Author: By MICHAEL S. JAMES, Staff Writer; The Record

The Record (New Jersey) | March 12, 1995

More than 1,000 strangers tramped through Brian Higley's Ridgewood living room last year.

He doesn't mind terribly when the curious show up at his doorstep. Higley understands it's not every day that people find a bamboo, fiberglass, and rice-paper compound in a Bergen County neighborhood. He usually invites visitors inside, where they can roost on a boulder and ponder wild-looking green gardens with burbling fountains and scrap-metal sculptures.

Higley is the live-in caretaker of the James Rose Center for Landscape Architectural Research and Design. The compound, which grew from three single-level free-standing apartments in 1953, was once the home of James Rose, who is regarded as one of the seminal figures of modern landscape architecture.

Despite the traffic from tourists, passers-by, and college students, many locals couldn't tell you much about the center. But it may soon get national attention.

The compound, on East Ridgewood Avenue and Southern Parkway, could wind up on the state and national registers of historic places, having been declared eligible this year.

"We think that the design particularly of the garden and the connection between the house and garden is exceptional," says John T. Fitzpatrick, projects manager for the Garden Conservancy, a national group that is championing the center's bid for historic status.

"It's something really unusual and special and of national significance. We want to make sure that the property is taken care of and open to the public and that people find out about it."

During the past several years, the complex deteriorated to the point that neighbors considered it an eyesore. But some patch-ups have been made, and the center has been open to visitors (by appointment) for two years.

As he neared death, in 1991, Rose established a small endowment to run the venture, which Higley and others hope to turn into a resource center for students of landscape architecture and for interested local residents.

But to maintain the center and to keep structural damage from worsening they need money, which they hope to raise with the higher profile that becoming a historic site would afford them.

Although at least 130 gardens designed by Rose are believed to still exist and perhaps three-quarters of those are in the New York metropolitan area the only other one open to the public is at the entrance to the Baltimore Museum of Art, says Higley.

"A lot of the owners of the houses don't realize that they have a Rose garden or know who Rose is," Higley says. "Because of that, a lot [of the gardens] are in danger of being destroyed...We'd like the owners to come to us."

Rose made his name after being tossed out of Harvard for butting heads with administrators there. He later became known as one of the "Harvard Three" a troika who studied landscape architecture at the school in the 1930s and later transformed their field.

Rose's expulsion came after he continued to turn in "modern" landscape projects despite a faculty order that all work conform to classical formats.

Rose was a "reclusive character who was a brilliant theorist and practitioner of 20th-century design," says Dean Cardasis, director of the Ridgewood center and a landscape architecture professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"He was very eccentric, like many geniuses," Cardasis continues."It was not easy to be a friend of Jim's. You had to live a few states away and see him only once in a while."

The Oxford Companion to Gardens, a gardening encyclopedia, calls Rose "one of the 20th century's most influential yet enigmatic American garden designers" who ultimately succeeded in "radically changing professional design philosophies."

Rose used his rejected Harvard assignments to procure a two-year contract writing about the modern movement for Pencil Points magazine, which was later renamed Progressive Architecture, Cardasis says. It launched a career based on the theory that gardens should conform with the landscape rather than tame it.

Today, gardeners readily use existing vegetation, rocks, streams, and railroad ties in their compositions, adhering to Rose's theory that a garden is like a giant sculpture that you can walk through.

"His new idea really became the accepted idea," Cardasis says.

But that's not necessarily the case in tony and traditional Ridgewood, where Higley concedes that the home has faced some local disdain ever since Rose locked horns with zoning officials in the 1950s. For example, the officials told him he couldn't build a 6-foot fence, Higley says, so Rose sloped his land up 2 feet and built a 4-foot fence.

Even after Rose's death, at least one neighbor is wary of the property owners' motives. Chris Nelson, who can see the Rose Center from his front lawn, says it will be a problem for him if the center becomes a large attraction.

"I can't object to the house itself or the architecture, because I think it's kind of interesting," Nelson says. "But if I wake up one morning and there's a...bus parked in front of my house, I'll go bonkers."

Rose conceived of his Ridgewood home when he served in Okinawa during World War II; he built the original one-story incarnation in 1953. He continued to make changes almost until his death, considering the compound "a living experiment," Higley says.

The buildings in the complex take up less space than a tennis court.

"By integrating the inside with the outside, he made it seem bigger," Higley says. "He felt that the house was merely shelter in the garden."

By the 1970s, Rose had linked up two sections of the house. Today, ramps, stairways, bridges, and pathways link patios, roof gardens, and open-air chambers such as a Zen meditation space. Rose eventually became a Zen Buddhist.

With the property hidden by vegetation for much of the year, many villagers pass by without even noticing it. Even Ridgewood Mayor Patrick Mancuso, who has walked past the house many times, never knew what it was.

"I never really thought too much about it, didn't know who lived there or know there was such an interesting story behind it,"

Mancuso says. He is not sure it would be wise to 1934164 convert the site into something of a museum.

But Grace Deublein, who has lived next door to the Rose home for 40 years, says she is glad to hear of the plans if it means the house will emerge from its deteriorated state and be restored to its past glory.

She fondly recalls summer days spent on the second-story decks with Rose's sister, who lived on the property with Rose and his mother.

"I loved it," Deublein says. "It was much prettier than it is now. When everybody died off, they weren't taking care of it...I'm glad to hear they're taking care of it now."

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