When the artist Martin Roth unexpectedly passed away in 2019, at age 41, he was in the throes of planning perhaps the most ambitious project of his career: a large-scale installation that would transform an abandoned Victorian house in Newburgh, New York, into a “plant concert hall” and public garden. Despite facing a number of setbacks, the work, titled “A Home With a Garden,” may finally come to fruition this month thanks to the local arts nonprofit Strongroom, which recently secured funding on Kickstarter.
Roth first visited the Hudson Valley town in 2017 and envisioned “A Home With a Garden” after feeling enchanted by how nature had completely overtaken the roofless City Club building, which had been sitting in a state of ruin for decades. The building has a somewhat unconventional history—a prominent local doctor commissioned Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux to design the brick-and-sandstone structure in 1850. (Downing, a native of Newburgh, played a crucial role in American landscape architecture; Vaux went on to collaborate with Frederick Law Olmsted to design New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park.) It was then converted into a gentleman’s club in the early 1900s and was spared from demolition in the ‘70s thanks to the work of local preservationists, but a 1981 fire left the building in a state of ruin.
Enchanted with the structure, Roth initially dreamed up “a magical garden with pathways crisscrossing an environment filled with trees, roses, wildflowers, and waterfalls”—an ode to Downing, whose landscapes often feature meandering roads and trails. “For the duration of the exhibition, the building will exist in two parallel realities: as the site of the former City Club, but also as the home of this new illusionary public garden,” Roth said while planning the work. “I will work closely with the natural environment of trees and bushes that already exist inside the site, but alter it, and in a sense cultivate it, with more colorful plants and flowers, and a winding path.”
Roth also planned to turn the structure’s interior into a “plant concert” and public garden, ironically referencing Downing’s philosophy that homes should exist harmoniously with nature and exploring the notion of parks as “domesticated nature.” The overgrowth’s leaves and roots would be wired to devices that translate the plants’ internal frequencies into musical notes (a process called “bio-sonification”), creating an ambient orchestra inside. The electric soundscape would shift as plants grow, sway in the wind, or are touched by viewers, making for a truly one-of-a-kind sonic experience with each visit. “While citizens of Newburgh are very aware of nature overtaking buildings and mainly see this as an eyesore,” Roth said, “I want to alter and shape the environment inside the building to emphasize the beauty in nature reclaiming a site in an urban setting.”
A spate of unforeseen obstacles stymied progress on the work. Roth had teamed with Strongroom to secure approvals from Newburgh, including insurance and safety inspections. The city finally granted them permission to realize “A Home With a Garden” on the grounds that they find a third-party engineer to sign off on its safety for public access. That process took upwards of one year; Roth tragically passed away not too long afterward. The coronavirus pandemic then threw a wrench in their plans and nearly sealed the project’s fate as forever conceptual.
Undeterred, Strongroom fully intends on bringing Roth’s vision to life. The nonprofit’s founder, Kelly Schroer, recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to secure sufficient funding so the project can finally see the light. The fundraiser achieved its first goal of $10,000 a few days before this writing, but seeks $20,000 in total to expand programming through the summer. Besides raising funds, Strongroom is also seeking volunteers to clear the interior of poison ivy and debris, as well as plant donations in the form of shade-tolerant grasses, shrubs, vines, and flowers. If all goes according to plan, “A Home With a Garden” may welcome visitors as early as the end of June.
“Martin Roth was one of the rare artists that could make you question what art can be,” Schroer said in a recent interview. “His work was unique, and by incorporating living organisms into his installations, he created an element of continual change and surprise—a living energy that contributed to an emotional impact that could make you forget your preconceived expectations of art.” In one of his final and most well-known pieces, Roth harvested a desert holly plant from the garden of Stephen Paddock, perpetrator of the Las Vegas mass shooting that left 58 people dead in 2017. He kept the plant alive in an immersive anti-gun exhibition at the erstwhile Yours, Mine and Ours Gallery in New York’s Lower East Side the following year.
“The work is not just the final installation or the framework that Martin set up for us to carry this out; it’s also the action of making and nurturing this framework, and the garden evolving over time,” Schroer continues. “It’s much harder to do it without him, but I feel very responsible to see it through.”