Green Scene

More about Elizabeth Kals Reilly


Elizabeth Kals Reilley began collecting books on gardening, horticulture, botany and hydraulics in the 1960s, buying from American and European book dealers. Her father was a bibliophile and her love of books developed at an early age.

Although financially comfortable, she was not in a position to spend large sums building her collection. She, therefore, bought carefully over a period of approximately 30 years, finally donating her collection to the New York Botanical Garden in 2002.

Many of her materials were included in various exhibitions during her lifetime. They included:

In 1979, The Grolier Club hosted an exhibition of materials from Elizabeth’s collection entitled “The Literature of the English Landscape Park.”

In 1980 an exhibit, “Water in the Garden,” was held at the New York Botanical Garden. Included were books and prints covering the last five centuries, demonstrating the importance of water as a necessary garden feature as well as the science of hydraulics.  As Elizabeth writes, “It can be shown how the form of available water as much as anything else shapes a garden, whether it arises naturally as a spring, brook … or led in from some distance.”

She wrote the introduction to the catalog and her artistic statement on gardens was as follows: “Great gardens — and it is only incidental that they are great in extent — can be defined as those which transform their natural countryside into a work of art, fit into the lifestyle of their owners, and are original creations. Their development is part of the history of art, unlike small gardens growing plants for use and adornment, which like simple dwellings, continue with little change over the centuries.”

In 1998, The Grolier Club, where she was a member, presented the exhibition, “Verdant Riches Revealed: A Selection From the Treasures of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden.” The focus of this exhibition was on “herbals (12th to 16th century), illustrated works of European botanical expeditions (17th to 19th century), and rare horticultural treatises and garden design works (16th to 19th century).” This exhibition was in honor of the gift of rare books made by Reilley to the botanical garden.

In 2003, the garden hosted its own exhibition in her honor, “European Pleasure Gardens: Rare Books and Prints of Historic Landscape Design from the Elizabeth K. Reilley Collection.” The catalog contained 53 entries highlighting national garden design styles (i.e. classical revival, gardens of Germany and Central Europe, English landscape) as well as water features.

In the early 1950s, Mrs. Reilley purchased a 2.5-acre property in Muttontown, an incorporated village in the town of Oyster Bay. Despite its prosaic name derived from the town’s former usage as sheep pasturage, it is a very affluent area. Over the years, she designed an extensive garden for her own pleasure.

In 1969, Winthrop B. Palmer became a trustee at Long Island University and chair of its library committee, later the Post Library Association. Elizabeth was one of the eight people nominated to the original committee.

Also in 1969, she began organizing a library at Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay, which opened in 1975. She remained the resident librarian until retirement at 93 in 2001. On the occasion of her 99th birthday, they renamed the library’s reading room in her honor.

Elizabeth was a member of The Horticultural Society in New York and the Garden History Society of London. She was also part of the Congress of International Bibliophiles located in Paris, and the Grolier Club in Manhattan as well as the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club, the Cosmopolitan Club and the Yale Club.

Elizabeth had no children, but with her philanthropic attitude, she willed her possessions to various institutions. The property in Muttontown was willed to The Nature Conservancy for sale upon her death, the money to be used for the conservancy’s mission of “protecting lands and rivers, animal habitats and threats to conservation involving climate change, fresh water, oceans and conservation.”

She bequeathed $1.7 million to her alma mater, the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at the C.W. Post Campus. She also established the Elizabeth K. Reilley P’63 Endowed Scholarship with a $200,000 bequest in her will, in addition to donating $50,000 to the Post Library Association, the cultural and educational organization that she helped found.

She created the Elizabeth K. Reilley Scholarship at The Palmer Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Prior to her death, she contributed $250,000 to a variety of Palmer School and Post Library Association initiatives. She was also a generous supporter of the horticultural library that she organized and ran at Planting Fields Arboretum.

I never met Elizabeth Kals Reilley, but can only stand back and admire her contributions!


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