The story behind the quirky sculpture garden in the Columbia Street Waterfront District

Columbia Street Waterfront District
The sculpture garden at 82 Degraw St. in the Columbia Street Waterfront District.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Nestled between garages and across the street from the Port Authority piers in the Columbia Street Waterfront District lives an eye-catching collection of statues and artworks dotting a driveway at 82 Degraw St.

The property’s owner is Ben van Meerendonk, a retired Dutch-American record importer and broadcast journalist who bought the old warehouse between Columbia and Van Brunt streets in the 1980s and converted the dilapidated site into an eclectic sculpture garden.

“I want people to feel happy when they go by, because it puts a smile on people’s face when they see something that’s pretty,” van Meerendonk told Brooklyn Paper. “Instead of having a junkyard, it’s a collection of art.”

Ben van Meerendonk turned a dilapidated junkyard into his own sculpture garden.Photo by Kevin Duggan

The assembly of ornaments — which isn’t open to the public, but is on full display for passers-by in the hide-away area of the Columbia Street Waterfront District — includes an Easter Island statue, a front gate inspired by Dutch cubist Piet Mondrian, sculptures by Elliott Arkin, and replicas of works by Edvard Munch and Jeff Koons.

There’s also a remnant of a second building’s shell converted into a large display case featuring a metal horse-riding skeleton facing off against Star Wars character Boba Fett, along with Chinese symbols spelling “Blood, sweat, and tears,” (after a Dutch song van Meerendonk likes) that light up at night. 

“I like to put things there A, that I can afford; B, that I think is worthy to my ridiculous taste; [and] in the idea that it gives some people or kids pleasure,” van Meerendonk said. 

Remnants of a second building now act as a showcase for the sculptures.Photo by Kevin Duggan

An oversized red-white-and-blue Dutch flag is painted across the flank of the adjacent three-story row house and further back, a wall bears three white-on-black crosses referencing the flag of the 79-year-old’s native Amsterdam.

Named after his father, a renowned Dutch photo-journalist, van Meerendonk, who is Jewish, survived the Holocaust with his parents by hiding in a farm for a year and a half when he was just a toddler during World War II.

He moved to New York City in 1963 at the age of 22 and followed in his dad’s footsteps, working as a photographer and writer for several different newspapers and magazines, before becoming a foreign correspondent for the Dutch public broadcaster.

He eventually headed up the station’s bureau for the Americas, covering stories such as natural disasters in South America and President Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

“One of the [reasons] why I’m doing this, is America has been very good to me and I want to do something back,” he said. 

Eclectic: Van Meerendonk installs works of art that suit his “ridiculous taste,” the Dutch Brooklynite said.Photo by Kevin Duggan

When he moved to the micro-neighborhood between the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the waterfront four decades ago, the former warehouse and garage were in rough shape.

“It was a needle park,” van Meerendonk remembered. “Horrible, horrible.”

He initially used the Columbia Street Waterfront District industrial building for storage for a record importing business he owned.

He decided to beautify the lot with a trove of works he and his family amassed over the years, including through contacts he made reporting on the arts. 

“[It was] impulse, I just wanted to do something, I had this space,” he said.  

However, van Meerendonk doesn’t refer to himself as an investor in art, and he was quick to point out he’s not vying for the limelight.

“I’m an enjoyer,” he said. “I’m not looking for publicity.”

Now, he lives off the proceeds from selling his import business and shares the old industrial building with his wife of 53 years Coco, who used to be the head of the math department at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, as well as his son and his wife and two children, and their three dogs and two cats.

As the Columbia Street Waterfront District area has grown pricier, the van Meerendonks have received many offers to buy or rent out the lot, but the retiree said he prefers to keep the playful patch for him and onlookers to enjoy.

“This is for the last part of my life, I want to look at nice things, if I can. There’s enough horrible things going on in the world,” he said. “Every little thing that brings a sun ray in your life is worth it.”