Lilacs are my favorite flower. My parents have a lilac bush in their front yard that I loved as a teenager. At some point, it stopped blooming. I was consoled by the fact that the first apartment my husband and I shared was blessed with several trees that exploded with fragrant blossoms in the spring. When we moved, I knew that they were what I would miss most.
So when I realized that a planned trip to Rochester, N.Y., nearly coincided with the city’s Lilac Festival, I was over the moon. The annual event takes place in the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Highland Park, and the lilacs cover an entire hillside. This I had to see, and smell.
Lilacs aside, Rochester takes its Flower City nickname, thanks to a booming nursery business, to heart. (It had previously been Flour City because of the flour mills that once lined the Genesee River.) The city promotes its many gardens. After a long winter, I felt that a round of garden-hopping would be the best way to spend my one free day in town.
I set off from my bed-and-breakfast in the Park Avenue neighborhood — “our Greenwich Village,” someone at the airport tourism booth had told me — for the George Eastman House.
Eastman was the founder of Kodak and, as you might expect, his mansion and gardens are picture-perfect. Upon arriving, I learn that I’m two hours early for the garden tour, so I quickly change gears and make a beeline for the year-round Rochester Public Market.
Vendors here sell produce of all varieties, clothing, cellphone cases, kitchen tools. Even if you don’t intend to buy anything, you probably will. I pick up some grape twists (a la Twizzlers) from a local farm. And a hot doughnut. After all, I must make at least one concession to the Flour City moniker.
Back at the Eastman House, I take the self-guided cellphone audio tour before the garden tour begins. Completed in 1905 the mansion is a looker, one that reflects the refined taste of its owner. Famed architectural firm McKim, Mead and White designed the interior. The glass-enclosed palm house held Eastman’s exotic-plant collection, and he liked to entertain in the airy two-story conservatory. In stark contrast: the library, a small, intimate space lined with gorgeously bound books.
At the foot of the grand staircase, our tour group of three meets docent Michael Bellavia. He tells us that when guests arrived for Eastman’s soirees, the men would be taken into the house one way and the women another. Then the women would form a procession down the staircase, and Eastman would pin a corsage on each one, probably consisting of a flower he’d grown himself. Classy. (P.S. Where’s mine?)
In front of the house, Bellavia points out original forsythia, honeysuckle and wisteria plants, hanging tough at more than a century old.
But the tour is so much more than Botany 101. Bellavia, a now-retired 39-year Kodak employee, uses the gardens to tell Eastman’s story. In the English-style west garden, we learn that, much to the chagrin of the landscape architect’s wife, Eastman dug up decorative plants in favor of potatoes and onions during World War I.
We gather around Bellavia as he tells the story of the woman who apparently carried a torch for the never-married Eastman for decades after they parted. He shares a possibly apocryphal story about a lady named Dorothy, who turned out to be a much-loved dairy cow. We hear about Eastman’s philanthropy and how, when his health began to deteriorate and he felt that he’d done what he’d set out to accomplish, he shot himself, the suicide note posing the question, “Why wait?” I’m so swept up in Bellavia’s narrative that I begin to forget about the scenery. (Note to Hollywood: Please get on an Eastman biopic. Stat.)
We continue through the rock garden, home to grapevines and stinky ginkgo. In the library garden, we encounter the wheelbarrow-pushing head gardener, Dan — who Bellavia later tells me is his son, and the reason he became an Eastman volunteer.
Our tour concludes in the terrace garden, which smacks of Italy, down to the 17th-century Venetian wellheads. There are more than 90 species of plants in this one plot.
“Here’s where you really get to know the man,” Bellavia says. He’s talking about Eastman, of course, but at this point, I feel as if he may as well be talking about himself.
Tempting as it is to linger with Bellavia, I pull myself away to go to Highland Park. I come across tots in strollers, college students playing with hula hoops and a Frisbee, an artist with a picturesquely cocked beret painting a cluster of blossom-laden trees.
I walk with a vague idea of where to find the lilacs, of which the park has 1,200 specimens (!) across more than 500 (!!) varieties. I pass through a grove of magnolias, which aren’t too shabby either — starbursts in shades of pink, purple and white.
But I know how potently fragrant lilacs are. And the fact that I’m smelling nothing begins to worry me. I come around a bend in a path, and the scene confirms my suspicions: No blooming lilacs yet.
Defeated, I sit on a bench. When I resume my walk, I see a promising tree and carefully step down the steep slope for a look. There are clusters of dark purple buds. Then, wait, what are those? Around the side are a few shy, honest-to-goodness blooms. I shove my face into them, closing my eyes, drinking in their heady scent. Sensory time travel — I’m 15, in my parents’ front yard, smelling the lilacs on my way into the house, my mom standing to greet me on the front porch.
This. This is what I wanted to experience.
Perhaps coming early wasn’t so bad. I’m not sure that my sense of nostalgia — and my allergies — could have survived a full lilac onslaught.
Next I visit the park’s Lamberton Conservatory, taking particular pleasure in the collection of cactuses, with amusingly named varieties such as Aaron’s Beard and Electrode.
From there, I walk to the Rochester Civic Garden Center’s headquarters at Warner Castle. The building looks straight out of England, but I’m more drawn to the charming little sunken garden. I admire it for a few minutes and leave before I can make the couple having their engagement photos taken too self-conscious.
That night I have dinner in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts. On my way back to my B&B, I find myself across the street from the Eastman House. It’s closed now, but I decide to walk through the gardens anyway. I’m not alone: I run into gardener Dan, still pushing that wheelbarrow. He’s not too bothered by after-hours visitors, so long as they don’t leave a mess for him in the morning.
I sit in the loggia in the west garden, the sun peeking through one of the arches behind me, and snap a few pictures. The camera is digital, but the concept and the garden are all his: Thanks, George Eastman.