A secret garden hidden away in plain sight

— Nestled in the heart of the West Village is a secret garden, usually open to the public during the daytime, unless it is covered in over a foot of snow, as it has been so often this winter.

Gilberto Lacayo, the head groundskeeper for the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, which sits on an irregularly-shaped city block bordered by Hudson, Barrow, Greenwich, and Christopher Streets, agreed to show a reporter the locked snow-covered garden on a recent Sunday afternoon after services. He pushes the waist-high iron gate back and forth several times, the ends of its vertical prongs fanning through the snow a few inches farther each time, creating a sort of snow-angel effect.

Step inside and mirrored footprints quickly mar the pristine snow.  It’s a stark contrast to the ever melting and re-freezing salty, gravely slush on the sidewalks and street corners outside these brick walls.  Here, pillows of powdery white give little hint as to what lies beneath.  It’s like the moment an airplane breaks through the cloud layer, and the world below vanishes beneath a cumulous expanse.

“There’s a lot of peace in this place,” Lacayo says. “I like in my lunch break to come here. Relax. I hear the birds, I see the squirrels.”

In summer, he says the garden can see 100 to 200 visitors per day, but for now, it belongs to the little creatures that brave city life downtown.  The squirrels are in fact the only ones who have left any trace here, in the form of thin, snaking tracks that weave under the black barren branches of the rose arbor, and beneath the legs of memorial benches that square off in the center of the Barrow Street corner garden.

Though a church has existed on the property since the 1700s, and been burned down and rebuilt twice, the garden in its current form was not created until 1954, by the first gardener, Barbara Leighton.

By her own account, quoted in a profile of the garden in a 1981 issue of the New Yorker, the late Leighton happened upon the church when she was taking photographs during a Sunday walk.  She was a neighbor of the church and asked the priest if she could step inside the grounds.

She termed it a ‘discovery,’ and she kept going back every Sunday to what was then only the Rectory Garden, and took it upon herself to weed after she finished reading her newspaper.  When the vicar’s wife asked what she was doing, they started talking about Leighton’s ideas of what she would plant.  Soon, the church gave her the freedom to do so.

Susan Sipos, the official horticulturalist and gardener for the last eight years, says that the daffodils will be the first flowers of spring, followed by tulips.

“The tulip display is always phenomenal after the dark and cold of winter,” Sipos said.  “Walking into a riot of colors is good for everybody and breaks the spell.”

Now, the undisputed ambassador of the garden is Richard Bentley, 82.  Similarly to Leighton, he is a neighbor who happened upon the garden while out bird watching after his retirement in 1990.

“When the weather is nice, I’m there almost every day,” said Bentley, who has been confined to his home this winter because of his poor respiratory health.

He has meticulously catalogued his sightings of over 100 birds over two decades of birding on the premises, and posts his list on the side of the garden shed during the warmer months.

“A Scarlet Tanager sitting on a bush of peonies, Orioles in the apple tree,” Bentely recalls.  He once rescued a Cuckoo bird with a broken leg.

He animatedly speaks of the flowers he has planted like old friends.

“I have so many favorites that whatever I see this week is my favorite—I love my irises, crabapples, dogwoods,” said Bentley.

Evan Kereiakes, 30, a Federal Reserve employee who discovered the garden a few years ago, represents the average visitor to the garden.

“I’ve walked by it for much longer than that but never thought to go inside the brick walls,” Kereiakes said.

He found the St. Luke’s garden listed in a book about great New York gardens, and began bringing lunch and a book with him to sit and read.

“For the first half an hour I got there, I just explored the place,” Kereiakes said.   “There is so much to see—the individual plants.  It’s a sense of discovery.  It’s a place where you can escape from the hustle of New York, yet there’s enough ambient street noise that you still feel a part of the city.  Because it’s associated with a church, it has a sense of history.  You can tell it will be well preserved in the future.  You’re just passing through, enjoying it.”

The garden feels like an open secret, but the garden’s ambassador Bentley worries too many people might discover his beloved spot. “Once it loses that secret off the beaten path feeling,” he says, “it’s not secret any more.”

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