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An Urban Oasis for Confucius to Ponder

June 10, 1999. New York Times, pg. F8

TO understand the profound beauty of the New York Chinese Scholar's Garden, you must leave your Western mind at the gate. Do not go looking for masses of flowers and spectacular color in this garden, which opens on Saturday at the Staten Island Botanical Garden. It is a study of shadows on white walls, stones rising to the sky and the ripple of sunlight on water.

The plantings are spare, conscious decisions: a pine chosen for the way a branch echoes the jagged edge of a rock; a flowering apricot, called Prunus mume, a short, rounded tree that won't obscure the elegant lines of the simple entrance.

''A pine would grow straight up and hide the line of the roof,'' said Yangming Chu, the curator of the garden, as Quanxing Fan, a landscape architect, ruthlessly pruned the branches of the newly planted apricot trees.

''We look at the shape of the plant in relationship to the building,'' said Mr. Fan, who was sent by the Landscape Architecture Company of China to finish the planting design in the garden. ''If a tree doesn't fit, we try to prune it in that direction.'' The canopies of the little apricot trees are rounded, but their branches, as they age, become pleasingly curving and twisted. They also bloom in midwinter, opening their delicate, fragrant flowers on impossibly cold days.

''That is like the scholar's quality of mind,'' Mr. Chu said. ''It can bloom in the winter cold. It has a delicate smell. Scholars like subtle things that are not showing off.''

The walled garden, encompassing one acre, is a replica of the scholar's gardens that thrived in southern China in the 15th century, when wealthy Confucian scholars, retired from the imperial court, had the leisure to loll about in pavilions with friends and concubines, writing poems about the wind whispering through the pines and the quality of bamboo, which bends without breaking. The garden, which cost $8 million, was built with city and state money, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, private donations, and materials and labor from the Landscape Architecture Company of China. It represents 14 years of collaboration between the Manhattan design firm of Demetri Sarantitis Architects, which made four trips to China, and the Landscape Architecture Company of China.

Construction began last spring, when 40 Chinese artisans arrived from Suzhou, famous for its scholar's gardens, to build the garden, which includes eight pavilions, two large courtyards with ponds and stones placed as carefully as sculptures, curved balustrades and waterfalls, and many intimate spaces not immediately apparent. These are discovered only by the kind of meditative wandering that allows time to wonder what lies hidden behind a Japanese maple, or to turn a corner to peek through a ''leaky'' window -- a grillwork in the shape of a flower, say, or a geometric pattern -- to glimpse a magnolia branch in bloom.

''It's to arouse your curiosity,'' Mr. Chu said, ''to make you want to see what's behind that wall, and to find a way to get to it.'' You may step through a tall, narrow space shaped like a banana and discover a banana tree basking against a sunny wall. Or walk across a bridge so low to the water that it seems to float on its surface.

The entire garden, which in the ancient days of Chinese scholars would have included the family's residence, is walled, lending a sense of repose and separation from the outside world. It is a study of Taoist principles of opposition: light and shade, male and female, thick and thin, earth and sky. Its physical properties echo the human body.

''The stone and wood are the skeleton,'' Mr. Chu said. ''The water is the fluid in your body. The plants are your hair.'' As Frances Huber, the director of the botanical garden, put it, ''You don't dominate the garden so much as dissolve into it.''

To get that effect, Chinese craftsmen worked with 350 tons of eroded stone quarried from Lake Tai, near Suzhou, which is north of Shanghai. The hand-carved pillars were set in place with mortise and tenon, not nails, and lacquered a gleaming sang de boeuf (the color of bull's blood). Handmade clay dishui tiles, which line the roof, are gently rounded to let the rain drip in beads, not torrents, to the ground.

''There is a poem about sitting quietly by a window, listening to the dripping water hitting the banana leaf,'' Mr. Chu said, as he pointed out the shapes of bats, which are a symbol of happiness; gourds, which are good omens, and the Chinese character for longevity, stamped on each tile.

''We had always planned an exotic garden,'' said Ms. Huber, a landscape architect born and raised on Staten Island. ''Most botanic gardens have a fascination with something foreign and often build a Japanese garden. But given the history of Snug Harbor, we started to explore the 19th-century fascination with chinoiserie.''

Sailors' Snug Harbor, a Home for Retired and Decrepit Seamen, the site of the garden, was built in the 1850's as a self-sufficient retirement community for sailors. It had everything from a tuberculosis sanitarium to a working farm, a piggery and creamery, plantings of wormwood for absinthe and a greenhouse where residents grew palmetto for making fans and baskets, as well as a music hall and chapel, which was a miniature version of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. It was built by Capt. Robert Randall, who made his fortune in the China trade.

''He had made a lot of his money, essentially, as a respectable pirate,'' Ms. Huber said, referring to the shiploads of silk, china and paintings pouring into America at the time. Maybe he felt a little guilty, or at least grateful, to the men who did the grunt work.

''A lot of these guys had jumped on ship at 14,'' Ms. Huber said. ''By 60, they had problems. They were tubercular or drug addicts or alcoholics. They had no family because living with a sailor isn't easy.''

The community had a real purpose, but as the sailors died off, it fell into decline. In 1975, the Snug Harbor trustees sold 85 acres to New York City to be developed as a cultural center. About 50 acres became the botanical garden, and as the trustees began to conjure a master plan, including everything from Victorian gardens to a miniature farming operation, the life of the seamen kept coming back to Ms. Huber.

''Many of them would have been in the China sea trade,'' she said. ''And Suzhou would have been a major port of call.''

The idea of a scholar's garden in the old Snug Harbor area, which has a dearth of scholars at the moment, is yet another polar opposite so beloved by the Chinese mind. But those who make the journey -- a Chinese festival celebrates the opening of the garden this weekend -- will find themselves in another world. Bamboo, pine and apricot are like brush strokes on a canvas. And the stones rising out of the water could be those towering mountains disappearing in the mist of a Chinese landscape painting.

Snug Harbor History

To the Editor:

Anne Raver's delightful report about the Chinese Scholar's Garden, ''An Urban Oasis for Confucius to Ponder'' (June 10), is somewhat off the mark in regard to Sailors' Snug Harbor. The first 37 of the 40,000 old mariners who were to retire at the Harbor took up residence on Aug. 1, 1833, not in the 1850's. Robert Randall founded the harbor via his will, but the family fortune was put together by his father, Thomas. A Thomas Randall sailed to Canton in 1784, but that Thomas was a Boston merchant. Neither Thomas nor Robert of New York were active in the China trade.

New York, Jun 17, 1999

The writer is an amateur historian who is writing a history of Sailors' Snug Harbor.


Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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