June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Beatrix Farrand’s exactingly beautiful designs changed the American landscape
When Beatrix Farrand arrived to work on a garden, clients knew they were in the presence of someone extraordinary. Friends called her Queen Elizabeth, and she sat regally swathed in lap robes, dressed primly in English tweeds, as her chauffeur guided the Fierce-Arrow touring car up the drive. In the twenties and thirties a garden by Farrand was believed to open social doors for its owner, and the people who hired her—people with such names as J. P. Morgan, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Mr. Edward Whitney, Mrs. Woodrow Wilson—were accustomed to the best.
Her actual achievements have for years been buried under this image of Farrand as society gardener to the very rich; only recently has her reputation as one of the best of American landscape designers begun to be restored.
Beatrix Farrand was in fact an exacting professional in a field where women were tolerated only if they more or less promised to remain amateurs. No matter how large or small, from her twenty-six-acre design at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., to the yard of J. P. Morgan’s town house in New York City, she was a perfectionist who brought to all her projects a magical sense of the appropriate.
Between 1896 and 1945 she designed more than 176 gardens. Not all were country estates; she also planned the campuses of Princeton, Yale, the University of Chicago, and Oberlin. Her career coincided with the glory days of landscape gardening in America, when the new rich wanted settings to add tone to their wealth. Those days ended with the leveling effects of the personal income tax, followed by the two world wars. Along with the vast gardens that, unattended, went quickly to seed, the many landscape designers who created them have long been neglected.
But in recent years, the early-twentieth-century masters of the American garden have been rediscovered. Farrand was one of the first to reemerge, partly because of her brilliant sensibility and the sheer volume of her work, but also because more of her projects have survived than those of the other landscape designers of her day. Still in existence are Dumbarton Oaks; Eyrie, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller garden in Seal Harbor, Maine; and the basic campus plans for Princeton and Yale.
Beatrix Cadwalader Jones (1872–1959) was born to a prominent New York family. Her father, Frederic Jones, oldest brother of the novelist Edith Wharton, inherited money and spent his life abroad enjoying it. Mary Rawle Jones, a Philadelphia debutante, had entertained William Thackeray at home and visited Lincoln in the White House. Beatrix as a child traveled often to Europe, usually with her uncle John Cadwalader, a lawyer, who delighted in taking young “Trixie” on Scottish hunting parties because she was such a good shot. In a biographical essay Farrand wrote many years later (which with characteristic forthrightness she intended to serve as her obituary), she traced her first memories to a garden in Newport, where her grandmother taught her, at the age of five, to clip the dead blooms from roses with the aristocratic names of Baroness Rothschild, Bon Silène, and Marie von Houte. Her parents’ marriage, however, was an unhappy one, ending in divorce when Beatrix was eleven years old. To meet the expenses of life in society, her mother was forced to go to work, becoming Edith Wharton’s literary agent, and the acutely sensitive Beatrix absorbed early a distrust of the future that would plague her adult life. Over fifty years later she wrote to her aunt Edith: “It seems unlikely that even you know what cruelty and injustice there was.”
From an early age Beatrix set out to make gardens her lifetime career. As no landscape schools then admitted women, she apprenticed herself in 1892, at twenty, to Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, in Boston. Sargent was foremost among those horticultural scientists who were interested in the hybridization and propagation of plant life. When his young apprentice expressed an interest in gardens for their own sake and presented a plan with benches, paths, and plants colorfully arranged, he retorted gruffly, “Don’t waste time on what you call design.” Still, the practical lessons she learned from Sargent were invaluable. He told her to “make the plan fit the ground and not twist the ground to fit a plan … look at great landscape paintings … and learn from all the great arts, as all art is akin.”
Sargent also advised her to travel widely, and in 1895 she set sail to study the old gardens of Europe. On her return, Beatrix, at twenty-three (an age when most women were supposed to be concentrating on their marital prospects), was confident enough to open her own office. She found space in the attic of her mother’s East Eleventh Street apartment. Almost immediately she was flooded with commissions referred by Sargent and by family friends who populated the fashionable neighborhoods along the Eastern seaboard from Tuxedo Park to Bar Harbor, where her own family had an estate called Reef Point. Within three years she was the only woman invited to become a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. She objected to the term architect , which she felt belonged rightly only to the designer of buildings, and always signed herself in the British style as “landscape gardener.”
Beatrix was not awed by the reputation of established practitioners in her field. Once, after a tour of Frederick Law Olmsted’s work in Boston, she noted in her diary that his azaleas were “of fearful color, one blueish pink and the other bright orange.” Nor did she care for his work at the Boston Public Garden: “The planting is very bad” and the trees did not “show up for much as they are not led up to in any way.” Robert Patterson, a close friend and an architect who sometimes collaborated on her projects in Maine, once wrote that her sharp mind “could unerringly spot a needle of excellence in a stack of mediocre hay. The hay was not for her, neither in gardens nor in any other field. Throughout her life, she refused to compromise with the second rate.”
