AIA Award for The McVICKAR HOUSE, Irvington, NY

This project is the preservation and rehabilitation of the second oldest structure still standing in historic Irvington-on-Hudson, the McVickar House built in 1853. After continuous use for about 130 years, the house was abandoned and sat empty until 2002 when the Village of Irvington acquired the property. After restoration and adaptive reuse, the facility now houses the Irvington Historical Society and incorporates museum exhibition spaces, a children’s educational resource center, conference space and offices for the curator and village historian. The jury commended its successful restoration, transformation and subsequent listing on the National Register of Historic Places.


Client: Village of Irvington Historical Society


Planting Plan

Layout Plan

McVickar House Gardens
Narrative by Mark Gilliland

Originally, in the late 18th or early 19th century, the McVickar House was situated on a much larger plot, a small farmstead located in what would eventually become the village of Dearmann (later, renamed Irvington). At this time, there was a vegetable garden on the east (right hand) lot and an orchard in the rear (north). The property had an ironwork fence along Main Street. Behind this fence, a walkway led from the front steps to the garden area. As time progressed, the village slowly grew up around the farm and land was sold off. Eventually, only a small plot remained with multi-story buildings closing in tightly.

In recreating the McVickar House landscape, it was physically impossible to replicate the original, early 19th century grounds. Most of the land is no longer available. Instead, I decided to design a garden with the flavor of this period. This was an exciting time in landscape design - the imported European style of formal gardens (such as would be evident at Colonial Williamsburg or Monticello) was no longer the only option. Now, a new more free-form style was being promulgated along the Hudson Valley by Andrew Jackson Downing and others. This "great estate" style emphasized flowing curves and large expanses of naturalistically planted landscape. (Examples can be seen at nearby Lyndhurst or Olmstead's Central Park.) Around this time, Downing also published a series of "model books" providing the newly emerging middle class an inventory of historical styles which they could use to build their own mini-estates. These plans often included sample gardens and landscapes complete with plant lists.

In my landscape design for the Historical Society's new home, I decided to combine and contrast these two historic garden styles: in the front yard, behind an restored ironwork fence and hedge line, there is a formal oval display bed for annuals and tropicals. Bedding out seasonal displays was a long-standing practice imported from the formal gardens of European estates. Contrast this with the more natural feeling beds on the left (west) of the property. Here, a curvilinear walk leads back to a secluded sitting area. Although the general plantings in this garden area are open and free-form, a traditional touch is provided by the Hostas (Plantation Lilies) which border the walk on either side, providing a strong visual gesture into and through the narrow shady side space.

With regards to plant materials, my research of this time period (utilizing historical documents such as original nursery catalogs available at the NYBG research library) revealed that many of the wonderful species we use today were also available to the 19th century landscape designer. The range of material is truly astonishing and new varieties, species and cultivars - many from explorers returning from far off China and Japan - were being introduced each year. In keeping with the spirit of garden adventure, I have made use of modern cultivars echoing many of the most popular species on sale through the existing nurseries at that time (in the Bronx and on Long Island).

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10 Point Spring Gardening Checklist

Now that it' s Spring and the weather is warming up, you are probably starting to plan what needs to be done in your garden. Here is a 10 point checklist of important tasks:

1) Clean up old leaves, broken branches and debris left from the winter. (If you are working in woodland beds or beds with Spring bulbs, carefully lift leaves by hand.) Such leaves can be shredded and used as a summer mulch (2" -3" deep), especially around Rhododendron, Andromeda and other woodland shrubs.

2) Examine your shrubs for winter damage and prune, as required. When pruning, go for the 5 "D"s: dead, damaged, diseased, diminutive (too small), and diverging (growing into or across other branches, for example). Be careful, work slowly and deliberately. Stand back often to see the effects of your work. If in doubt, don't prune until plant has fully leafed out and/or bloomed.

Note: learn about your shrubs! Don't prune Spring bloomers until after they bloom. Some plant families have more complex rules, such as Hydrangea: H. macrophylla (Lace Cap or Mop Head types) bloom on old wood and should not be pruned except later in the summer after they bloom. H. quercifolia (Oak Leaf) don't really ever need pruning except if a branch is damaged. Finally, H. paniculata or H. tartiva types can be pruned in the early Spring as they bloom on new wood.

3) Cut back any grasses (except evergreen types such as Carex), ferns and perennials left standing over-winter.

4) Start a fresh compost pile using these cuttings and any extra fallen leaves left over from the fall. (Exclude Peony, Iris, Sycamore and other disease-susceptible leaves from the pile). Add grass clippings during the season to increase nitrogen (green) content within the compost pile.

5) Fertilize your shrubs and perennials. For shrubs, use a general purpose organic fertilizer. For perennials, a rich compost is probably best.

6) Lime your Lilacs (about a cup per bush), sprinkled around the root zone and gently "scratched in" to the top inch of soil.

7) Divide any perennials which were over-grown or too crowded last season.

8) Apply new summer mulch (2"-4") to beds. Shrubs benefit from an un-dyed, shredded bark mulch. Perennials prefer a more organic mulch with a high compost value.

9) Apply your first round of deer repellant. Since many shrubs are just beginning to leaf out (a time when deer find the leaves very tasty), be sure to adequately spray even "bare" branches. For perennials, spray around the crown and emerging leaves. Since this is a time of rapid growth, spraying every week or so would be most beneficial. Consider using a granular repellant broadcast directly onto the beds for this early Spring emergent period. (I use Milorganite which is also a general purpose organic fertilizer.)

10) Start your seeds now. (Some can be sown directly outside, others need to be started indoors.)

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