Habitats | Brooklyn Heights
The Almost Landless Gardener
Donna Alberico for The New York Times
Published: February 25, 2011
THE cobblestone part of Joralemon Street is among the loveliest stretches of Brooklyn Heights. Come spring, and well into the fall, the front gardens of the brownstones that line the street will be lush with greenery, and the window boxes will explode with flowers. But even on this beautiful strip, the low-slung red brick building just off Hicks Street stands out.
The offerings resemble nothing so much as a miniature botanical garden, one that all Ms. Fitzsimons’s neighbors can enjoy. In spring, they stop to admire the brilliant golden forsythia and the profusion of rosy azaleas and rhododendron. In summer, they pause in front of the hydrangeas and butterfly bushes, and sniff an exceptionally fragrant shrub called summersweet. Even in the depths of winter, the yard tempts the eye, typically with pots of witch hazel and pussywillow.
Many passers-by habitually check to see if Aurora, Ms. Fitzsimons’s sweet-natured gold and white cat, is nestled under a chair.
“She’s a very lovey-dovey cat,” Ms. Fitzsimons said the other day as the object of her words sat placidly on her lap. “She’s not standoffish at all. I think she likes the attention.” Because Aurora came from a shelter, her origins are unknown, but Ms. Fitzsimons thinks that she must be a Maine coon because she is the spitting image of the Maine coon cat in the photograph on the fridge.
The apartment occupies most of a two-story structure that is attached to the town house on the corner and probably began life as a shed or garage. Ms. Fitzsimons, 56, who was born and raised in Hamden, Conn., arrived in 1980 as a renter, and when her apartment went co-op five years later, she bought it for under $60,000. The place is also the headquarters of her landscape design firm, Willowtown Gardens, which she runs with her sister, and examples of her work can be seen throughout the neighborhood.
The first floor, which includes a small kitchen area but is mostly living room, is just 11 by 17 feet. A narrow staircase winds up to the even more diminutive bedroom. With these modest proportions, the ancient radiators and the wooden beams atop eight-foot plaster ceilings, the apartment feels like a cozy, if sometimes slightly chilly, relic from the 19th century.
“There’s not a great deal of insulation,” said Ms. Fitzsimons, who has done a lot of work on the apartment, much of it herself. A few years ago she tore down the first-floor ceiling, part of which was collapsing, and installed insulation between the beams.
“A hundred percent gifts and finds” is how she describes the furnishings, right down to the mismatched flowered china and Waterford goblets in the glass-paned cupboards. Nevertheless, her possessions reflect both a good eye and a rich family history, starting with an elaborately crafted French clock, circa 1800, that came from one of her grandfathers.
“This is the real thing,” she said, taking the small bronze clock down from a shelf. Its centerpiece is a young Roman holding a book in one hand and surrounded by a globe, a protractor and the lamp of knowledge.
“Who the heck knows where my grandfather got it,” Ms. Fitzsimons said. “He wasn’t a big collector. But it’s fancy-schmancy, no?”
Fancy-schmancy is the word. The clock, operates with what is known as a silk-thread suspension mechanism, a delicate and sometimes temperamental device in which the pendulum hangs from a tiny loop of silk thread.
“I spent $800 getting it fixed, but it didn’t stay fixed,” Ms. Fitzsimons said. She wants the clock to work so she can hear the ping of the chimes, but just now the project is on the back burner.
Near the clock stands a framed photograph of Ms. Fitzsimons’s father, Daniel Edward Fitzsimons, who owned an insurance agency in New Haven and who died in 1970, when his daughter was 16. “What I like about the picture,” she said, “is that it shows my dad as a young man, when he was just starting out in the world.”
Ms. Fitzsimons also has a 1915 diploma from the Butler School of Business in New Haven awarded to her namesake great-aunt, a document proclaiming that the school would “cheerfully recommend her to the favor of the business community.”
The white settee in the living room, which was created using the frame of a twin bed, is covered with a quilt made by Ms. Fitzsimons’s 83-year-old mother, Barbara. The ladder-back chairs with the woven rush seats came from her Great-Aunts Catherine and Anna.
Ms. Fitzsimons has long been active in local affairs, notably in the fight to save Van Voorhees Park in Cobble Hill. A scroll honoring that struggle, from a group called Friends of Shinobazu Pond, a sacred lotus pond in Tokyo, begins “To the Friends of Van Voorhees Park.” The efforts were ultimately unsuccessful; part of the park was replaced with a hospital parking garage.
Although Ms. Fitzsimons has been involved in many efforts to beautify her neighborhood and to make her community more environmentally attractive, the campaign on behalf of the park was especially close to her heart. “It was a hard-fought effort,” she recalled. “We really went bananas there for a few years in the early ’90s.”
Much of her work for the park was conducted at the small white desk in a corner of the bedroom, a desk from which Ms. Fitzsimons also operates her business.
It faces a maple bed that came from Great-Aunt Catherine, and Aurora often plops herself on the quilt, which was made from scraps of a pink, green and turquoise Lilly Pulitzer dress that Ms. Fitzsimons wore in college.
Aurora likes to gaze through the tall windows at the trees in the gardens behind the house — the pale pink weeping cherry, the white dogwood, the pink magnolia, the pink flowering cherry and the red maple. Even in winter, when the branches are bare, Ms. Fitzsimons can see the colors in her mind’s eye.