- Historic Sites
The Impeccable Gardener
Beatrix Farrand’s exactingly beautiful designs changed the American landscape
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Sargent had warned her also to “study the tastes of the owner,” and Beatrix became very adept at winning clients over to her own way of seeing things. She always tried to seem accommodating, of course, and could be extremely self-deprecating, often referring to herself as merely the “hands” executing her client’s ideas. In truth she was very much in control and eminently practical. If her clients were in residence at their summer places for only a few weeks each year, she made sure that that was when the flowers bloomed. Even today the Rockefellers’ Eyrie in Maine is best visited during the weeks in August when the delphinium, phlox, hollyhock, and clematis are flourishing. When a garden was for year-round use, it was situated away from the house “so no one would have to look at puddles all winter.” When in doubt she liked to have a full-scale mock-up produced, whether it be of a gateway or a footscraper, to make sure of the end results. “If she wanted that chair green,” Don Smith remembers of her work at Dumbarton Oaks, “and fifteen thousand others wanted it black, it would be green before she was through with it.” In a letter of mock annoyance to Edith Wharton, she wrote that a Mongolian climber at Reef Point had grown to only 35.5 inches: “Why couldn’t it have been the full yard!”
Paths were always part of her designs—ribbons of stone breaking up the lawns.
Her meticulous nature was coupled with a deeply felt sensitivity to the life of her plants. Good landscape gardeners, she once wrote, “must remember the plants whose scent begins at dusk and those whose fragrance stops with the light. They must distinguish the flowers that are beautiful by night from those that are beautiful only by day; they must learn to know the sounds of leaves on different sorts of trees; the rippling and patterning of the poplar, the rustling of the oak-leaves in winter, and the swishing of the evergreens.” Worried about the shock of transplanting, she watched after the Duquesa de Penaranda roses when they were “sulky” and rejoiced when her plants would “galumph and gallop” in the spring.
Her practice also flourished. In 1912 Princeton became one of the first of many universities to invite Beatrix to consult with their architects in laying out a campus plan. Yale, the University of Chicago, Vassar, Oberlin, the California Institute of Technology, and Occidental, among others, followed. At Princeton, where she remained a consultant—as at Yale—for well over twenty years, students nicknamed her the “bushwoman,” presumably because she made the shrubs a vantage point from which to study their daily routes. The stone paths she then laid out are still used today.
In 1913, shortly after starting a rose garden for Mrs. Woodrow Wilson at the White House, Beatrix met and married Max Farrand, chairman of the history department at Yale. She was forty-one; he was forty-four, a noted authority on Benjamin Franklin, and the author of several books on American constitutional law. In her own words they were “neither of them young and each had attained some distinction in their work, consequently they agreed to go ahead with their professional careers.”
Indeed, Beatrix’s most hectic and creative years lay ahead. While rich Americans eagerly sought her services (she usually charged them one hundred dollars a day but was very flexible according to need) and her campus work required exhaustive long-term planning, she somehow managed to take on a variety of other projects, from the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New Jersey and the village greens for both Bar Harbor and Seal Harbor to the two-thousand-acre Darlington Hall in Devonshire, England. She did not even break stride when, in 1927, her husband was appointed director of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. She simply extended her practice to include the West Coast, where, in addition to the library, the California Institute of Technology, and Occidental, she worked on the grounds of the observatory on Palomar Mountain and at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
Beatrix now ran three offices: one fully staffed, mostly with women, in New York, and smaller operations at Reef Point and at San Marino, California. It was not at all unusual for her to visit six or seven projects, stretched all across the nation, in less than three weeks. She usually spent January with her husband in California, then stayed from February to April in New York. In May, Max would join her at Reef Point, where they could work together on their own favorite garden. In November it was back to New York. Ruth Havey, one of the designers in her New York office, has described how she would catch up with her employer on the train in New York as it passed from Boston to Washington, D.C. Rolls of drawings in hand, Havey would board the train to consult with Beatrix on design problems en route. Once the problems were solved, Havey was expected to get off at the closest stop and return to the office, while Beatrix proceeded to the next meeting. Her efforts at streamlining extended even to her wardrobe. Invariably dressed in Harris Tweeds, regardless of the season, Beatrix contemplated at one time the advantages of wearing only black. She wrote to Aunt Edith, “It simplifies packing and the world in general to be all in one color.”