Beatrix Farrand, one of America’s greatest landscape architects, was born 150 years ago. The anniversary comes at a good time to celebrate her work: several of her important gardens are undergoing extensive restoration, a previously private garden is now open to the public, and a lavishly-illustrated biography is heading for publication.
At age 27, Farrand was the only woman of 11 founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1898. Her aunt, only three years older and a close friend, was Edith Wharton; the two women had much in common, including keen minds, a finely developed aesthetic sense and membership in New York’s social, cultural, and economic elite. Both women’s maiden names were Jones, as in “Keeping up with the Jonses.”
“She was a rare and impressive woman who, like her aunt, made an important career for herself during a time and in a milieu where women did not do that,” says Judith Tankard, the Boston-based author of Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect published by Monacelli Press on March 29, 2022. “Not only did women from her background not have careers, but landscape architecture was exclusively a man’s world.”
Farrand found an early mentor in Charles Sprague Sargent, a botanist at Harvard University and the founding director of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts. She began practicing landscape architecture in New York in 1895, finding clients among her mother’s and aunt’s social connections. Her work soon attracted notice and she became the first consulting landscape architect at Yale University, Princeton University, the University of Chicago and other schools. She designed the original East Garden at the White House (famously redesigned by Bunny Mellon and Melania Trump.) The rose garden at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx is her design, and she is justly celebrated for her incomparable work at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. On Long Island, in Connecticut and on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, wealthy homeowners hired Farrand to create gardens to compliment their grand manses.
Three very different Connecticut gardens designed by her are being restored, including Hill-Stead and Harkness Memorial State Park, which are open to the public.
The garden she designed for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in Seal Harbor, Maine in 1926 is the rare private garden that has been meticulously maintained and is virtually unchanged. Now one of the properties of a landscape non-profit, it is open to the public from mid-July until early September via on-line reservations.
Visiting any of Farrand’s extant or recreated gardens is a delightful lesson in scale, proportion, color, horticultural habit and the creation of vistas, as well as practical concerns such as where paths should go, what materials best suit the site, how the garden is to be used and how it is to connect to the house. Farrand was a brilliant designer, but she was also a skilled plants person and an effective supervisor of staff. She did not shy away from hard physical work, and was known for her no-nonsense work outfits, which included stout boots.
Tankard will promote her book with a series of lectures, including at the Garden Conservancy and the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art.
“I wanted to tell the life story of this remarkable woman,” she says. “Besides her great design work, she opened doors and created a career path for women. Today, half of the students at landscape architecture schools around the country are women.”