Home SeasonsFall A Look into Montclair’s Van Vleck Gardens

A Look into Montclair’s Van Vleck Gardens

by Eva Grall
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You may have passed it, not even realizing it was there. Down a narrow road, behind an unassuming QuickChek and your neighborhood pizza place. The iron fence surrounding the property stands fortified with tall hedges of andromeda, rhododendrons, and towering trees. The half-block feels exclusive, if not hidden away — a place you only go when invited. But in the center of Montclair, not far from our beloved art museum, nestled near Edgemont Memorial Park and the Montclair Kimberley Academy, is the magic that is the Van Vleck House and Gardens located at 21 Vleck Street. 

A gem in the center of this shimmering town, Van Vleck is one of Montclair’s lesser-known parks. But if you know, you know. And if you don’t, well, let us share this historic, stunning, and — did we mention — free botanical garden. So prepare to be whisked away to the early 20th century when the local estates had vast, bountiful gardens. Read on to learn more about Van Vleck Gardens in Montclair.

The History

van vleck gardens

The Ivy at Chatham

The Van Vleck House and Gardens was a family estate for three generations dating back to the late 1800s. There have been several previous residences on the property, including a Victorian and a Tudor mansion. The current Mediterranean-inspired home was designed and built in 1916 by Joseph Van Vleck, Jr. 

It is a prime example of the large houses constructed popularly in and around Montclair as it became fashionable to spend time at country estates not far from New York City. Built for his brother, who then passed, the house became Howard Van Vleck’s — Joseph’s son. 

van vleck gardens

In it, Howard and his wife Betty raised four children. Howard followed in the family business of architecture, graduating with a degree from Columbia University, but left the field to pursue his true passions: painting, gardening, and horticulture.

Read More: Museums in Essex County for a Fun Day of Learning

Howard Van Vleck’s influence on the gardens was immense, and the passion he poured into them is still visible today. His legacy includes unique hybrid varieties of rhododendrons that had not been seen previously, particularly a clear, yellow variety that is currently flowering in the garden — and just as magnificent as he hoped.

Opening to the Community

van vleck gardens

In 1993, the heirs of Howard Van Vleck gave the property to The Montclair Foundation with the wish that the estate would live on and continue his legacy. It is now a center for nonprofits, with several NJ foundations headquartered on the second floor. 

The ground floor is open to non-profits for seminars, receptions, and fundraisers. The Van Vleck House and Gardens continue to serve the community through their local partnerships, educational programs, volunteer opportunities, and student activities.

van vleck gardens

The grounds are open to the public daily, and it is the beauty of this nearly 6-acre property that will keep you coming back.

The gardens were initially designed to be enjoyed during the spring when the Van Vleck family would stay (their summers were spent on “the Cape”), so there are many spring-blooming varieties, rhododendrons, and azaleas.

The Flowers + Plants

van vleck gardens

The gardens are best known for their stunning terrace with Doric columns, twine two massive Chinese wisterias. Howard Van Vleck planted these in 1939 to provide shade to the upper bedrooms, and they have significantly outlived their expected lifespan. The effect is something out of a fairy tale, and as the purple blossoms cascade over the romantic balcony, you are transported to a villa on the Italian coast.

There are many other special areas of this park, a favorite being the “Woodlands” at the western corner of the property. This peaceful enclave makes it hard to believe that you are just feet away from the bustling traffic of Upper Mountain Avenue. It is truly an escape. 

van vleck gardens

Take note of the trees as you wander — there are 65 varieties, including the grand cedar of Lebanon, which can be admired from the Wisteria Courtyard at the end of the Formal Gardens. There is also a sugar maple which is still tapped for maple syrup every year.

The Upper Lawn and Mother’s Garden, both large expanses of grassy areas surrounded by giant rhododendrons and towering trees, are the perfect landscapes for picnicking, relaxation, or simply immersing yourself in the natural setting.

van vleck gardens

Be sure to take the narrow paths through small corridors of shrubs to experience a more romantic escape. The plants and flowers are designed so beautifully that it is easy to feel as if you might come upon a pair of lovers, meeting for a tryst amidst the azalea blooms.

See More: Community Farms + Gardens in Montclair + Bloomfield

During the week, it is normal to find that you have the gardens to yourself. A lone, meandering walk through this peaceful Eden feels like a decadent luxury. Birds sing, squirrels rustle through the brush, and time slows to hear nature’s melodies. As the sun’s last rays hit Howard’s yellow azaleas, a man quietly sits and strums his guitar in the Tennis Court Garden with barely a witness. It’s a nice way to pass an afternoon, but we think this place is too beautiful to be a secret for much longer.

van vleck gardens

Events like outdoor yoga, animal programs, and educational activities are hosted on the grounds for the community. Check the calendar on the website for upcoming events.

With the generosity of the community and donors, along with the hard work of many volunteers, the Van Vleck House and Gardens are open and free to the public, from dusk to dawn, 365 days a year. The estate is located at 21 Van Vleck Street, Montclair. {Limited on-site parking available as well as street parking}.

If you would like to donate or volunteer, click here to find out more.

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