Martin Stern, longtime owner of Squire House Gardens, dies at 69 – Twin Cities
For Martin Stern, the longtime co-owner of Squire House Gardens in Afton, gardens were a metaphor for life.
“You’ll notice how inspired this whole (planting) process is,” Stern told the Pioneer Press in 2007. “That’s because it’s about life and about how, with nurture and the proper environment, things thrive. And without it, they fail.”
Stern, 69, died by suicide Wednesday night at his apartment in downtown Minneapolis. He was diagnosed in January with frontotemporal dementia, a group of brain disorders caused by degeneration of the frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain that affect behavior, language and movement, said his sister, Andrea Stern, of Minneapolis.
Stern and his husband, Richard Meacock, opened Squire House Gardens in 1991. Meacock died in 2019, and Stern sold the store, nursery and garden in 2021.
Squire House Gardens “was absolutely the focal point of his life,” Andrea Stern said. “He loved being in Afton. He loved the St. Croix River Valley. He liked the look of it. He loved the (Old) Village. The garden was this blank slate where he could create anything. It was his pride and joy.”
Stern and Meacock lived on site in a Victorian house, which was built in 1876 by Minnesota’s first postmaster. Customers were invited to stroll through Stern’s gardens, which include woodland, prairie and traditional English gardens, and architectural features such as hedges, arbors, pergolas, a stone patio surrounding a pool and a sunken garden.
Squire House Gardens, which also had a branch on Grand Avenue in St. Paul for six years, specialized in hard-to-find specialty plants and shrubs. “We don’t carry what everyone else carries,” Stern told the Pioneer Press in 2002. “Everything we have is hardy and tested for our climate.”
“We really are here to help people. It’s not like a garden center, where you’re on your own. If you tell us you have a back-yard garden with an oak tree, we would ask you things like what colors do you like and what do you want to achieve in your garden and then tell you what grows well there.”
Stern and Meacock turned Squire House Gardens into “a little cultural mecca,” Andrea Stern said, by hosting classes, art shows, weddings, concerts and salons. “Every month, there was something,” she said. “Martin loved being the impresario of all of it. He loved holding court and announcing things and being the emcee. It was his entire life.”
The salons at Squire House were billed as “a chance to get together with other accomplished and aspiring gardeners for entertaining chat and lively and informative discussion.” Topics included: “Dreams and Memories,” “Lessons I’ve Learned,” “Youth and Maturity: Characteristics of a Young and an Aging Garden” and “Thoughts About Gardeners Getting Older.”
“We wanted to create an environment where people felt comfortable talking, so we tried this out, and it’s been so successful that it’s now just a standard part of our operation,” Martin Stern told the Pioneer Press in 2000. “It’s a way for gardeners to get information about what they need from people who have experience. It’s also a way to communicate your thoughts and experiences in a philosophical way, to share ideas, feelings and the human experience.”
“Squire House Gardens transformed Afton,” said John Kaul, a longtime friend and Afton resident. “The store was a destination for people from all over the metropolitan area. They had exquisite taste in everything, including art and music. It was a place we all went to for ideas, plants, entertainment, intellectual stimulation and community. … When it came to gardening and garden design, Martin was unsurpassed. His extraordinary garden inspired everyone who visited.”
Came from Detroit
Stern grew up in suburban Detroit and attended Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He moved to Minneapolis in 1976 because he was impressed with the Twin Cities’ co-operative food scene and the high number of artists here, Andrea Stern said.
“He always thought Minneapolis was a good progressive city,” said Stern, a professional harpist. “He liked the politics. He liked that it was smaller and manageable and safe. He convinced me to move here, too, 10 years after he did.”
Martin Stern worked at Distributing Alliance of the Northcountry Cooperatives (DANCe) for about a decade and then took a job at Seward Co-Op in Minneapolis. While working at Seward, he started designing and installing gardens and worked with a friend, Michael Swingley, at the Florence Bakken Physic Garden in Minneapolis, she said.
In 1987, Stern lived for six weeks in southern England, where he studied with world-renowned garden designer and writer John Brookes.
Stern “sought simplicity of intention, architectural interest and diverse multi-seasonal planting schemes in his work,” according to the Squire House Gardens’ website. “Each garden had a separate and distinct personality.”
When Squire House was closed in the winter, Stern would work at Mississippi Market co-op in St. Paul. “He didn’t like being idle,” Andrea Stern said. “He just liked having something to do. It drove us all crazy because he was always so busy.”
Stern went each week to sit with a man who was paralyzed by a stroke so his wife could run errands, and he was known for bringing homemade chicken soup to friends who were sick, said Cloe Geschke, a longtime friend and former employee.
“He was complicated and brilliant,” she said. “His legacy is all the beautiful gardens he designed and all the plants that are still growing and all the wonderful events he had. That’s how I will think of him. He was one-of-a-kind.”
Services are pending.