On January 4 1899, when Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, a landscape architect like his father who designed New York’s Central Park, and nine men met in New York as founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, only one woman was present: 26-year-old Beatrix Jones. Tall and handsome, and schooled in horticulture at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum and in technical drawing having attended a course at Columbia University’s School of Mines, she had begun her practice in 1895 billing herself always as a “landscape gardener”. She became the doyenne of women landscape designers.
Beatrix Farrand (1872—1959), as she was known after her marriage to Yale history professor Max Farrand, had travelled extensively throughout Europe, often in the company of her aunt, the novelist Edith Wharton, taking notes in her journal and meeting influential luminaries along the way like Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson in the UK. She succeeded in translating structural motifs of Italian gardens with overflowing English herbaceous borders to new American estates in a style that could also be modified for smaller suburban gardens. Her 200 commissions include the campuses of Princeton and Yale universities and two extensive gardens on the east coast: Dumbarton Oaks, in the Georgetown sector of Washington DC, and The Eyrie, now the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, in Seal Harbor, Maine. Her own garden, Reef Point, in nearby Bar Harbor, Maine, developed into an exemplary botanic garden featuring indigenous species, accompanied by an herbarium, her working library and art collection.
In 1980, along with a revival of interest in garden history in the US, a two-day symposium on her work took place at Dumbarton Oaks, followed by a 1985 travelling exhibition of her gardens. Since then, two major biographies and a collection of her writings have been published, along with a facsimile reprinting of her Reef Point Bulletins. When she decided to sell, and thus destroy, Reef Point, due to tax issues and a lack of future leadership, she donated her archives, including most of Gertrude Jekyll’s papers, to the University of California, Berkeley. These publicly available papers have helped the task of restoring Farrand’s properties on both the east and west coasts. Her most well-known west coast property is the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in California, where she lived during the winter while her husband was director of the Henry E Huntington Library in San Marino.
Of her commissioned work, Bellefield, the 18th-century house adjacent to the home of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York, which she landscaped in 1912, has been restored with Farrand’s signature vine-draped walls, clipped hemlock hedges and pastel borders. While overseeing the restoration, horticulturist Anne Cleves Symmes and her colleagues decided to make a documentary about Farrand’s legacy. Symmes’s husband, documentary film director Stephen Ives, began work on Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes in July 2016. Narrated and guided by Lynden B Miller, a designer of many public landscapes in New York City and director emerita of The Conservatory Garden in Central Park, the film, which is still being made, captures the essence of Farrand’s important gardens at a walking pace that reveals the structure, colour and texture of her materials and designs. Miller’s thoughtful conversations with garden historians and others who oversee the gardens illuminate their history and Farrand’s work. Background information with period photographs documents how a young woman raised in New York’s Gilded Age society, the subject of her aunt’s novels, broke the mould to become a professional landscape designer with her New York office staffed by younger women landscape architects.
Major support for the archival research has already been provided by the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, founded by the late Rachel Lambert Mellon, a garden designer herself, whose president is the botanical scientist Sir Peter Crane. If final funding for the film can be raised (see below), it will premiere in autumn at the New York Botanical Garden.
In a scene from the film, Miller follows the transition of Dumbarton Oaks from a dilapidated Victorian mansion above a steep slope into a residence of Georgian-style splendour with vine-embellished stone walls and stairways, intimate terraced gardens with fountains and pools in the European style. These formal enclosures with ornamental features merge with the surrounding natural landscape, where woodlands had been cleared to reveal the wild North Vista.
Farrand’s sole foreign commission was Dartington, an estate in southern England that had been bought by Dorothy Whitney Straight, an American heiress who married Leonard Elmhirst, the son of a Yorkshire clergyman. Together the couple developed Dartington Hall in Devon from a ruined 14th-century Great Hall with 1,200 acres into an institution devoted to the arts, agriculture and progressive education. It was a sister project to Dumbarton Oaks with Farrand’s circular courtyard drive patterned into sections of Devon limestone setts, York paving and cobblestones, a fieldstone wall creating a ha-ha to resolve a slope and, against the house, an immense espaliered Magnolia grandiflora. Three woodland paths that she designed — the Spring, Camellia and Rhododendron Walks — lead into Dartington’s wild vista.
Under its current administration as the Dartington Hall Trust, landscape designer Dan Pearson has been commissioned to produce a master plan that, he says, “will reinvigorate the core of the garden’s past in a gentle way”. No doubt Farrand’s goal there, like Dumbarton Oaks, as quoted by Millerin the film, was “to keep it as poetic as possible and make it the sort of place in which thrushes sing and dreams are dreamt”.
Insignia Films lacks only $300,000 to complete editing and post-production. Contributions may be made to the Beatrix Farrand Garden Association (a not-for-profit organisation), PO Box 315, Hyde Park, New York 12538.
Further information from: Info@beatrixfarrandgardenhydepark.org.