The James Rose Center

Meredith Arms Bzdak, PhD, Architectural Historian, Mills + Schnoering Architects 
July 12, 2020

The James Rose Center is located at the intersection of East Ridgewood Avenue and Southern Parkway in Ridgewood Village, Bergen County, NJ.  It was constructed as the residence and studio of modernist landscape architect James Rose (1913-1991) in 1953, with subsequent additions and alterations carried out in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the most significant later additions was a Zen-inspired meditation pavilion that Rose located on the rooftop terrace and referred to as the Zendo. The Center represents four decades of Rose’s involvement with the site, and reflects his views on placemaking, the relationship between the built and natural environment, the evolution of his design thinking, and concepts of change and sustainability. It is widely considered to be Rose’s masterpiece, and in the words of landscape architect Peter Walker it is “one of the most important designs of the last century.” 

Located within a small, irregularly shaped scrap of land, the house and studio as originally conceived by Rose were based on a strict geometric grid that was reinforced by the landscape, wall planes, and rooftop lattice. The scheme envisioned each unit as its own sheltered area that had a specific relationship with the adjacent landscape. It was the landscape that knit the composition together and provided a transition from one space to the next. Rose occupied the studio component at the north end of the complex; his mother Minnie and sister Jean lived in the center and southern units, respectively. Where privacy was required, concrete block walls were constructed, but large areas of each unit were given over to full-height glass walls that furthered the indoor-outdoor connection. Rooftop latticework also extended the units’ volumes out into the landscaped “rooms” that each had their own character and sense of place, and this latticework, with the addition of hanging “art” allowed Rose to activate the spaces, change their character, or make them more or less private. Furniture, designed by Rose for indoor or outdoor use, enlivened both the sheltered and open spaces. 

The Rose Center underwent substantial change in the late 1960s, less than two decades after its original completion. The idea of the open courtyard as living space was lost as the property evolved, and the original gridded scheme gave way to more obtuse angles and a more Baroque sense of composition. The man-made portions of the site increased, the landscape elements grew taller and thicker; the overall effect was more weighty and dense where originally there had been lightness and delicacy. 

In the early 1970s, inspired by travel to Japan, Rose made further changes, creating a roof garden and “Zendo” pavilion designed for meditation. With this change, the original web-like framework of the roof with its gridded trellises was significantly altered. This was not insignificant, as the alterations affected the way in which light filtered through the trees and into the house and made the overall composition less porous and in fact, more architectural. 

In the 1980s, toward the end of Rose’s life, the condition of the house and landscape began to decline. With Rose’s death in 1991, his property took on an institutional role and became a center for research in landscape architecture and design. Since 1993, significant work has been carried out to stabilize the property, and in 1997, The James Rose Center was listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. Listing on the National Register of Historic Places followed in 2019.

Despite concerted efforts to preserve the building and landscape, however, damage caused to the Zendo by a falling willow tree in 2016 and ongoing water infiltration have continued to threaten the structure, shed light on the deteriorated condition of the landscape, and accelerate the decay of much of the original wood fabric. The Zendo event also triggered the listing of the Rose Center as one of Preservation New Jersey’s “Ten Most Endangered” sites and brought new attention to the building and landscape. It became clear that planning more comprehensively for the property’s future – defining its use going forward, bringing it up to code, making it accessible, and advocating for its preservation to a wider audience – needed to be prioritized. 

Mills + Schnoering Architects, LLC was subsequently retained by the Center to prepare a Preservation Plan for the building and landscape. The project team included Campion Hruby Landscape Architects; Keast & Hood, PC, Structural Engineers; Bruce E. Brooks & Associates, MEP Engineers; and Becker & Frondorf, Cost Consultants. The completed Preservation Plan outlines a program of restoration, selective rehabilitation, and limited expansion needed to add code-compliant functionality and sustainability. 

The focus of the team’s recommendations is on the treatment and repair of extant fabric rather than restoration of the building to an earlier condition (which respects the concept of continual change over time) and prioritizes the building’s use as an educational facility going forward. Rose was not a trained builder, and some of his construction details were not designed to today’s standards and technology.  But his own philosophy was open to change that is driven by necessity and changes of use. In that spirit, rehabilitation work will address such issues as:  weather protection, rainwater and sanitary drainage, repair of water damage, energy efficiency, environmental comfort, fire safety, accessibility, structural restoration and upgrades, egress, treatment of the cultural landscape, and the ongoing maintenance and resiliency of the site. All of the work proposed was evaluated within the context of the defined period of significance (circa 1953-1991, which represents Rose’s active engagement with the site).  Both the building and landscape evolved considerably during that period, and the idea of preservation in such a scenario is, to a certain degree, antithetical to Rose’s original intentions. The proposed program of restoration, rehabilitation, and limited expansion of the Center will ultimately be another iteration in its lifespan.

Over twenty of James Rose’s surviving projects, many of them in New Jersey, have been documented by the Center. Rose made no plans of these works himself, and as they were often designed for private clients they have undergone varying degrees of change over time. An important biography of Rose, which complements his own prolific writing, was recently authored by Dean Cardasis (James Rose; A Voice Offstage, Athens GA and Amherst MA, 2017), and seeks to bring more attention to his life and work. Similarly, the James Rose Center is endeavoring to become better known, as a nationally significant Modern-era landmark demonstrating a thorough and thoughtful integration of building and site, and as a destination for the study of landscape architecture. 

We believe that the Center is at a critical moment in its history, and its reinvention, now just beginning, will facilitate greater understanding. The James Rose Center is an important place that challenges us to think critically about the issues of permanence, evolution, and materiality, and perhaps most important, about harmony between the built environment and the landscape. It is a significant work of modernism by a significant designer. And it is one of New Jersey’s most interesting and distinguished pieces of twentieth century history, just waiting to be more widely celebrated. 

Meredith Arms Bzdak, PhD, is an architectural historian, overseeing the majority of the firm’s cultural resource management projects, which include Historic Structure Reports, Preservation Plans, Master Plans, and National Register of Historic Places Nominations. She also often serves as Architectural Historian for these projects, conducting background research and preparing statements of significance. Meredith also contributes to a number of the firm’s preservation and planning projects, working with a range of government, higher education, and cultural institutions.

Meredith holds a BA in Art History from Mount Holyoke College and a PhD in Art History from Rutgers University. As Associate Graduate Faculty at Rutgers University in the Art History Department, she has taught classes on the development of the modern American city (specifically New York and Los Angeles), the preservation of the recent past, and Modern Italian Architecture. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of DOCOMOMO US.  She is a Chair Emeritus of the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions (NAPC) and a former board member of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). Meredith is the author of Public Sculpture in New Jersey; Monuments to Collective Identity.