Botanical garden wants to raise scholarly profile


NEW YORK - Say that there happens to be this internationally famous campus in the city about which most New Yorkers are clueless. That it attracts doctoral students from all over the world, that it sends out scientists on exploratory missions across the planet and helps anchor global research on genomics, conservation and endangered species.

And say that it happens to be in the Bronx. And that it's about to get a new $100 million state-of-the-art focal point to house one of the world's greatest collections of its kind.

How many New Yorkers would be able to identify it by name? (All right, some of you guessed, it's the New York Botanical Garden.)

"Most people only know about the big conservatory with the tropical plants," said Gregory Long, the garden's president, referring to its $27 million Victorian conservatory, the nation's largest, which was renovated in 1997. "But as for the rest of what we do - we have had something of a low profile."

This seems likely to change as the 111-year-old institution anticipates the public opening on May 2 of its International Plant Science Center, including the garden's newly restored Beaux-Arts library building.

The terra-cotta, limestone and brick heirloom has been given a new six-story west wing designed by the firm of Polshek Partnership Architects.

The center will house the garden's 775,000-item library collection, its 6.5 million plant specimens and a new exhibition gallery.

Peter R. Crane, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England, said the New York Botanical Garden was a gem "whose collections needed to be housed in a proper way to recognize their importance, and to give people better access."

Ole Seberg, a professor at the University of Copenhagen who is an authority on evolutionary botany, said the new facilities could allow the garden to become a major force in plant studies.

"The botanical garden hosts the most important collections in the Western Hemisphere, and has its best library," he said.

The latest flurry of innovation follows a transformation at the botanical garden over several years.

250-acre complex

The 250-acre complex is at once an educational resource, a neighborhood park and a library open to the public.

The mile-wide national historic landmark had 650,000 visitors last year. Its living horticultural collections are, Long said, "a public museum without a roof."

After checking out the conservatory, most visitors wander through the 48 gardens and plant collections, including the celebrated 50-acre forest of oaks and hemlocks, which has never been lumbered.

But visitors are largely unaware of the institution's focus on botany - including molecular studies, plant conservation and plant genomics - in laboratory and research facilities that have a scientific staff of more than 200 people.

The garden is actually an academic campus, furthering the education of 42 doctoral candidates from places such as Yale, Columbia and New York University.

In recent weeks, 150 workers have been toiling to complete the four-year renovation, of which the grandest spectacle is the restoration of the copper-domed, 36-foot-high Beaux-Arts Library Rotunda.

Save for the inner dome, little of the historic detail inside the 94,000-square-foot library building, which dates back to 1901, had been preserved.

"So we created a work of unambiguously modern architecture," said James Stewart Polshek, whose firm designed the renovation.

Also nearing completion is the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, a new 70,000-square- foot wing.

The plant science center's overall cost of $100 million also includes refurbishing the 400-seat Arthur and Janet Ross Lecture Hall; restoring the garden's perimeter fence of cast iron and stone; and expanding an online cataloging project.

The reinforced floors of the herbarium are lined with 8-foot-tall gray steel storage areas, known among the world's botanists as "New York Botanical Garden cabinets" for their distinctive fireproof, two-door, gasket-sealed, 52-shelf design. They hold some of the most priceless resources of the botanical garden, historic specimens that facilitate DNA research to classify plant relationships.

Barbara Thiers, the herbarium director, showed off some of the rarest specimens, including a fragile, tiny moss (Ulota darwinii) collected by Charles Darwin in Tierra del Fuego on the voyage of the Beagle from 1831 to 1836, and a microscopic fungus collected on Dec. 12, 1900, by George Washington Carver.

Sophisticated cooling

In the new herbarium, the specimens will be preserved by a innovative cooling system. "We informally refer to the building as the largest, most elegant and most sophisticated refrigerator in the United States," Polshek said.

Most of these specimens are the harvest of the botanical garden's own worldwide collecting missions, pursued since 1897. Fifty intrepid explorers are currently on collecting journeys in South Africa, Asia and Micronesia.

These missions last for a month or more, as collectors gather an average of 2,000 plants per trip, weighing hundreds of pounds.

The specimens are preserved on the spot in the wild, and shipped back to the botanical garden. There, they are glued and sewn onto stiff, acid-free cards measuring 11 inches by 16 inches before being installed in the steel cabinets.

Also part of the new complex is the 18,500-square-foot LuEsther T. Mertz Library, the botanical garden's collection of rare books, folios, maps and historic seed catalogs. The library maintains 75 percent of the world's literature on systematic botany. It also houses the institution's rare botanic art collection of paintings and illustrations.

The shelves contain rare early plant books, some with value in the million-dollar range, including its oldest, the Circa Instans of 1190, a formulary of medicinal plants.

The library's new space has a 48-foot reference desk of cherry wood, and a study area for 50 readers, ready for laptop plug-in.

"Finally, a century later, these great collections are going to get the facilities they've needed," said John F. Reed, the library director.

Although there is now plenty of praise for what the botanical garden is doing for the Bronx, it has not always been a perfect environmental neighbor.

In January, the garden acknowledged that wastewater from a slop sink, as well as wastewater from a sump pump emptying out a leaky basement, had been migrating into a storm sewer that wended its way to the stretch of the Bronx River that runs through the garden.

The institution agreed to fix the problem and pay $365,000 for river improvements in a settlement with the state attorney general's office."This has been corrected, and settled, and it's done," Long said.

Budget problems

But money isn't easy to come by these days. The city's planned budget cuts could endanger the botanical garden's 15-year master construction plan.

So far, national and local fiscal crises have cost it more than $3 million from its previous annual budget of $41 million. In the coming year, city financing will be cut 20 percent, or $1.3 million. As a result, 30 of the 561 staff positions have remained unfilled.

Adolfo Carrion Jr., the Bronx borough president, and the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently helped restore $16.1 million to the garden's capital budget to pay for the scheduled construction of new greenhouses.

"The garden," Carrion said, "is too important to the Bronx and the city to shortchange."

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