Last Chance to Visit and Enjoy the Rusk Therapeutic Gardens in NYC!
by Sonja Johansson, FASLA
Rusk rendering by Thomas Schaller. Image courtesy Thomas Schaller.

At a time when hospitals throughout the country and the world have realized the healing power of nature and are including therapeutic gardens in their facilities, it is dismaying that three well-loved gardens will be demolished, albeit for a good cause.

New York City’s Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine building is slated for demolition. Along with it go the three world-renowned Rusk Institute therapeutic gardens, namely the Enid A. Haupt Glass Garden conservatory, its outdoor Perennial Garden on the south side, and its Children's PlayGarden on the north side.

In the gardens' location will be built a new state-of-the-art New York University Medical Center multistory facility, the Helen L. and Martin S. Kimmel Pavilion. “To make way for the Kimmel Pavilion within the finite footprint of the Superblock, planners decided the best course of action was to demolish the existing Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine...”

These gardens are definitely worth a visit before they are closed in about a year.

The gardens have a very interesting history going back over 50 years—well before the current recognition of the benefits of nature in healthcare facilities. Landscape architects think of therapeutic garden design as a relatively new aspect of our profession. Horticultural therapy was a fledgling profession in 1973. Yet through the foresight of Dr. Howard A. Rusk and the generosity of Enid Haupt, the Glass Garden opened in 1959. The Perennial Garden was added in 1989, also funded by Enid Haupt. The Children's PlayGarden was completed in 1998. (Often all 3 gardens together are referred to as the Glass Garden, but for this writing, the conservatory/greenhouse itself is referred to as the Glass Garden.)

Rusk Glass Garden: Dr. Rusk and Enid Haupt. Image courtesy Glass Garden.

When they were built, each garden sprang from revolutionary ideas, but they have stood the test of time to this day. Both the Perennial Garden and the PlayGarden were designed collaboratively by landscape architects and therapists who knew the intricate needs of therapists, patients, and their families. All three gardens are well-used and have continued to evolve as the therapeutic programs unfold.

The Glass Garden

After treating wounded servicemen from WW II, Dr. Rusk felt it was important to treat more than just the body. “Dr. Howard A. Rusk, widely considered 'the father of rehabilitation medicine,' founded the Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in 1948 with the philosophy that rehabilitation medicine provides care for the entire person—not just their illness or disability but their emotional, psychological and social needs. Dr. Rusk's philosophy became the model for rehabilitation medicine around the world.”

Rusk Glass Garden work training. Image courtesy Glass Garden.

Dr. Rusk believed in the healing power of nature. In the late 1950s, he made it his mission to involve patients with nature by creating the Glass Garden greenhouse conservatory. Enid Haupt donated the money for the conservatory, which was built by the leading greenhouse firm, Lord and Burnham. The Enid A. Haupt Glass Garden became an important place for patients to perform their therapy under the supervision of the Occupational Therapy department. Besides being an unusual addition to a hospital, these activities led to the development of the professional practice of Horticultural Therapy. Over the years, many patients have benefited not only from being in the Glass Garden, but by working there, planting, and caring for plants and birds.

The Perennial Garden

In 1989, it was still unusual for a garden to be built in a hospital to provide a place for revitalizing the staff and restoring patients and their families. The landscape architecture firm of Bruce Kelly/David Varnell worked with the Rusk therapists to design a relaxing space of wheelchair accessible curving paths. Sinuous sitting walls form raised planting beds that overflow with flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials. This garden provides a quiet place of beauty for the many people who have visited.

Rusk Perennial Garden. Image courtesy Glass Garden.

The Children's PlayGarden

In the early 1990's, the Rusk therapists began to formulate new ideas for children's therapy. They wanted to challenge traditional medical perceptions about rehabilitation and disabled children by bringing the children into nature for their therapy. I worked with the therapists in a collaborative process to develop the PlayGarden and it was completed in 1998. The PlayGarden shifted the emphasis of what a therapeutic garden could be. It was designed not only a place to be healed while enjoying nature, but as a place where children actually could do their rehabilitation exercises as they play outdoors. Children from the neighborhood have also enjoyed playing in the PlayGarden, which linked the clients in the facility with the surrounding community.

There were several design goals: to provide for safety, for motor planning and physical movement, for sensory stimulation, for discovery and learning, and for social activities and quiet restoration.

Rusk Children’s PlayGarden. Image courtesy Johansson & Walcavage, now Johansson Design Collaborative.

The scope of the program was large and diverse for such a small space. It is open to the wide sky and has a great variety of different places and activities from which the children can choose. They can play expansively, and even sing and be noisy. The PlayGarden motivates the children to do their own therapy as they play, practicing over and over again. This contrasts with the indoor environment: although the rooms are cheerful and colorful, the walls and ceilings often feel constricting.

Children enjoying PlayGarden near SandHut. Image courtesy Sonja Johansson.

Each area of the site lets the children choose different therapeutic learning activities with a child-friendly, multi-level, interactive journey through flower and vegetable gardens, arbors, waterfalls, streams, lawn, and play equipment. It is through this journey in the open air that the space feels expansive and liberating. The children learn to express their curiosity and awe while being in nature, instilling an awareness of and appreciation for the natural world, and aiding in the development of critical thinking and science skills. The PlayGarden offers a safe environment in which children can independently carry out activities, explore, experiment, make decisions and play. In addition, the PlayGarden supports positive socialization among children with different abilities, and among children and adults. It is clear that the healing influence of this PlayGarden has facilitated the therapeutic process; the therapies that were very hard work for the children were now often done with laughter.

Children playing at the stream. Image courtesy Michael Rogol.

All three gardens have been recognized nationally and internationally as some of the finest examples of therapeutic gardens. Hundreds of therapists and other medical personnel, landscape architects, designers, and educators have visited and studied the gardens. Hundreds of patients have been helped in the gardens. Progress in the form of new buildings seems to be a fact of life. But it is sad that such therapeutic and well-loved gardens should disappear years before they have outlived their usefulness.

Please plan a visit in the summer or fall of 2011, if you can.

Sonja Johansson, FASLA of Johansson Design Collaborative has more than 45 years of experience with the landscape architectural design of public spaces. She may be reached with "Rusk" in the subject line.

References:  (State Historical Society of Missouri)

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