Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan and court Officer Dara Mullen in the courtyard garden they planted and tend outside State Supreme Court in Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The courtyard is tucked away from view outside the stately Supreme Court building on Griffing Avenue, but it is visible from the sun-splashed atrium lobby of the recent modern addition to the courthouse. The lobby sports a glass wall looking out on what was a nondescript courtyard boxed in by the complex of county court buildings.

Several years ago, a team from Cornell Cooperative Extension planted garden beds in the courtyard and despite challenges such as lack of irrigation, the plants survived and thrived.

Then the construction of the new addition got underway and for several years, the courtyard was inaccessible. The garden beds languished. Once the construction and renovations were completed, the courtyard was strewn with debris and the gardens withered and choked by weeds.

“It looked terrible from inside the lobby where it’s visible to a lot of people who come to the courthouse,” said Supreme Court Officer Dara Mullen of Hampton Bays.

Mullen and her colleague, Supreme Court Officer Valerie Bruno of Aquebogue, would go out into the courtyard to pull weeds on their breaks because they couldn’t bear the appearance of the courtyard.

“It drove me crazy,” Bruno said.

Both court officers enjoyed gardening at home and decided to enroll in the Master Garden Volunteer Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. People who complete the course, which runs from September to March, and do 125 hours of community service over two years become master gardener volunteers.

Bruno and Mullen decided to make the courtyard garden their community service project.

“Every day from inside you’d look out those windows and it was a mess and we could see the potential that it had,” Bruno said.

Marie Warner Boulier, of the Cooperative Extension employees who planted the garden beds in the courtyard before the construction, said she and her colleagues who planted the beds originally were “so happy to have Dara and Valerie step up to the plate and take on this project.”

Mullen and Bruno have had the assistance of Judge Thomas Whelan of Wading River, who has spent many weekends toiling in the courtyard.

They pulled weeds, saved existing plants that were salvageable and planted new ones, careful to choose native species that are drought tolerant. There’s only one water spigot in the courtyard. The plants must rely mostly on rainwater.

“The mulch Judge Whelan has brought in — by the bucketful — the beds retain moisture,” Mullen said.

“The whole idea was to make it a garden that would be self-sustaining,” Bruno said. She retired last summer and has since moved upstate, but she keeps in touch with Mullen and the Whelan about the garden.

“I’m really proud of it,” she said in a phone interview this week.

Other court officers, court personnel and judges all enjoy the view from the lobby now. Some employees wander outside to sit on one of the benches and grab a moment of zen. The courtyard is not open to the public. Whelan said he’d like to be able to invite jurors into the courtyard to enjoy the sights and smells of the flowers blooming there. He’s spoken to the court officer in charge of security for the building and hopes it will happen.

Whelan has enjoyed the experience so much he’s decided to enroll in the master gardener volunteer program himself this fall. For the first time, CCE is offering a “hybrid” course that can be completed partly online. See details.

“It’s very relaxing, very interesting to learn about the plants and very rewarding to be able to beautify a public space,” Whelan said.

The tranquil beauty of the courtyard today belies an unexpected dark past. It was the site of the county’s gallows — a structure used for the hanging of convicted criminals. The space was to the rear of the county jail then located on Griffing Avenue and the courthouse, which was built in 1855. The last person hanged there was Francis Hawkins of Bay Shore, who was convicted in 1888 of murdering his mother, who disapproved of his choice of a bride.

Court personnel jokingly (more or less) talk about the courtyard being haunted by ghosts, Mullen said.

Whelan smiles and shrugs it off. “There’s a great deal of history in these buildings and on this site,” he said. And now, thanks to the efforts of these volunteers, there’s a great deal of beauty, too.

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