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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top of the World! Rooftop Gardens

Over the past decade there has been an escalating interest in green roofs to reduce our carbon footprint on the environment.  The older cousin of green roofs--rooftop gardens--can be traced back to ancient times where they were found on top of temples, ziggurats, castles, and villas.  Closer to home, our rooftop garden heritage is rooted in sod houses.  In the United States, the practice of creating rooftop gardens has evolved from out of happenstance to pleasure to environmental consciousness.

In the mid- to late 19th century the frontier was being settled by immigrants chasing the American dream of owning their own land and making it profitable.  Needing to find a way to construct buildings without timber, stone, or brick, they turned to the earth.  Rectangular pieces of sod were cut from the ground measuring approximately 2’x1’x6”.  These “bricks” were then stacked to form walls.  What timber was available formed the base of the roof and often sod was laid on top to insulate the building.  Grass, and sometimes flowers, adorned the roofs of these ‘soddies’.

The term “roof garden” was coined around 1893 for urban rooftop spaces that were developed for summer entertainment.  The movement started with roof garden theaters in New York City.  After their popularity fizzled out, wealthy residents of Manhattan began adopting the idea for their own rooftop terraces to provide a respite from the teeming city.


Unidentified rooftop garden, New York, New York, circa 1920s. Eleanor Weller Collection, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution
As a society we are always taking old things and making them new, constantly improving upon previous techniques.  In addition to providing a pleasurable space to relax, many of today’s rooftop gardens emulate green roofs by being environmentally friendly.  They can reduce temperatures and increase oxygen levels as well as act as a water retention system. 

Here at the Archives of American Gardens we have a few green roofs, rooftop gardens and vertical gardens documented..

For more examples of "sod homes" see the examples online at the Library of Congress' American Memory site for the Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection at the North Dakota State University, Institute for Regional Studies.

Written by Julie Hunter, 2012 Summer Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

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