Ralph Hancock F.R.H.S. Landscape Artist
- Written by Robin Hull
The Rockefeller Center
In 1933 Ralph was approached to design roof gardens for Nelson and John D. Rockefeller at the RCA Building (Rockefeller Center) in New York City.
Also in that year he was asked to create two lower-level roof gardens on the British Empire Building and La Maison Française, and to design the planting for the fashionable Channel Gardens on Fifth Avenue.
Hancock’s Gardens of the Nations, on the 11th floor of the RCA Building, emulated the style of gardens from Holland, France, Spain, Italy and Japan.
Three thousand tons of earth, 500 tons of bricks, 100 tons of stone, 2,000 trees and shrubs, and 20,000 bulbs were delivered by the service elevator or were hauled by hand using a block and tackle up the side of the building.
There was also an English Garden, with turf imported directly from England. Low Cotswold-stone walls, Tudor arches and espaliered fruit trees featured within this slice of the old country. It was within the English Garden that Ralph had his own private gardens.
Also on the 11th floor, Hancock operated the Horticultural Halls, a place where purveyors of all things associated with gardening could promote their products. Exhibitions featuring the many garden clubs of New York and New Jersey were often held within the Halls.
Opposite the English Garden, Ralph installed an International Rock Garden. Stone from the English Lake District and Alpine planting were complimented by a waterfall and a 200-foot fished-filled brook. This spectacle required 96,000 gallons of water which was lifted by an electric pump. A Native American garden completed the spectacular. Hancock imported wildlife from upstate New York, including squirrels and chipmunks, and there was even an aviary of wild birds.
Hancock was confident that what he had created would unleash numerous opportunities for other similar gardens in the US. He declared in the New York Times: ‘…the days of penthouse gardening are over and miles and miles of roof space in every metropolis in this country remain to be reclaimed by landscape gardening’.
The Gardens of the Nations were opened on 15 April 1935. The event was attended by 400 guests, including the ambassadors of the countries represented by the gardens which Ralph had created. Also in attendance were prominent horticulturists and the guest of honour, Nelson Rockefeller.
In their first seven months the gardens attracted over 87,000 visitors, each paying $1. The gardens closed at the end of 1935 and over the winter were planted with 50,000 bulbs. The following year the entrance fee was reduced to 40 cents.
Letters of the period in the Rockefeller family archive show that, despite Hancock’s best efforts, the American gardeners employed by the buildings management, were not looking after Ralph’s creations with the care that he demanded. In response to a complaint from Ralph, a letter from the buildings manager, William J. Hoffman, suggests that Hancock should quite literally, ‘pack his bags!’