Beatrix Farrand – Force of Nature

1943 portrait of Beatrix Farrand. Courtesy of the Beatrix Farrand Society. Portrait by The Gledhills Portraits, Santa Barbara, CA.

By Wendy Plump

It is possible to be cowed by Beatrix Farrand even now, over 100 years since her first landscape commission at Princeton University and half a century since her death. There is much to be thankful for in the sylvan, living landscape she put in place to give an austere campus a greener aspect. Two hundred years ago the university was practically a field; there were no trees at all around Nassau Hall. Farrand‘s influence remains most evident today in the twisting blooms of wisteria that climb the great Gothic walls of the Graduate College each spring. Or the Wyman House rose garden. Or the sugar maples and beeches that accentuate—rather than compete with—the university’s soaring architecture. Or for that matter the entire, park-like character of campus.

Still, she is a little intimidating.

First consulting landscape architect at Princeton University. Designer of gardens at the White House, at the University of Chicago, at the Morgan Library in New York. Creator of the celebrated garden property Dumbarton Oaks. Niece of novelist Edith Wharton. Only woman founder, along with 10 men (including Frederick Law Olmsted), of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Consorter with many of the wealthier families of the early 20th century— Rockefellers and Morgans and Cabot Lodges. Only child. Perfectionist. Workaholic. Bachelorette until age 41, when she married Max Farrand. And early feminist, though she probably would not have given herself the label.

“I have put myself through the same training and look for the same rewards,” Farrand told the New York Daily Tribune in 1900 when, no doubt, some impertinent reporter asked her why she demanded equal footing in the masculine world of landscape architects. Although she wouldn’t have agreed with that title, either. She called herself, always and unfailingly, a landscape gardener.

“We still do things based on her vision and her thoughts about how the campus should look,” said Devin Livi, Princeton’s Associate Director of Grounds and Landscaping. “If a tree dies, we try to replace it in kind and are very concerned with what she wanted the campus to look like. The way the campus looks today is the result of her work—the vines, the espalier, the native plant choices.

“I got the torch from my predecessor when I got here, and I’m carrying it now,” Livi added. “When you start to peel away the history of her work, it’s fascinating.”

Although it was relocated in the 1960s, a nursery started by Farrand for the cultivation and acclimation of campus plants and trees is still in use today by the university. Formerly on Faculty Road, the nursery was moved to West Windsor in the 1960s.

Many have speculated about how Farrand, socially fortunate though she was, managed to accomplish so much so early in the game for herself and other women. The 19th Amendment, after all, was still eight years from ratification when she began her Princeton work in 1912. A quick survey of her upbringing amid strong, ambitious women in New York City—her mother wrote articles and a book about women; her aunt wrote The Age of Innocence—and the question practically answers itself.

The better question is, how did she learn landscape architecture in an age when there were no schools for it, and when the avenues for women of means were strictly delineated? With her social standing, Farrand would more likely have been expected to design flower gardens and host garden clubs. But the muscular art of paring and shaping a landscape was a privileged discipline for a privileged few. Meaning men.

Dumbarton oaks facade and fountain.

ALONG CAME CHARLES SARGENT

Born in 1872, Farrand exhibited an early talent for garden design, at least in part because she witnessed the careful laying out of the family summer home, Reef Point, overlooking Frenchman Bay in Maine, when she was just 11 years old. Her grandmother was also noted for having one of the first espaliered fruit gardens in Rhode Island. Farrand took on a career-starting commission as early as 1897, working on the first of several private homes in and around Bar Harbor. By the end of her career, she would have landscaped as many as 50 private homes in that area alone.

A family friend introduced her to the great horticulturist at Harvard, Charles Sprague Sargent, director of The Arnold Arboretum. Farrand began apprenticing under Sargent, and soon moved into his family home as his favorite pupil so that her studies could continue uninterrupted. It was Sargent who taught her, according to the Dictionary of Notable Women, that she should seek to “make the plan fit the ground and not twist the ground to fit a plan.” This philosophy in particular enlivened and undergirded Farrand’s future designs for Princeton University.

There are several possible explanations for Farrand’s introduction to Princeton. One is that Sargent himself—knowing Princeton’s intentions to landscape a new property for its Graduate College—put her name in the hat. In fact, Sargent made a present of two Cedars of Lebanon to the first Dean of the College, Andrew Fleming West, and these trees have have a quiet, commanding presence within the Old Quadrangle today. Sargent also later sent Farrand specimens and seeds for use in Princeton plantings.

