That Abandoned Rooftop Greenhouse on 60th Street

From the ground, you’d never know there was anything special about the building at 409 East 60th Street…

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…but, as anyone who’s ever walked across the Queensboro Bridge knows, it has a pretty great rooftop secret…

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An abandoned rooftop greenhouse! And sadly, it won’t be around for much longer…

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The now-ruined skeleton covers the entire top of the building…

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…a whopping 5,000 square feet, as seen in this satellite picture:

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What was the greenhouse for? There’s a clue in the ghost ad on the tower…

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Terrestris was a plant store that opened around May, 1969, as announced in this issue of New York Magazine. Customers could walk through the rooftop greenhouse, which was once filled with indoor tropical plants, and even rent them (for parties and events) at 10-20 cents a day (1969 prices, of course).

From the 1973 issue of Cue Magazine: “There’s a large greenhouse on the rooftop of 409 East 60th Street which belongs to Terrestris and which is a joy to visit – guaranteed to turn even the most black-thumbed into a plant maniac. The greenhouse is filled to the rafters with Terrestris’ specialty – “plants that survive” – in all shapes, sizes, and varieties.”

The last mention of it I can find is from 1990 – anyone know when it finally went out of business? Really too bad it’s not around anymore…

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I was hoping to get on the roof to take a few pictures. Unfortunately, the building was recently sold to Rockefeller University, who is planning to tear it down and put up a new facility. It’s not a major loss, as the building itself isn’t particularly special – though I do like the one bit of random brick design near the street level:

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I was just always hoping someone would find a use for the greenhouses.

Two quick bits while I’m on East 60th. One, I really love the beautiful, totally classic NY apartment building that has managed to survive next door…

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…made all the prettier with that black-windowed megalith in the background:

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Two, I’m a big fan of old school NY parking garages like the one on the opposite side of Terrestris.

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Not the most interesting in the city, but I dig the random turret (probably necessary for the elevator shaft)…

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…the completely black-sooted windows…

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…and best of all, the old sign (complete with ladder, though lighting long since removed), which advertises “transient” parking (short term).

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Bonus: the reverse gives you an ascending look at a bunch of New York architecture styles.

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-SCOUT

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30 comments

  1. I always thought turrets on a parking garage building meant it was originally a horse stable building, converted to cars later. Do you see that as well, or just a ‘random’ design feature?

  2. Hmmm. I’ve never heard that, Terry. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a 6-storey stable. That building also doesn’t seem old enough to be from the horse-and-buggy era. But I’ll defer to experts!

    I love that final shot, Scout, of all the variety of architecture to be found in even a random NYC vista. I love this town.

  3. Scout, keep up the good work. I lived in NYC for many years and miss it terribly!

  4. I remember shopping there with my dad back in the 70s, maybe even early 80s.

  5. To bad, it was a beautiful greenhouse for plants and they had a plant store in the sunken-plaza of the GM Building designed by Bray/Schiable. I bought my first ficus tree there.

  6. My first apartment was in that tiny, perfectly kept brownstone next to Terrestris. 417 E. 60th St. Hands down best landlord I’ve had or probably will ever have in the city. Too bad my apartment was as wide as a subway car and fit 3 people (our rooms were 3.5 inches tall–’lofts’). Ah New York…

  7. I’ve walked this stretch many times noticing and admiring all of the things you pointed out and more. I love to walk the bridge, have a meal at John & Tony’s and a cocktail down the street at Subway Inn. It’s really a pleasant part of the city.

  8. And by 3.5 inches I mean 3.5 feet haha. It just felt like 3.5 inches.

  9. I lived with Jas in that little apartment building next door (he meant to say 3.5-foot tall lofts… we’re not hamsters :)), and it really was an experience you wouldn’t find many other places than New York. Tiny apartments, fully-furnished with Ikea couches and shelves, and small doors, ladders and internal windows. I always wondered about that greenhouse, and wished it was still open. That would have been much better than living next to a big abandoned building!

  10. That old garage sign is a true gem.

    Incidentally, I thoroughly enjoyed reading that old issue of New York magazine cover to cover – thanks for linking it. I especially liked the piece about being down and out on the Bowery. I wonder what Mr. Collier would say, or is saying, about the shiny new Bowery today.

  11. Are the building styles ascending or are they assending like all the Queens crap we see. Also a bit off topic but anyways. In WW II the Army Air Force had an experimental fighter called the Ascender. It was a pusher design with the engine driving a rearward mounted propeller. I am sure the design guys had a hoot when they named the aircraft and got it approved by the War Department. It was no great shakes as a fighter but at least it had a great name.

  12. I was looking for some mention of Terrestris and saw your posting. I worked at the store from 1974 to 1981. It was quite a place both as a store and in the sometimes zany culture of the employees and employer. The policy of the store was to replace plants that didn’t survive. People would bring their plants back and want to know what to do for them. I became quite good at diagnosing sick plants. It eventually led me to the profession I now practice as a medical doctor. I wish I had kept a copy of the really valuable free booklet the store produced to teach people about the care their plants needed. It’s sad that the vestiges will be torn down. Maybe someone could take the structure and use it elsewhere. In the apartment building next door lived the owner and some of the employees. They lived on the top floors so one could cross over the roof to their homes. I’m glad I saw your posting. Hope you continue to enjoy the amazing architectural features of this fabulous city.

