The vision of Frances Peters, the founder of The City Gardens Club of New York City, is our legacy. Her concept in 1918 of a worldly metropolis enhanced by nature has inspired a legion of New Yorkers “…to preserve, enrich and increase the natural beauty of the environment …for the public benefit through education, horticulture, conservation and other related undertakings.”
Frances Peters founded The City Gardens Club with only 2 members but the club quickly attracted city residents who shared her goals of civic improvement. Mrs. Andrew (Louise) Carnegie and Mrs. Oliver (Grace) Harriman were among those engaged in projects to transform empty and unattractive spaces around public buildings, hospitals, churches and apartments into areas of greenery and respite from the noise and other harsh elements of city life.
A club member, Mrs. T. Carlyle (Rosalie) Jones designed the logo for the club – printed in green and depicting a potted shrub with the initials CGC entwined in the branches. The logo remains the club’s symbol to this day.
An article in The New York Times conveyed Miss Peters’s firm belief in the benefits of greenery to city dwellers and emphasized the need for more extensive planting throughout the city.
The CGC led a project to plant street trees in residential neighborhoods in honor of the servicemen who had lost their lives in World War I.
By the mid-1920s the club had been incorporated and its membership had swelled to over 600. Its annual winter exhibits featured garden designs for small spaces, along with comprehensive lists of plants suitable for city gardening.
A CGC project at this time enhanced the appearance of 14 public libraries with window boxes and gardens and also encouraged neighboring residents, including children, to become involved in their ongoing care.
A 1927 article in The New York Times referred to the CGC’s efforts to encourage “the planting of street trees, window box decorations and indoor winter gardening…[and to promote]…a better system of administration of the city parks and recreation areas.”
On its 10th anniversary in 1928, the club created a medal to recognize distinguished work in city gardening. The award, designed by the noted American sculptor Herbert Samuel Adams, was presented yearly until the 1940s when the Second World War intervened.
During the Great Depression many members could no longer afford the club’s dues and membership fell to 250. However, the club continued with the library project and exhibits. The City Gardens Club designed a garden for the sunken plaza at the newly constructed Rockefeller Center to coincide with the unveiling in 1934 of the Prometheus statue.
A 1930 tour of members’ townhouse gardens proved so popular that the CGC hosted several more tours of private gardens.
The club championed the Victory Garden movement, encouraging Americans to plant vegetables for their own consumption so that more of the nation’s agricultural production could be distributed to the Allied troops abroad. Members established the Tool Shed at a Civilian Defense Volunteer Office in Manhattan, offering seeds and instructions for planting a victory garden.
Annual tours of private gardens became a significant fundraising vehicle. This enabled the club to support several wartime causes, including American Seeds for British Soil, a program developed to ease a severe shortage of vegetable seeds in England, as well as similar programs benefitting Russia and China.
At the end of the war the club launched multiple projects to decorate veterans hospitals for the holidays.
In 1945 the CGC established its first children’s garden on Monroe Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, next to the city’s first municipally subsidized housing project. Engaging children of diverse backgrounds to work together, this community garden had more than 70 plots.
Another children’s garden was built at a detention center for delinquent girls on Welfare Island. A club publication noted that 63 girls worked in the garden and “vegetables were grown and harvested in a goodly number.”
In 1951, the club undertook a project to give school children hands-on exposure to the wonders of the natural world in the classroom. Every year since then members have collected items native to New York City including minerals, seed pods, leaves, weeds, fungi, bark, shells and feathers. The specimens are assembled into kits, each with an illustrated teaching manual. Approximately 200 Nature Kits are given to New York City public school science teachers each year.
Also in 1951, the club began providing scholarships enabling New York City public school science teachers to attend summer workshops, where they can engage in activity-oriented nature study and explore new ways to enhance their classroom teaching.
In the late 1950s, the club established an occupational therapy garden in an outdoor space at Bellevue Hospital. Children in the hospital and from the neighborhood helped to plant and maintain the garden.
To commemorate its 50th anniversary in 1968, the club planted a garden at Gracie Mansion. Other projects at that time included a neighborhood Vest Pocket Park in Corona, Queens.
When the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was threatened in 1968 by a proposed expansion of Kennedy Airport, the club joined with other groups to preserve it as a wildlife sanctuary.
Members undertook garden restoration projects at historic sites, including the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Upper Manhattan and the Old Merchant’s House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Gardens were designed and financial support provided to non-profit institutions such as Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan.
The club contributed exhibits to flower shows demonstrating principles of garden design and showcasing plants that thrive in NYC.
A formal program was established to provide grants for worthy horticultural and environmental projects by other non-profit organizations. Early examples included a Senior Citizens Garden Project at the East Side House Settlement in the South Bronx and a flower and vegetable garden at the Yorkville Common Pantry in East Harlem.
The club’s Nature Kit teaching manual was revised, and illustrations by a club member who was a scientific illustrator were added.
The Melville Award was established to honor individuals who have excelled in educating young people about the environment.
The Grants program became a major focus of the club’s resources. Support for educational and gardening projects in the city’s needier neighborhoods was emphasized.
A Diplomatic Visitors program was established, enabling spouses of United Nations diplomats to attend CGC functions.
The club planted trees near the site of the former World Trade Center to honor those whose lives had been lost on September 11, 2001.
Teaching gardens were planted at public libraries: the Aguilar Library in East Harlem, Manhattan, and the Stone Avenue Library in Brownsville, Brooklyn, both in collaboration with The Horticultural Society of New York.
The Frances Peters Award was established to honor a person or persons whose unique vision and significant accomplishments have helped to preserve, enrich and enhance the natural beauty of New York City.
A history of The City Gardens Club, “The First 85 Years,” was published in 2004.
The club raised funds to support landscape restoration and a nature map of a portion of St. Nicholas Park in Upper Manhattan.
Conservation forums were initiated to present information on timely environmental issues to members and fellow New Yorkers.
Green roofs were installed in the South Bronx at the Bronx Design and Construction Academy and Rocking the Boat, a youth development program, both in collaboration with the non-profit organization Sustainable South Bronx.
A 2011 fundraiser enabled landscape restoration and expansion of educational programs at Von King Park in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Grants and Conservation projects continue to benefit parks, community gardens and educational projects by non-profit organizations in every corner of the city.
Nature Kit and Scholarship are expanding their outreach to teachers of natural science in an effort to enhance children’s appreciation of nature and the environment.