The urban roof garden in Manhattan and other cities may have a significant precedent in ancient Pompeii!
The landscape design of the Villa of the Mysteries preserved from Pompeii, AD 79 shows an entranceway which led to the peristyle, followed by the atrium and an extensive terraced gardens surrounded the villa on three non-entrance sides.
The desire to create an aerial oasis recreationally at the Villa of the Mysteries could possibly be the same as at a firehouse 2,000 years later. In an article from the year 1912, New York City Firehouses were being built in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan with roof gardens to provide for physical exercise, health and comfort for our brave firefighters. Outdoor gardens were to “resemble those to be found on the roofs of residences in ancient Rome.”3
It also became commonplace for apartment buildings and schools to create gardens, playgrounds or refreshment areas on their rooftops. Beginning over a hundred years ago, New Yorkers have enjoyed their rooftops. These rooftops became the pleasure gardens of the middle classes, creating a true sense of community, as described in the Brooklyn Eagle…
“They get clean, fresh sea breezes off the water and plenty of sun, so that to look at the young people of the family one might imagine from their tanned cheeks that they have spent the Summer cruising on some luxurious yacht instead of living on the ninth floor of a New York flat. The young children play dolls and marbles upstairs in the shadow of the awning all morning. The older women bring up their fancy work and sew there, write letters at one of the tables or read novels swinging in the hammock. Five o'clock tea is brought up there and partaken of out of doors, and when the sun gets low enough to have lost something of his vigor the young people play tennis, having set up a net and marked out a court on the roof, with tall nets swung up around it to keep the ball from plunging over into the street below and startling some cab horse into hysterics. All the family lounge there after dinner, chatting, smoking, singing choruses to a banjo accompaniment and breathing in salt winds from the bay over which they can see the silver path of the moonlight and the gleam of Liberty's torch."
“All evidence suggests that the first use of a rooftop as a commercial garden environment was at Aronson’s proposed theatre building which opened in 1882 as the Casino theatre.3 This garden above a Broadway theatre was quickly copied by the second recreation of Madison Square Garden (on 26th street), which successfully came into competition with the Casino. Subsequently several more roof garden theatres opened up do to their enormous success.
In the history of roof gardens, “from the 1890’s to the beginning of the depression, New York City roof gardens were attracting a new wealthier middle class in search of open air amusement. With extravagant décor and lighting and financially backed by the Vanderbilts and Morgan’s. Because there was no air conditioning at that time, the theatre season was closed during the heat of summer… therefore the opera, theatre, dining and dances w. huge orchestras all took place up on the roof."4
As the Broadway theatre roof garden became commonplace, the idea struck other builders and developers. On the same date, June 16th, 1908, two rival hotels opened their roof gardens. An orchestra played within a huge pagoda on the roof of the Waldorf Astoria as guests sipped mint-julips in wicker furniture. Over on Times Square, metal cupolas covered with geraniums, vines covered pergolas and bay trees contributed to an Italian landscape on the roof of the Hotel Astor. Upscale apartment buildings in Manhattan and ritzy hotels, turned to their terraces and rooftops to create their own interpretations of aerial gardens. As is historically common, the lifestyles of the wealthy and high society had an impact on the cultural mainstream. Newly created apartment buildings set aside roof space for their owners and renters. This trickled down to masses as “the settlement workers of the slums count their roof garden as one of their most valuable assets.”6 Roof Gardens were used for baseball, basketball and tennis games; at night there were classes for gymnastics and folk dances. The floors were covered with smooth tiles, parapets were raised or extended with the addition of wire netting, stone furniture and pergolas were added, too.
Roof garden history in New York included those with limited financial means, as they found creative ways to enjoy their roofs according to an article in the Brooklyn Eagle (7.14.1889).
“Every summer the roof garden develops more and more in popularity and attractiveness among the stay-at-homes. Residents carry up a load of beach sand on the elevator, cover the concrete with a layer of it… those that can afford it have a glass screen erected on one side to keep off the winds, then an awning is created above palms and potted plants, shrubs and boxes of growing flowers disposed about attractively.”7
1,2. Roof gardens, by Theodore Osmundson, Norton, NY.NY. 1999
3. NYTimes, December 16, 1912)
4,5,6. (American Review of Reviews)