When Beatrix went to work on a garden, her first step was to study the lay of the land. “Scrutinizing every corner and angle, setting up her stakes, taking meticulous notes, planning, planning every hour of the day and night” is the way a contemporary described the landscape designer’s approach to Darlington Hall in Devonshire, England. She liked to think of a garden composition as a stained-glass window where a multitude of pieces contribute to a singular effect, or as an impressionist painting. Her own palette was a bundle of white labels on which she carefully wrote out the names of plants and which she then parceled out to the garden staff. The picture, says Patterson, was “painted on the spot in a forest of white sticks.” Such was her passion for working directly on the site that she never learned how to prepare architectural plans, leaving that inside work to her office designers. Occasionally she even found herself apologizing to clients for spending so much time on the job.
“Whenever you walk into a place she’s been, you can tell right away who did it,” says Don Smith, superintendent of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. After pulling scrubweed and filling birdbaths for Beatrix as a youth up at Reef Point, Smith came to Dumbarton Oaks over thirty years ago and has been there ever since. Her characteristic designs, he says, always incorporate “huge walls with tiny ribbons of stone breaking up the lawns; box hedges, yew hedges, and all kinds of benches. Every time you go around the corner, something’s just a little different. If a hillside, she’d space the steps so there would be three, then a landing, then you’d go up five the next time, so it’s never one-two-three. It’s in the design mostly, not so much the flowers. Even in the dead of winter, it’s really nice just the way she laid it out.”
The principles that Beatrix applied to even her earliest gardens included pleasing asymmetry, masses of a single flowering plant (she loathed “flowerbeds with intricate patterns…”). and the use of native plants. Though hardly revolutionary, her approach was fresher, more dynamic than the replicas of Italianate and Chinese gardens that were so much in demand. In Europe she had absorbed the lessons taught by Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, the best practitioners of the garden arts in England. At home she translated their ideas into a particularly American idiom that was much in tune with the new classical spirit beginning to assert itself in the arts.
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!”
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.”
The strain of success sometimes seemed unbearable. She often felt guilty about her husband—”an angel of patience for taking the leftovers from a selfishly overworked machine.” In turn, Edith Wharton and Max constantly fretted over “Trix,” her aunt lamenting that “she seems to slave at her work in a way that ought to belong only to the beginnings” but concluding that that was the way of all truly creative people, like herself. She was ever more proud of her independent niece and left Beatrix a considerable amount in her will.
Beatrix’s letters at this time reveal an extraordinarily complex character. Her naturally generous nature sometimes seems at odds with her professionalism. She was constantly sending iris and other unusual bulbs to friends at home and abroad. She had J. P. Morgan bring seeds from Hippocrates’ plane tree on the Greek island of Kos back to the Yale School of Medicine, whose grounds she was tending. She donated money to the California Institute of Technology just so they could pay her a pittance and her ten years of work there would not be labeled “volunteer.” Her determination to get everything just right often made her impatient with people working under her. In one ten-page letter she admonishes Miss Sweeney, a decent at Dumbarton Oaks when it was opened to the public, that “you are wrong in thinking that winter is an idle time,” for there were cards to be cataloged “backward and forward,” lectures to be prepared, botany studied so “you can show [people] what a sepal is and how it is also an altered leaf and how bulbs are constructed of the leaf base sort like narcissus and onion or of the solid sort like tulips … and so on forever.” As Robert Patterson said: “She had absolutely no small talk. People who worked for her had to be willing to bite their tongues and shut up. Mrs. Farrand was strong-minded, some would say a task master, but she was never unreasonable. She just wanted things right.”
Beatrix poured herself without reserve into all her projects, but Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., was her most demanding undertaking; it remains to this day her greatest living monument. “The Oaks” belonged to Robert Bliss, a career diplomat, but it was his wife, Mildred, who was determined to make a formal garden of unparalleled majesty in the United States. To accomplish the task she hired Beatrix in 1921. For the next twenty-six years the two women collaborated fiercely to carve the terraces, parterres, flowering slopes, and herbaceous and rose gardens out of the rugged hills and woodland and to create the illusion of country life in the heart of town.
