A Talk on Ypsilanti’s Vanished Gardens

March 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Columnists

We walked up the three grey wooden steps of the stately-on-a-small-scale Grecian-style home and opened one of the narrow, tall storm doors. We’d come to the right place: lights yellowed the windows in the chilly March dusk. We pressed down the thumb-latch of the heavy inner door and eased it open.

It was our first visit to the Ladies’ Literary Club building on Washington, and a talk was scheduled here tonight. Under darkening indigo clouds and sheltered from a chilling wind, attendees would learn about vanished gardens of Ypsilanti’s past.

After chatting a bit with the speaker, James Mann, we greeted the three or four people who had already arrived and wandered off to explore the home’s first floor.

Once a private family home belonging to the Grant family, James explained, the paterfamilias had willed it to his son provided that he never marry during his mother’s lifetime. The son never did. Neither did he ever gain his father’s skill in real estate, James continued, but squandered money on “good living and bad investments.” After the mother died, the son was reduced to selling off the furniture piece by piece. He also dressed daily in formal tails and was known to hang around downtown on Michigan Avenue. He’d stare into a store window, James continued, for a good fifteen minutes, motionless, then move on to the next one. Eventually the son moved to a small second-story Michigan Avenue flat. He sold the house in 1913—luckily, the Ladies’ Literary Society bought it, thus helping to preserve the building to the present day.

The home’s caretaker, a cheerful, friendly woman, moved the coat rack blocking the stairway and said we could look around upstairs. We peered into a small bedroom and a larger one facing Washington, passing two locked doors.

Everywhere in the house, fancy woodwork bordered doors and windows, complemented by ornate plaster coronas of scrolling leaves around the bases of ceiling light fixtures. Money had been lavished on the interior in subtle ways: the slight zigzag in the carved window molding, the curious and dainty wooden vertical blinds, the generously wide stairway. From the outside, the home was simple, even austere. In the interior, however, no expense had been spared to create subtly luxurious surroundings.

James began his talk on vanished local gardens by discussing the gardens that once graced the city jail, now an artist’s studio, at 6 Cross Street. At one time the garden land sloped down to the river from behind the small jail building, but much of it was washed away in a 1905 flood, said James.

Mention of these gardens reminded me of a memoir, recently unearthed in the Archives, written by George Jackson’s granddaughter Minnie Lewis. She wrote, “No. 6 Cross Street was a show place all the years that Grandpa lived there. Its long flight of stairs lead down the east side of the building to a garden so pretty and old-fashioned that passers-by would pause, lean on the sidewalk railing, and admire his several flower-beds of multicolored varieties . . . his own make of lawn furniture, including two hammocks and swings seemed to invite the town folk to rest a spell, which many did.”

James turned to the well-trod territory of the gardens that once bordered the eastern side of the tracks near the Depot. They were the creation of onetime Scottish-born gardener John Laidlaw. Laidlaw created such floral extravaganzas as a replica of the battleship “Maine,” a log cabin rendered in sod, and a model of a locomotive crossing a bridge over Niagara Falls—with even the surging falls recreated in waves of flowers. James said that Laidlaw maintained all of the station gardens up and down the railroad in other towns and that Laidlaw’s Ypsi greenhouse harbored all of the plants required for every other station.

Neither claim is correct. Railroad gardens were maintained locally in each town. Niles, in particular, had gardens far more extensive than Ypsilanti’s, with a series of greenhouses maintained by its own gardener John Gipner. It is also clear to anyone with any gardening experience that Laidlaw’s lone greenhouse is not large enough to supply plants for any garden other than the one in Ypsilanti.

The Ypsi greenhouse stood until the 1950s, said James, when it was either torn down or disassembled. “The foundation is still there,” he added.

James last addressed the onetime science gardens on the grounds of EMU, in which students received their own plot for botanical experimentation. The gardens were later covered by the erection of Hover Hall. Next mentioned was the onetime EMU fountain that stood near Cross Street within sight of the Water Tower. This ornate iron creation, said James, was the gift of the class of 1888 (actually 1898), and was removed in 1961 to a fate unknown. James showed a photo of onetime natural sciences professor and garden director William Scherzer standing in front of a bank of spiky flowers. Whispers of “iris—those are iris” wafted among audience members.

Soon the talk was over, and the audience rose to chat in clusters and move to the refreshment area set up in the home’s vast dining room. Outside lay the cold March darkness. Long gone were the railroad gardens, the campus garden, and the riverbank garden behind the old City Hall. Yet walking back to the car, in a yard dimly lit by a pink-orange streetlight, I glimpsed a clutch of stubby pointed shoots of tulip.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives” and the upcoming “Hidden Ypsilanti.”

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