The leading landscape designer of the turn of the 20th century had a list of clients that reads like a who’s who of the Gilded Age: J.P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, first lady Ellen Wilson, John D. Rockefeller Jr. That the rich and powerful of the late 1800s and early 1900s in insular upper-crust America shared the same designer is perhaps not totally surprising. But the fact that this designer was a woman certainly is.
During a five-decade career based in deep horticultural knowledge and a style-agnostic approach guided by detailed interaction with her clients, Beatrix Farrand came to be one of the most famous landscape designers in the world. It’s an unlikely tale told in the biography Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect, by Judith B. Tankard, out today from Monacelli Press. If some consider Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted the father of American landscape architecture, Farrand could easily be called the mother.
Farrand started her work as a designer in 1890s New York. The booming last few decades of the 19th century in the U.S. saw old money and new money clashing and cavorting in the city, creating a large pool of clients for Farrand (and inspiring an HBO series on the era, The Gilded Age). Farrand was born into one of the well-off families of this era. One of her aunts was Edith Wharton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and noted inside observer of the upper classes of the Gilded Age in New York. This upbringing helped Farrand become the go-to garden designer for a growing class of wealthy industrialists and socialites with the means to own generous private gardens.
Some of her most famous works include Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Maine, and the old campus at Princeton University, each of which still exists today. In 1899 she was the sole woman charter member of the new American Society of Landscape Architects, and she went on to become one of its most successful practitioners. In total, she had more than 200 commissions across a 50-year career.
“To me it’s utterly amazing,” says Tankard, a landscape historian and author of 10 books on gardens and garden designers. “There have been other women landscape architects who’ve done quite well, but Beatrix Farrand stands heads and heels above the others.”
Tankard notes that Farrand did participate in the social life of the city’s wealthy and established, even being included on the famous list of 400 members of well-heeled society created by socialite Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. But she was not primarily interested in the cotillions and parties of other ladies of leisure. Farrand embarked on an informal education in horticulture and garden design, traveling to great gardens across Europe to refine her own design palate. Her connections within New York’s high society were certainly part of her early success, but Tankard argues that her fortunate upbringing had little to do with the accomplishments she was able to achieve throughout her career.
“I think whether she was wealthy or not had little to do with it. It was 99% talent,” she says. “I think she was lucky in the environment that she grew up in and the contacts she had, but I think it was basically the talent that moved her forward.”
Her most famous project is Dumbarton Oaks, the extensive gardens and landscape on a 53-acre property in Washington, D.C., owned by American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife, Mildred. “She got the call from Mildred and Robert Bliss saying they bought this wreck of a piece of property and they needed Beatrix to come and sort it out,” Tankard says.
It was a project that started in 1920 and continued into the early 1940s, and is noted for its unique mixture of garden styles ranging from formal English terraces to recreational spaces to ecologically inspired informal wilderness zones. Tankard says this is as much a testament to Farrand’s dedication to design as to her skills as an ego-free collaborator. “She had an ability to keep up a great relationship with her client for over 20 years,” Tankard says. “I think there are a lot of architects and landscape architects who would have a hard time saying that they could do the same thing.”
It was a project that she relished working on, even when she moved 3,000 miles away. In 1927, seven years into designing and planting Dumbarton Oaks, Farrand’s husband took a job across the country in San Marino, California, as the first director of the Huntington Library. Farrand’s East Coast connections and success did not follow her out West, and she secured only a handful of projects while in California. “She spent most of her time on the train going back and forth to the East Coast managing jobs such as Dumbarton Oaks,” Tankard says. “She was a hardworking woman. She probably didn’t go to bed at night. But it was a masterpiece, and it’s still maintained today and still open to the public.”
Another notable project is the garden she designed in Seal Harbor, Maine, for the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr., Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Tankard calls it a combination of elements Farrand came to love: “a woodland setting, native plants, breathtaking flower borders, handsome architectural features, and sympathetic clients.”
Farrand’s influence spread beyond her gardens and campus consulting work. She was an early advocate for working women, and helped grow the ranks of women practicing landscape design and landscape architecture. “She encouraged other women to work in the field. By the time she had women working in her office there were schools like [Harvard University Graduate School of Design] that were beginning to open up and let women come in and study and earn degrees,” Tankard says. “I think her legacy is opening the door for women to become accomplished landscape architects.” One protégé, Ruth Havey, opened her own landscape architecture firm in New York in 1935 and went on to have a successful career as a designer.
Farrand’s was a pioneering life, one that pushed against the social norms that had until that point kept most women out of professions like landscape design. It’s a story of a time of great change in professional design in the United States, one that would not be out of place on the new HBO show about the Gilded Age, Tankard says. “I’m sorry Beatrix wasn’t included in it.” Maybe she’ll make an appearance in Season Two.