toms, Ralph Hancock. He is also a Fellow of the RHS. The gardens are much simpler, though with central lawn flower beds, manicured privet hedges, fountains and a pond only 2 inches deep. These were done before the Derry & Toms Gardens. A more elaborate Mediterranean garden was designed for the site by the head gardener. The most impressive thing is that 3,000 tons of topsoil were brought up by elevator!
From early gardens designed for individuals to the current mushrooming of rooftop gardens in public spaces, apartments without their own outdoor space are a rarity. But our Smart London Roof Garden owes a long history of innovators leading the way to greener cities.
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