Officially, the JW Marriott collection is a tribute to Marriott International’s founder, the late J. Willard Marriott, whose belief in holistic wellbeing has inspired 115 retreats across the globe. But insiders would note that these properties are also a clear nod to his wife—as long as you know to look outside.
A dedicated gardener in her downtime, Alice Sheets Marriott was passionate about everything from geraniums and hydrangeas to the family raspberry patch in New Hampshire, where she routinely turned the fruits of her labor into jam. (No dabbler in the kitchen, she’d started her career in 1927 as the menu developer and cook for the couple’s first foray into hospitality: a D.C.-based root beer stand turned restaurant called the Hot Shoppe.)
While all the JW Marriott grounds—whether sprawling groves or urban rooftops—honor Alice’s legacy, three properties are now doing so in unprecedented fashion. The brand has just launched a partnership with landscape designer Lily Kwong, who famously transitioned from assisting at her cousin’s womenswear label to walking the world’s runways to enrolling in Columbia’s Urban Studies program before becoming one of the most beloved bridges between the worlds of sustainability and style—and the fashion industry’s greenspace-creator of choice.
Looking to build on its own sustainability measures, JW Garden (as the brand’s landscaping initiative is known) enlisted Kwong to create installations for JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa and JW Marriott Essex House New York—then more or less gave her carte blanche. “They wanted the gardens to support the culinary program in some way,” Kwong says, but beyond that, “we’ve been empowered to express our ideas and see each of these spaces as a blank canvas.”
Kwong isn’t using the royal “we” here. Quick to acknowledge a trusted roster of specialists, she works with everyone from urban agriculture expert Shannon Lai to industrial designer/eco-futurist Lily Tagiuri. And while each project requires its own creative approach, of course, one of the major through-lines is to let the local plant life govern the direction of the installation.
Likening her work to cooking, aptly enough, Kwong notes that there are two kinds of people: some who want to follow a recipe and others who want to “go to the market, see what looks good and then build something around that.” As a devoted adherent of the latter philosophy, she loves to wander through local nurseries, botanical gardens and—in the case of the Desert Springs installation—the nearby Indian Canyons, where riverside trails create otherworldly palm oases and towering reminders of the desert’s life-sustaining possibilities.
Soon, “favorite plant” lists and site-specific ideas start to emerge. In Desert Springs, the result was series of narrow, undulating planters full of sage, cactus and other edible local flora, plus a stand of olive trees. In Orlando, by contrast, there’s a more traditional portager with plenty of fruiting species. And in the New York garden—another culinary herb-rich assemblage—“we’re essentially building a large-scale terrarium,” Kwong says, “a totally experimental installation involving everything from woodworking and millinery to lighting specialists.”
Though none of these gardens will yield large-scale harvests, even a single sprig often suffices for purposes of teas, cocktails and spa elixirs, notes Kwong. And while use of the gardens will vary from property to property, they’ll become the backdrop for everything from VIP sessions with house chefs to art classes with kids’ clubs.
Indeed, Kwong’s own baby—whom she welcomed last year with husband Nick Kroll—loves hanging out onsite at the gardens with her. “He loves playing with plants more than he does with toys right now,” she says. And that innate affinity is something she hopes the gardens will foster in other kids, too.
But building the next generation of eco-stewards isn’t the only side mission of the JW Gardens: Each has donated funds to local nature-based nonprofits, from the Mojave Desert Land Trust to GrowNYC’s Greening Program. “Providing ecological services to the area” is paramount to Kwong, who notes the joy of seeing the very first bees show up in her installations—the only kind of buzz she truly cares about now, despite her status as a longtime media darling. “Every bee counts these days.”
Surely, Alice would agree.