Lois Johnson and Betsey Blakeslee tend to Kosciuszko’s Garden which they and other volunteers are refurbishing. The garden is named for Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish engineer who built the garden as a retreat. Today, it still serves as an escape for cadets and also a secluded small class setting. The remains of the garden were discovered by Cadet Jonathan Swift in 1802 and he restored it at that time before he became the first graduate of West Point.
Community members tend to Kosciuszko's Garden
Story and photo by Kathy Eastwood
Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a skilled Polish engineer who offered his services to the American colonies in their quest forindependence, received an appointment at Fortress West Point in March 1778 as chief engineer of the fortification. While here, Kosciuszko constructed a chain of redoubts and forts––and a private retreat now known as Kosciuszko's Garden, located near Cullum Hall down steep steps that lead to the garden.
The garden was in disrepair when Betsey Blakeslee happened to see it while her husband came to West Point as a voluntary recall and physician at Keller Army Community Hospital.
“I explored the history and conditions (of the garden) and met with and worked with several key individuals at the Directorate of Public Works,” she said. These helpful individuals included Randy McMurtrie, Bob Jones, George Markt and Gregory Church.
“They were helpful regarding previous studies that were produced on the historic landscape design and preservation at West Point as well as the recent condition of the garden,” she said.
Blakeslee put together a PowerPoint presentation and gave it to as many groups who would listen about the importance of preserving this garden and understanding its history in the American Revolution.
“As a result, I started interfacing with the Department of History, the West Point Museum, several cadet groups, Christina Overstreet (post volunteer coordinator) and the West Point volunteers,” Blakeslee said. “Jim Johnson, former chief of military history and president of the Hudson River Valley Institute and professor at Marist College, has been tremendously helpful as has his wife Lois who volunteered in the garden.”
There was a tremendous amount of overgrowth. None of the rock faces were exposed. There were also plumbing issues and the grotto on the second level needed the roof fixed and bricks needed reappointing.
“Railings were coming off, the steps and the terraces needed repair and the view of the Hudson River was obstructed,” she said. “There were serious safety concerns, which were solved with the implementation of additional railings. The fence above the garden was broken and allowed trash to blow into the garden and the fountain was not working. All of that has been repaired.”
Blakeslee received the Gold Cross of Merit from President of Poland Bronislaw Komorowski Sept. 26 at the Polish Consulate in New York for her work on Kosciuszko’s Garden.
Despite the accolades, she said there is still work to be done.
“The single most important element of the garden, which is still not repaired, is the direct entrance from Kosciuszko’s Garden to Flirtation Walk,” she said. “There is a small section that is eroded and cadets and faculty from the Civil and Mechanical Engineering Department devoted a lot of time and effort into a plan to open up the entrance and fix the path.”
However, that project was stopped because official permits for construction could not be granted to cadets, according to the garrison. As a result, a significant section of the historic path of Flirtation Walk remains closed off, even though the condition of the path is excellent and contains a stone wall and a beautiful view of the river., according to Blakeslee.
Blakeslee said there are approximately 30 sites from the American Revolution at West Point and nearly 75 percent are in need of repair.
Several organizations and community members are contributing to the repair of Kosciuszko’s Garden. The Daughters of the United States Army donated benches for the garden. Distinguished Graduate Lt. Gen. Ed Rowny, Class of 1941, and his family established a fund at the Association of Graduates for Kosciuszko’s Garden preservation and are active supporters. They will be featured in an upcoming Public Broadcasting Station documentary on Kosciuszko.
Kosciuszko’s Garden was built by the general as a retreat in 1779 and is still used as an escape for cadets who can be found there during most times of the day.
It is considered one of the oldest continuously existing gardens in the United States.