Among the first women to practice landscape architecture in the United States, Beatrix Farrand undertook projects ranging from White House gardens and private university campuses like Princeton and Yale to estate plans for some of America’s most prominent families. She was also the only woman among the founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects and is considered one of the most important landscape architects of the twentieth century. Farrand used her extensive understanding of horticulture and her impressive eye for design to create some of the most extraordinary landscapes in the nation, including several major works in Connecticut.
Beatrix Jones was born in New York City on June 19, 1872, the only child of Frederick Rhinelander Jones and Mary Cadwalader Rawle and niece of author Edith Wharton. The family’s social circle included the J.P. Morgans, the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers and other prominent families among the East Coast elite. She became interested in plants while in her twenties and was encouraged by Charles Sprague Sargent, a close family friend and director of Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, to pursue study in the field of horticulture. She spent 1896 studying alongside Sargent and, at his suggestion, spent four months touring with her mother in Europe to learn more about design. Upon her return, Beatrix arranged to study civil engineering with tutors from Columbia University to round out her education and acquire engineering skills useful to her work.
Following her education, she began taking on private commissions in 1897, and her first major project was a garden in Maine on Mount Desert Island where her family also had a summer home. Over the course of her career, Beatrix would design gardens for more than 50 summer houses in the Bar Harbor area. In 1899, she joined Frederick Law Olmsted and others in the founding of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the only woman in the group of eleven. The same year, she created the initial site plan for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Throughout the first decade of her career, Beatrix took on a variety of public and private commissions, building her reputation and growing her list of clients. She became known for her style of designing “garden rooms,” outdoor spaces which transition distinctly from one to another, and was also a proponent of using native plant species wherever possible and of designing the outdoor space to fit and complement the natural contours of the land.
Her career in academic landscape architecture began in 1912 when she became the first consulting landscape architect for Princeton University, the first woman ever hired to landscape a college campus. This partnership would continue for thirty years even as Beatrix expanded in other areas. During her work at Princeton, she met her future husband, Max Farrand, a noted constitutional historian and chair of the history department at Yale University. The couple married in 1913, and Beatrix moved to New Haven where she lived for the next fifteen years.
That same year, she was commissioned by Ellen Axson Wilson, first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, to design the East Colonial Garden (on the site of what is now the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden) as well as the West Garden (current site of the Rose Garden).
In 1923, Farrand began working as consulting landscape architect at Yale University and continued in this capacity until 1945. As with all of her university campus work, Farrand’s designs at Yale incorporated wherever possible plants that would bloom throughout the majority of the academic year. She also used her outdoor designs to augment the architecture surrounding them, both to emphasize attractive aspects and mask any unattractive elements. Finally, she favored using tall and climbing plants in small spaces to best utilize the areas between buildings and give the appearance of more green space.
During the early portion of Farrand’s time at Yale, she also designed the two private gardens for which she is best known: the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Maine, which combines her talent in designing formal gardens with her love for native plant species, and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., which Farrand designed for Mildren and Robert Woods Bliss. Dumbarton Oaks boasts a series of formal gardens around the house with particular emphasis on ornamental trees and shrubs and then one of the most impressive naturalistic gardens in America where the property falls away to a 50-foot cliff.
In addition to her work at Yale, Farrand left her mark on other areas in the state of Connecticut. Eolia, summer mansion of the Harkness family in Waterford, Conn., is one of her major extant works in the state. Farrand was commissioned to do an extensive re-design of the gardens surrounding the home, and the site is now preserved as Harkness Memorial State Park.
Another important Farrand site still in existence in Connecticut is the sunken garden at the Hill-Stead Museum. As architect and Inductee Theodate Pope Riddle completed the design and construction of her Hill-Stead estate, she also undertook the landscape, creating a garden with traditional beds containing some of her mother’s favorite flowers. Then, around 1920, Riddle commissioned Farrand to re-envision the garden space. Farrand re-planted the sunken garden using her trademark style and choosing plants that would complement the collection of Impressionist art that decorated the home. In the 1980s, the garden was fully restored using Farrand’s original planting plans and is now home to the annual Sunken Garden Poetry Festival.
In 1927, Max Farrand accepted a position as director of the Huntington Library in San Marino, Ca., and the Farrands left Connecticut. Beatrix continued to consult at Yale for nearly twenty more years and maintained her East Coast clientele, traveling by train across the country to complete her commissions. She also made her mark on the California landscape, consulting on the landscape design for the California Institute of Technology and Occidental College, among others.
In addition to her extensive body of work designing and creating gardens, Beatrix Farrand was also a garden scholar, amassing a collection of more than 2,700 volumes and photographs. When Max Farrand retired in 1941, the Farrands returned to the Northeast, moving to Mount Desert Island, where they devoted themselves to opening a library and study center for New England flora at Beatrix’s family summer home at Reef Point. After Max’s death in 1945, Beatrix continued her work at Reef Point but chose to close the center ten years later, donating her full collection of materials to the University of California-Berkeley where they would be more accessible to students. She moved to the more manageable Garland Farm property, which would be her final home and garden.
Beatrix Farrand died in 1959 at the age of 86. Over the course of her lifetime, she received many honors including honorary membership in the American Institute of Architects, the 1947 Garden Club of America Achievement Medal and the 1952 New York Botanical Garden Distinguished Service Award. She also held honorary degrees from Yale University and Smith College.
In 2003, the Beatrix Farrand Society purchased Garland Farm and is in the process of restoring Farrand’s final garden to its original form.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.