Another possibility is the architect Ralph Adams Cram, Princeton’s first consulting architect, tapped to design the Graduate College. His office in New York City was close to Farrand’s. However, since his architectural plans also included topographical analyses for landscaping that Cram apparently wanted to do himself, this theory is less likely.

In his 1994 thesis on Farrand, Frederic Webster posited that a chance meeting between Farrand and Mrs. Moses Taylor Pyne led to the assignment. Farrand did work on the Pynes’ home, Drumthwacket, in 1910 and Pyne was, after all, on the building committee for the Graduate College. Whatever the case, Princeton distinguished itself, wrote Webster, by being “among the earliest and perhaps the first university in this country to carry on an unbroken policy of planting and care of its campus.” Farrand was a major early factor in that distinction.

In a letter to the Controller of the University in 1912 about the College, Farrand wrote: “I shall be glad to consider the work in detail when the proposed tentative drawing for the possible development of the land is made by Mr. Ralph Cram. In regard to the terms of payment my charges are fifty dollars a day and my traveling expenses. Work done in the office is paid for at the same rate.” When she wrote that letter, she was 30 years old.

Hand-colored photograph of the southeast garden at the White House, Washington, D.C. in 1921. Beatrix Farrand designed the garden for Ellen Axson (Mrs. Thomas Woodrow) Wilson in 1913.

FARRAND PREVAILS

Within two weeks of her business engagement at Princeton, Farrand delivered up a landscaping plan for the Graduate College site. Her preliminary report outlined six points of importance. First among them, for example, was a robust connection between the new college and main campus. Others included the priority use of evergreens at the college entrance because “for more than half the time the buildings are most in use, the deciduous trees are leafless.” She set down a plan for border plantings, and plantings around the buildings to come.

This did not sit well with architect Ralph Cram. “I am very strongly of the opinion that the landscape treatment around a given building should be determined by the architect thereof,” he wrote to then-President John Grier Hibben. “No landscape gardener, however competent, can be expected to see the thing as he sees it.”

Cram’s disapproval had little impact. Hibben apparently approved Farrand’s curvilinear, informal plantings that complemented the natural contours of the setting. Farrand went on in 1915 to become the university’s permanent consulting landscape architect, and enjoyed a rich and fruitful relationship with Princeton for the next three decades. Intensely devoted to her work, she was said to have followed undergraduates as they walked around campus to see where they were beginning to wear paths through the grass, after which she would decide to place a path directly there.

Several boxes of letters and written materials comprise a small Farrand collection at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Combing through them is a journey back through time, through carefully-typed, onion-skin letters, bills of lading, orders for trees and plants and fertilizers, notes on placement and water management, old schematics, and pencil-smudged correspondence. And every time Farrand signed a letter, it was underscored with a straight, strong, black line.

As Farrand’s work for Princeton progressed, her reputation grew around the country. She would go on to designing for scores of college campuses including Yale, where she met her husband Max Farrand, a history professor there. She enjoyed a long stewardship at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine, which was inspired by her comprehensive study of designs and patterns in Beijing’s Forbidden City as her way of honoring the Rockefellers’ passion for East Asian art. She did a White House garden for Woodrow Wilson. She landscaped the area around J. Pierpont Morgan’s home in Manhattan.

But her most celebrated work is the garden property Dumbarton Oaks, a research library administered by Harvard University in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. There, Farrand worked in close collaboration with owner Mildred Bliss for more than 30 years. Her intensity and vision are still to be seen in the formal gardens with their emphasis on ornamental trees and shrubs. Farrand and Bliss designed every garden and hedge and sited every bench and urn at Dumbarton.

Farrand spent her last years at Garland Farm in her beloved Maine, where she kept some of the books from her research library of nearly 3,000 volumes. She died in 1959 at the age of 86.

In a letter to Princeton Professor Gerald Breese in 1984, noted gardening scholar and author of Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes, Diana Balmori offered this summation of Farrand: “The extent and importance of her campus landscape work has not been studied partly because of the lack of attention given to the professional work of women, partly because of the shift in attention from the campus site to its individual buildings.

“In fact,” Balmori added, with a subtle nod toward Farrand’s broad contributions, “the campus can be considered an American invention.”

Hand-colored photographs of Reef Point, Beatrix Farrand’s summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1920.