    • Jane –

      I worked at Terrestrius in 1977 or thereabouts. I was part of the Shiloh Commune. How amazing to find any reference to Terrestrius and to see the mere skeleton of the place. I seem to remember that Terrestrius spread its wings and moved to Flusing for a time and somewhere else on the North Shore. What a long time ago this all was.

      • Kevin,et.al.

        How great to see the posting from my old friend Kevin! I too was in the Christian commune Shiloh and worked at Terrestris. I still have the green t-shirt we wore! My husband Dan managed the greenhouse from around 1975-1980. We lived in the apartments next door after getting married in ’77. The owner, Kent, liked to have him on site and in return we received reduced rent for a darling studio in that wonderful building. Our good friends Kathy and Greg (also Shiloh) lived next door.
        Shiloh had communal houses all over the country and we had one in Flushing. Each day we would load up the Terrestris van with folks from the house who went to work at Terrestris & returned in the evening. Everyone from “the house” worked there. Thanks so much for posting this.I lost my husband recently & this brings back such fond memories.
        “Terrestris, Growers of Plants That Survive”, was very popular. Sometimes you could not get thru the paths that wound thru the tropical forest setting where you selected your specimen. Kevin– would love to hear from you! museum@aurora.edu.

  13. Am I the only one who sees the rooftop greenhouse and thinks of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and the orchid greenhouse on the roof of his Manhattan brownstone?

  14. How exciting to come across some info on these buildings. The little 6-story next door, 417 E 60th, with those old-fashioned fire escapes was the first building my grandparents lived in when they came from Ireland. The multi-colored 6-stories across First Avenue (other photo) snaking around 60th housed the other side of my family, fresh from Calabria in 1893. My great-uncle went on to own two of them, and opened Eduardo’s Italian restaurant on the corner of 60th & Second in the 1930s or 40s – now The Blue Room bar. Oddly all building records claim these went up either in 1905 or 1910, which is impossible since it was already filled with our cousins in 1893! In any case they lived there watching the construction of the 59th Street Bridge, many having stayed on for decades. What a surreal view from those windows!

    • Francine,

      I grew up on 60th between Park and Lex. I also grew up eating at Eduardo’s beginning in 1974 or so. We ate there at least two times a week. Our waiter’s name was Frank and my Father was close with the owner, John? I remembered as a kid he would come to our table and tell jokes, do magic and have fun with the guests by picking their pockets, bringing me their wallets and having me return them to the guests. The best food ever!!! Eduardo’s was a treasure!!!!

  15. Melissa.
    You are right, John is his name. It’s my uncle. Him and my grandfather Sibby used to own it. My grandfather has passed away a few years ago, but my uncle John is still kickin and doing same pranks. Frank was. Great waiter and I had great memories in Eduardos. Like my grandfather making me peel carrots on kitchen and the best bocci ball ice-cream.

  16. So the greenhouse is now fully torn down (most of the work done in June 2011), but there a crew of workers has been there all weekend (Columbus Day) patching and re-tarring the roof where the fittings have been chiseled out and removed. This would suggest Rockefeller is in no hurry to bring the building down if they’re doing this kind of repair. Anyone have any updated info on the fate of the building?

  17. I remember in High School in the 70′s we would travel here to buy all of our plants and pottery…a very cool place…brings back incredible memories….glad to hear the building is being recycled..

  18. I worked there and it was a great place to be. we worked in the east norwich long island store and sometimes we had to unload plants from the delivery truck to help the manhatten crew . I even delivered plants in manhatten.I work there until i moved to Hawaii . Kent was a great guy and even helped me with getting my motorcycle shipped to Hawaii.Steve Jeannie Jim all were close friends . we even made tv commercials there .I worked there from 78 -80 then again alittle in 81

    • Tom — I, too, worked at Terrestrius (Manhattan Store). I often helped with deliveries. On one of the few days I called in sick, we (not me!) delivered four palm trees to John and Yoko’s flat in the Dakotas.

  19. Are you sure this wasn’t a silent movie studio at one time? Like Edison Studios or Biograph Studios? They were once in the same area. They used to film in greenhouse looking buildings like George Melies.

  20. Thanks for giving me closure with what happened to the greenhouse. I left America for more than 22 years, and one of the first things I looked for when I came home was the greenhouse.
    How sad it is to see it it gone. I had some great times shopping there and exchanging plant cuttings with all my friends in those days. Plant collecting was much more of a hobby among young and old alike than it is today. I hope we can get back to that.

  21. I’m sad to learn that Terrestris no longer exists. I worked in that hidden paradise in ’85-86. I worked the day that Hurricane Gloria threatened the city. It was thrilling! I often closed the store late at night and remember how abandoned it felt with not soul around. I would walk, wearing my roller skates, down the pitch black stairwell to slip out of the building unnoticed when one night I literally collided with the owner of the building. He seemed eccentric like Howard Hughes! Terrestris was truly one of the lessor know intriguing landmarks of New York! It’s sad that that glorious glass structure no longer exists.

  22. Terrestris was a fairyland for plant lovers. It was the first real plant store I had ever seen having bought all my plants in Woolworth’s. Terrestris had all the plants I read about, Ficus, Bromeliad, and Succulents of every kind. A dreamy, wonderful place. I live in that neighborhood now and would look up to see what was left of the name on the side of the building when ever I passed by.

  23. I used to love shopping at Terrestris! A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning out a box (labeled “ancient history”) from storage and came across one of their catalogs! Unfortunately, I tossed it. Loved driving in from Jackson Heights, finding parking on the street and filling the car with plants.

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