Beatrix Farrand Gets a Fresh Look

One conclusion came out loud and clear from a day-long conference on Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.: Farrand was of one the most versatile landscape architects of her age and perhaps any age. A fresh review of her work by leading landscape architecture professors, graduate students, and practitioners unearthed fascinating aspects of this “perfectionist,” who was described as a scientific-minded experimenter, an early proponent of native plants, a leader in “pre-ecological design,” an expert in stormwater management, and a flexible and innovative designer who mastered numerous styles. Farrand, who designed hundreds of landscapes in her multi-decade career before her death in 1959, set the bar high for her successors, both female and male.

According to Thaisa Way, ASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington, Farrand, the only women among the 11 founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), is an important “transitional figure” in ecological design, occupying a central spot somewhere between the founder of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Ian McHarg, author of Design with Nature. Way said “ecological practices have always been a part of humans’ approach to the environment” yet some still think that “anything that came before McHarg was ‘unscientific.'” The designs of Farrand and other women landscape architects at the turn of the 20th century weren’t just “focused on aesthetics” but “offered important approaches that experimented with adoption and adaptation to ecological values.”

Ecology and Landscape Architecture

Ecology was becoming a cohesive profession around the same time of landscape architecture so there was lots of cross-pollination between the two fields in the early days. (Though, at times since, landscape architects have seemed at one with ecologists, and at other times, the two fields seemed to have diverged). Some of the early roots of landscape architecture were in gardening, botany, and planting design, which included studies of native plant groups and classification systems. But from the 1930s on, when “modernism and the suburbs reduced the value of native plants in favor of lawns and exotic plants,” a real knowledge of plants and native planting design fell out of favor, being viewed as “feminizing the profession.” Indeed, Way said one of McHarg’s goals with his rational, mechanical, scientific Design with Nature was to “dis-empower the scale of plants” (and the women landscape architects who worked with them), so that ecological design could become a large-scale process that could be applied just about anywhere.

Interestingly, though, those early “pre-ecological designers” weren’t all women. Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the first, who used “naturalistic design” approaches for his Ramble in Central Park, and the Back Bay Fens, which also provided enormous stormwater management benefits to Boston. With the growth of the natural style came the “wild garden movement,” which “grouped plants and saw nature as a source of design.” Gertrude Jekyll, an English landscape designer, said “each country should use its own landscape.” Other women landscape architects in the U.S. also picked up on this concept, with Ellen Biddle Shipman planting her Tregaron with native plants, “creating a distinctly American style focusing on the visual composition of plants.”

Arnold Arboretum was one the first world-class plant science center in the U.S. There, both “the scientific and picturesque aspects of plants” were highlighted. “The design fit the land, not the other way around.” Charles Sargent, the first director of the center, was a leading botanist and later brought on Farrand as an apprentice. His approach was to “present the plant material correctly from a botanist’s point of view, but also to make the living collection pleasurable,” said Way.

This mixing of science and pleasure seemed to be a focus a generation of upper and upper-middle class “Lady Botanists” also took up. By the early 20th century, “half of all botanists in NY were women.” Way discussed a number of leading women botanists, garden designers, and landscape architects of that time, including Marian Cruger Coffin, who designed naturalistic landscapes and wrote books about horticulture. Other early leaders in presenting native plants beautifully in naturalistic designs were Martha Brooks Hutcheson, who sought to “introduce habitats in designed landscapes and expand the reach of native systems,” and Marjorie Sewell Cautley, who created “self-sustaining landscapes” in urban areas, with her Radburn development.

Farrand Applied Ecological Principles

Farrand, then, worked in an era buzzing with ideas about how to use native plants and “design with nature” — even if the terms used weren’t the same as the language in today’s sustainable or ecological design — and was a leader in applying some of these concepts. As Betsy Anderson, landscape historian and MLA candidate, University of Washington, described, Farrand “anticipated the role of science in landscape architecture” by her willingness to partner with scientists and experiment with ecological design principles.

In her early years, Farrand actually managed the riparian system at The Mount, the estate of her aunt, famed author Edith Wharton. There, she “established a high-performance landscape in stages.” She called for leaving leaves and plant waste, arguing that it was “nature’s way to create great soils.” As a consultant to her aunt, Farrand “reforested the landscape” at the Mount over the years, creating a dramatic woodland drive that featured plant ecologies designed to be viewed at different speeds. Farrand “examined ideal climatic and soil conditions for plant communities” and conducted expeditions to learn more. She would use her time there to “create a meticulous understanding of northeast New England ecology, which she would then apply elsewhere.”