Now fifty years old, Beatrix undertook the commission with a determination to make it one of her best. Every step of the way she was aided and confronted by Mildred Bliss, a woman with a strong design sense of her own. They called each other the “garden twins,” and Beatrix seemed to rejoice in her client-comrade’s firm resolve. Mildred presented ideas; Beatrix countered with her own. The result was both grand and intimate, imposingly formal near the house but constantly interrupted by glimpses of wild nature. A series of outdoor “rooms” were designated by name: the Green Terrace, close to the house and overlooking the grounds below, had no flowers—the evening gowns of visiting ladies were expected to add color; the North Vista with its graduated parterres provided one long, spectacular view; the Rose Garden set off blooms of soft yellow and orange-salmon mixed with blacks and whites against box bushes and yews. Mèlisande’s Allèe and Lovers’ Lane Pool, the Forsythia Hill, Crabapple Hill, and the Fountain Terrace were a few other “rooms.” Each entity was calculated for its effect; every view from the house was a careful composition.
From her Italian journeys Beatrix understood the added lushness that the sound of water evokes, and at Dumbarton Oaks the nine fountains and eleven pools tap thirty thousand feet of underground pipes. In 1940 the Blisses turned Dumbarton Oaks over to Harvard University with the strict proviso that the gardens were to be maintained, and Beatrix spent seven years planning for the transition from private to public garden. Both women were wary of the changes Harvard would make. Beatrix, particularly bitter about Harvard’s delinquent treatment of the endowment her old mentor Charles Sargent had left for the care of the Arnold Arboretum, wrote volumes of memoranda describing exactly how the gardens were to be groomed. Today the garden staff has shrunk from thirty-eight to twelve, and three of the six greenhouses have been closed down, but the overall design has been preserved and provides a pastoral retreat of tremendous style for the more than one hundred thousand visitors who wander through the enchanting landscape each year.
Beatrix’s choice of career subjected her precise character to a maddening dilemma: a garden is an ephemeral, living thing; turn your back on it and, instantly, it deteriorates. In her lifetime—and perhaps unrealistically—Beatrix tried to deal with that fact by herself assuming absolute control over all her gardens. At Dumbarton Oaks she even moved into some rooms over the east wing of the building. According to Robert Patterson, she often hired gardeners for her clients and even paid them through her own office. In spite of her efforts, however, it proved impossible to guarantee the kind of maintenance she demanded for her “places” in perpetuity.
Nowhere did this conflict grieve her so cruelly as at her own Reef Point, where her grandest scheme caused the most bitter disappointment of her life. As an escape from the imperfect and ungenerous world, Reef Point was always there, a place, as she once said about her childhood home, “where one’s roots go down into the very cracks of the floors.” Throughout a lifetime she had tended these seven acres of rough seashore. Together with her husband, Max, she envisioned turning Reef Point into a botanic garden and research center second to none. The library of more than twenty-seven hundred volumes was at the “living heart of the enterprise,” and the garden of single tea roses was the most complete in existence. Beatrix cultivated every plant known in Maine—carpets of thyme, juniper, bunchberry, and bearberry, patches of dwarf iris and lavender, red spruce and azalea—and also coaxed a wide variety of exotica into thriving in the austere climate. Only serious scholars and gardeners would be allowed to study at Reef Point. “The casual tourist will not be admitted as he would disturb students who may be working,” she wrote in the Reef Point Bulletin , a publication she issued irregularly. Those whose motives were pure were astonished to find there the most skillfully cultivated gardens ever conceived in America.
When Max died in 1945, Beatrix, now seventy-two years old, dedicated the rest of her life to fulfilling their shared dream. In the early fifties, shortly after the house had been completely renovated to accommodate study rooms and the library, and when every inch of turf had been plotted and all the plants neatly labeled, she learned that the town of Bar Harbor would not give Reef Point tax-exempt status, an absolutely necessary allowance, according to Beatrix, for its survival. She had once complained that the locals seemed to have no horticultural sap in their veins, and now she would not be able to guarantee Reef Point’s future as she saw fit. For her biographical record, written in 1956, three years before she died, she wrote, “In her old age, Beatrix Farrand saw more and more clearly that changes which affected the whole world had bearing on the enterprise she and her husband had started.” Before anyone could stop her or even talk to her, Beatrix made up her mind and had the house torn down. Many of the plants were uprooted and dispersed to local nurseries. The magnificent library and all her papers, along with the endowment she had amassed for Reef Point, went to the University of California in Berkeley, where they remain the solid core of an impressive landscape-design program. Today five house plots and a few hydrangeas, thistles, and echinopsis are all that remain of the once flourishing gardens.
When she was sure that Reef Point was nothing but a hole in the ground, Beatrix Farrand, now over eighty, retired to the nearby farm of her housekeeper and assistant, Amy Garland. From her bed the old woman could still look out of the window over what was left of the “much-loved” Reef Point. Surrounding her were dozens of vases, each with a single rose, bearing the names of those old, aristocratic friends of her youth: Baroness Rothschild, Bon Silène, and Marie von Houte.