Under the assiduous stewardship of an ardent gardener and recently named to the National Register of Historic Places, the Fleischmann House, along with its magnificent garden, has a rosy future.
Sometimes you find love where you least expect it. A good example would be Michael Stewart and John Perrone’s hot affair with the former house of Gustav Fleischmann in Peekskill. Stewart and Perrone were perfectly happy in their home of 15 years, two blocks away, and had no plans to move. Nonetheless, they couldn’t help admiring the Fleischmann House while passing by. When the property came up for sale in 2013, asking to view the house was really just a lark. “We were merely curious, then we stepped into the foyer, and we were sold,” Stewart remembers of the clinching moment.
With its five bedrooms, the historic house stole their hearts. Originally the home of Gustav Fleischmann, executive vice president and general manager of the Fleischmann yeast-distilling plant from 1920-1953, the Colonial Revival home was not ostentatious, but it had an alluring presence. Designed by Chester Patterson, a well-known architect with a penchant for Colonial Revival architecture, the house straddles a hill on its two-thirds acre with a view of the Hudson River and Bear Mountain in the distance. The house undoubtedly had a garden decades ago, yet only remnants of the original shrubbery, a few perennials, and some statuary remained. It was the interior — and its possibilities — that hooked unsuspecting onlookers.
So, Stewart and Perrone left their cozy home (“It was also a Colonial Revival, with a newly renovated kitchen,” says Stewart) and their former exuberant garden to take up stewardship and start from scratch with the Fleischmann House. They swung into another kitchen renovation (Perrone loves to cook) and worked on other minor updates. Stewart was readying himself to tackle the landscape when he heard that the new owners of their former house were planning to remove their garden in favor of a lawn. That’s when he went into rescue mode and unearthed approximately 200 mature plants. “We had to rent a moving van just for the plants. I figure that we saved about $10,000 worth of plant costs,” says Stewart. Given that he is a research analyst at Standard & Poor’s, it comes as no surprise that Stewart enjoys taking inventory. He calculates that his property now bristles with hundreds of perennials, plus approximately 120 roses installed under his watch.
Besides the few remaining shrubs and some perennials in the tiers grading the steep backyard at the Fleischmann House, Stewart was given a blank canvas. He wasted no time devising a design. His inspiration was to go Renaissance by creating the formal gardens he’d always admired. On the lower level, he laid out a trio of courtyards, including a quadrant garden overlooked by a series of three statues moved from elsewhere on the property, a gravel garden with container plants, and a fountain garden spilling over with impatiens. The second tier, meanwhile, is dominated by perennials on either side of a bluestone pathway, lending exuberance to the level below with a cascade of trailing plants that adorn the brick and shore up the rhapsodic tableau. The result looks like a multicolored fountain of blossoms.
The top tier is home to a 1934 restored fountain designed by the Fleischmann company’s engineering department, coupled with a native wisteria. One of the main attractions on that tier is a parade of hybrid tea roses, which Stewart has carefully collected over the years. While there are other flowers in the garden, roses are a major facet throughout the scene here. When Stewart and Perrone invite guests to the Fleischmann House in the summer, the entire garden is suffused in the heady redolence of roses.
Stewart’s romance with roses was forged at a formative age. He remembers being mesmerized by a rose garden on the way to school as a seven-year-old, and his adoration grew more ardent with time. Although hybrid tea roses and David Austin English roses are well represented in the garden, they are just the beginning. The rosarian delves into more arcane varieties, such as Bourbons, grandifloras, musk roses, and damasks. He hosts even more elusive varieties, with names that would be recognizable only to experts. But then, Stewart educates the experts: He is an active member of the American Rose Society and has produced award-winning photographs for their publications and competitions, and shared advice in forums.
Although roses have been added since the initial move, many came in the van from his previous home. Anyone who has ever attempted to transplant a rose knows that this feat can pose a major challenge, but Stewart was not fazed. To accomplish this successfully, he removed one-third of the rose’s foliage, to minimize transplant shock, and watered the plant generously. Then, he enlisted a sharp, flat-tipped spade to slice into the ground around the drip line and cut roots without shredding their water-drinking root hairs. Normally, he would suggest wrapping the root ball in burlap for ease of transport and then transplanting rapidly to the new location. In this case, however, he was moving the plants in early winter, before the new space was readied for planting. In the interim, they were potted in five-gallon plastic pots collected from all the nurseries he’d patronized over the years, to be stored in an unheated greenhouse. Even so, two-thirds of the roses survived the coldest and snowiest winter on record.
Stewart loves serving as a resource for master gardeners and sharing his knowledge of transplanting perennials and shrubs. When he and Perrone took the Fleischmann House and its land under their wing, the entire community benefited as a result. If ever a house, and its landscape, deserved a preservation award, the Fleischmann House is it.