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Gardens of Civic Virtue

NSL143_Civic Garden_Featured ImageCultivating vegetation and historic preservation are two of the organizing principals of Florence Katzenstein’s life. As the founder of historical societies on both sides of the Hudson River, Katzenstein has dedicated the last 51 years to preserving the region’s past for the benefit of future generations.

Walter and Florence Katzenstein moved to their Upper Nyack home in 1985, so that Walter could be closer to his factory in Congers. Florence founded the Hastings Historical Society in 1970. When she saw that no such organization existed in Nyack, she founded The Historical Society of the Nyacks in 1994.

Join The Garden Club of Nyack  on May 20, 2023 from10:00am – 2:00pm for their annual Plant Sale on the Depew House front and side lawn.

50 Piermont Ave, Nyack

History and horticulture have found fertile soil on this riverfront estate. From 1751 to 1905, six generations of the Williamson family occupied the land that is now the 500 block of North Broadway. The land yielded fruit, flowers and vegetables that, for a period, were harvested by slaves.

In 1905, the property was purchased by Joseph Hilton. Hilton’s wife, Ida, founded the Nyack Garden Club in 1912. The Hiltons added cottages for their two daughters.
In 1925, Pierre Bernard, also known as the Great Oom, started an ashram utilizing half a dozen old estates in the Nyacks that his devotees bought for him, including the Hilton estate, called “The Moorings”, with its main house, two cottages and carriage house.  The South Cottage is now the Katzenstein home.
Those who attend the plant sale will see a landscape of man-made and natural features that have been immortalized in a major Hollywood film. The Katzenstein home caught the eye of  Woody Allen. Scenes shot in the garden and patio appear in Allen’s 2014 oscar winning effort, “Blue Jasmine.”

In a 2014 interview, Florence Katzenstein reflected on her garden, some local history and the mercurial movie director.

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How did you create your oriental garden?
The garden area was the previous owner’s garbage dump. There were old tires, branches, leaves, no steps, just clay soil. The trees were so overgrown, you could not see the river from the house.

I looked at the stone bridge, waterfall and stream and thought it had an oriental aspect. I started with a plain old privet. It’s a plant people use for hedges. It had grown to about 12 feet high high so I cut it into an oriental shape.  It was the start of my version of an oriental garden.

How many hours a day do you garden?
I could not begin to tell you. I can come down meaning to pick a flower and three hours later, I realize I am still in the garden, hot and dirty.

Were you aware of the story of Pierre Bernard when you moved here?

No. I did not even know that Upper Nyack existed. We moved here from Hastings. Back then, people in Westchester thought of Rockland as someplace you go through on your way to get somewhere else.

My husband built a factory in Congers after leaving the South Bronx. He wanted to shorten his commute. His company, Star Kay White, is 125 years old. Their first location was where the World Trade Center once stood. He makes flavoring for ice creams. If you eat vanilla ice cream and there is a chocolate ripple, he made the chocolate ripple. He’s 84 years old and he still goes to work everyday.

Pierre Bernard was a total phony. His wife, Blanch DeVries, saw the potential in what were white elephant properties that no one could pay the taxes on.

He made up quite a history for himself. But he really did own elephants and monkeys. Many celebrities of his time thought he was terrific. Greta Garbo and Leopold Stokowski paid him to teach them yoga. He then gave them a rake and a scythe and said ‘go out and cut the grass.’

What is your favorite plant?
I like rose gardens, but  I
NSL143_Civic Garden_French Poodle tree_reviseddon’t like the formal look they often have. I’m a messy gardener. I like plants that self-seed. However, some plants overdo that and can easily take over.NSL143_Civic Garden_Cherub

When did you start gardening?
My father gardened and my grandfather gardened. One of my earliest memories of gardening is when I was four and a half, either my father or my grandfather helped me grow corn. You had to put the fish guts and fish head in the hole first and then add four kernels of corn. They corn started to grow right away. Everyday, I would race home from Kindergarten. I was thrilled. Then one day they were gone and a neat row of flowers were in their place.

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We were living in a two family house in Mount Vernon and the landlord came by and he said that corn was not a good thing for a little girl to grow, so he planted me some pretty flowers. I remember the feeling of rage to this day. That was my first memory of gardening and my attachment to it.

I understand that you started the Butterfly garden?

NSL143_Civic Garden_Butterfly Garden-Revised

Butterfly Garden

In 1999, the Nyack Garden Club wanted to celebrate the new millennium. Trish Schroer and I thought we should do something that was permanent. The Hudson is a flyway for butterflies from Canada on their way Mexico. It is a long journey and they need places to rest along the way. We chose the spot near the river that had a large glacial boulder, and planned our garden around it. When the rock heats up, butterflies land on it to rest and dry their wings.

So you must have some good Woody Allen stories?

NSL143_Civic Garden_Katzenstein Patio_revised

Scene from Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

I had agreed to let them come on to the property, to film “Blue Jasmine.” They were filming in the fall and I said they could not go into the garden past a certain point. Then I see that two men are walking past that point. I said, ‘excuse me, but you can’t go down there,’ and they said, ‘Woody told us to go down there.’ So I said, ‘Florence says you can’t.’

I explained that they were standing underneath a sixty foot high black walnut tree. The walnuts fall like bombs. They come down with a bang, almost burying themselves in the ground. All I need is for Woody to be hit in the head. So, I said, ‘unless you’re wearing hard hats, you are not going down there.’
Within an hour, six or seven men, and Woody Allen were all walking around wearing yellow hard hats. They left the hats when they were done filming.
NSL143_Civic Garden_planting shed

Little Louie
On Monday, May 19th, 2013, one of Florence’s garden companions, her 110 pound American bulldog, Little Louie, passed away. “I called him ‘Little Louie’ because he was rescued from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Louie was short for Louisiana.”

In a secluded area that she can see from her home, Little Louie joined five other family dogs and one cat in repose. Florence is now shadowed by her surviving pet and planting partner, her dog Punjik. When I asked Florence her favorite spot in the garden to sit and reflect, she replied “I don’t sit.” Surrounded by projects that need her attention, Katzenstein keeps busy, with Punjik at her side, considering what tree or plant needs pruning, or what civic organization needs cultivation.

Garden photos by Jennifer Rothschild

Special thanks to Betty Perry.

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An activist, artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: Main Street Beat © 2023 Bill Batson. Visit to see more.

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