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In the Heights: A garden spacious, precious, almost unimaginable today

Beecher Garden at Plymouth Church, to which Grace Faison is devoted. Photo by Lore Croghan

Private Refuge Owned By 'Miss White' Now Houses Two Apartment Buildings

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Back in the day, before there was a Promenade, moms took their children to play in Miss White's garden. But first they had to pass muster with Miss White.

The garden was hers, after all, the most extraordinary of Brooklyn Heights open spaces in private hands that anyone can remember.

“She felt like a character in Dickens,” recalled Grace Gray Faison, who was widowed at age 20 during World War II and was raising her toddler son, Jeff, in the neighborhood during the final years before the garden's 1948 closing.

“She would wear long black clothes and she had an assistant who peered through the lace curtains to see how you were doing in the garden,” said Faison, 88.

The leafy hangout for Heights families stretched along the east side of Pierrepont Place between Montague and Pierrepont Streets. Today, Brooklyn Law School apartment building 2 Pierrepont St. and co-op building 57 Montague St. stand in its place.

It was the Heights' version of Gramercy Park, the famed, fenced-in private Manhattan green space – with one difference. Access to Gramercy Park is limited to people who own or rent in one of the 39 buildings surrounding it. An entree to Miss White's garden depended entirely on whether Miss White decided you were a-okay.

“You had to be interviewed, and wear stockings with a seam, and white gloves and a hat,” Faison said.

You couldn't simply ask the formidable Miss White to grant you an interview; your name had to be proposed for consideration.

Faison's grandmother, Mrs. Percy R. Gray, recommended the young widow – who in due time was given a coveted key to let herself in the garden gate.

“It was an impressive key; I remember that,” Faison said. “It was considered a great honor if you were allowed in Miss White's garden.”

Amid the trees were benches for the moms to congregate; up a pathway there was a sandbox for the kids to play in.

“It was very congenial,” Faison said. “You met other mothers of like age and interests.”

The two people you weren't likely to run into were the garden owner herself and the spying assistant.

“You never saw them outside the house,” Faison said.

Miss White was a sister of Heights philanthropist Alfred Tredway White, according to Brooklyn Eagle columnist and history buff David Ansel Weiss.

Outdoor gathering places for moms and small fry were scarce in the Heights. So it was a bad day indeed when little Jeff threw sand in the sandbox and got kicked out of the garden. It took Faison two weeks to get him to be allowed back in.

The garden was shut down when Jeff was in nursery school.

“The garden was very important,” she said. “Losing it was hard, of course.”

In those final years before the garden's closing, David Layfield, now 73, played there.

“I was very young,” recalled Layfield, who was born and raised in the Heights and now lives in Bay Ridge.

Among his group of friends who frequented the garden, “what our mothers had in common was the majority of them played bridge together,” he said.

A few years later, after Miss White's garden closed, Layfield hung out at another of the Heights' now-lost open spaces – Joe's Tennis Courts.

The clay courts stood on Henry Street, Hunts Lane and Joralemon Street, where apartment house 245 Henry St. was later built.

At age 11, 12 and 13, he cleaned the courts. He was paid $1 per court and got an hour of court time on Sundays to play tennis with his dad.

Today, more than six decades after the closing of Miss White's garden, Faison continues to live in the neighborhood and is devoted to one of the Heights' great surviving open spaces – the garden at Plymouth Church.

The sixth-generation Heights resident heads Plymouth's Garden Committee, which oversees the care of the Beecher Garden on Orange Street between Plymouth's Church House and Sanctuary, with its statue of Abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher and its broad green lawn and bordering flower beds.

Also, she spearheaded the reclamation of the Lost Acre, a patch of land east of the Sanctuary that was a “jungle,” she said, but has been turned into a shady oasis. The part of the Lost Acre closest to the Orange Street sidewalk  has been planted with pansies and revamped as a display site for an 1870s-vintage cast-iron bell that hung in the steeple of Plymouth's sanctuary when it was located at 56 Cranberry St.

“You walk by and you see this great expanse of green grass and I don't know where else in Brooklyn Heights you'd find something like that, and then this little Lost Acre that was found,” she said.

“It just makes me happy – it's as simple as that.”

* Heights folk, now and former: Who else among you remembers the time you spent in Miss White's garden? We'd love to hear from you. Drop us a note at letters@brooklyneagle.com and we'll be in touch.

July 25, 2013 - 11:00am


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