At Dumbarton Oaks Park in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., the naturalistic companion to the Italianate gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, she “studied the site from the ground up.” She created dams in spots, forming a new brook, which was used to “make a movement through the landscape” but also “manage stormwater.” There, “stormwater was deployed aesthetically and effectively.” By the new brook, Farrand also extended existing native plant communities so there was simply a continuation of the plant habitat.

Anderson said while McHarg was “seeking certainty in ecological design,” Farrand was “looking for patterns in nature” and emphasizing long-term maintenance. Her approach was scientific, but based in “experiment, not observational methodologies.” While some may dismiss her approach as simply part of that naturalistic style, Way added that “this wasn’t just a visual style, but about using native plants and collections of plants to transfer habitats. Farrand used aesthetics to portray natural processes.” Clearly, sustainability or sustainable design then “wasn’t born in 1981.”

And Designed for People

Patrick Chasse, ASLA, a landscape architect who has worked with landscapes designed by Farrand, told the story of Chiltern Estate in Bar Harbor, Maine. He said Farrand’s family had been coming to the area since she was a child and eventually built an estate there. Maine provided space for young Farrand to go out and learn about native plants. Later in life, after she had spent time at the Arnold Arboretum with Charles Sargent and set up her own practice in New York City, she came back to work on many of the big natural estates, including Edgar Scott’s Chiltern Estate.

There, Farrand managed 100 laborers herself, creating new gradings and plantings. She designed a “naturalistic water garden,” set within an organic shape some 265 feet long. “This was the first great non-formal garden in Bar Harbor,” said Chasse, but perhaps more importantly, it played a central role in the lives of the family who lived there. Plays were enacted in the gardens, creating memories that stayed with the Scott children for their whole lives. The house has been pulled down and the landscape no longer exists, but old plans and plant lists still retain historic value.

Farrand may have also experimented with “kinesthetic” or “physiological aesthetic” design, creating spaces people love to be in at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. According to Robin Veder, associate professor of humanities and art history / visual culture, Pennsylvania State University, Farrand used a “rhythmic design” approach that was rooted in the ideas she was exposed to by Wharton’s friend Vernon Lee, who wrote Lie of the Land and was an early theorist on kinesthetics. 

Kinesthetics is about understanding “bodily experience” that goes beyond the 5 senses (touch, taste, sight, sound, smell). It’s about “motion through 3-D space,” said Veder, the “muscular feel of movement” that unites all senses. While physical environments “don’t determine movement,” they do offer up opportunities for how people interact with spaces. A garden then is an “assembly of affordances” in which bodily movements are choreographed. “It’s the lay of the incurable land.”

Farrand seemed to have understood these theories, so she created “terraced garden rooms,” and choreographed the movement between the terraces through steps, making sure they would be comfortable and create a feeling of safety. There are now four terraces that create a “sequence of experiences,” with a middle section acting as an intermezzo before the busy rose garden. To avoid a “wearisome continuous climb,” Farrand almost obsessively analyzed tread patterns to determine the ideal shape and set of steps and breaks. “The same starting foot was used on ascending or descending,” which, Farrand figured out, meant that sets of steps needed to be all odd or even. Farrand ended up creating a “whole set of rules for stairs” to make sure the garden “paced the walker.”


Given her considerable time spent with Wharton and Vernon Lee around this time, it seems more than plausible that she was influenced by the ideas Lee and others were promoting, said Veder. These concepts were also out there: Early Landscape Architecture Magazine articles from the 1910s and 1920s examined the best proportion for stairs (and actually found that ramps were preferable to stairs). Others examined stairs and found that it was hard to design the universal stair given how the different heights and gaits of people. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. said that “people perform with their feet,” and if they don’t like the stairs, they will go up the side banks. In 1901, Harvard Graduate School of Design also taught its landscape architecture students about physiological aesthetics. Farrand, with her rhythmic design, may have been an early innovator in this field then, too.


Image credits: (1) Beatrix Farrand / Princeton University, (2) Dumbarton Oaks Park Brook / Dumbarton Oaks Park, (3) Dumbarton Oaks Park Brook / Flickr, (4) Dumbarton Oaks Park stairs / Flickr, (5) Dumbarton Oaks Park stairs / Elin’s Photo Blog.

4 thoughts on “Beatrix Farrand Gets a Fresh Look

  1. Silver Seed Farms 03/11/2013 / 8:19 pm

    This is a wonderful and informative article. It becomes clear that innovation can be, at its core, very simple and rooted in sustainable practices. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Warren Street Gardens, Brooklyn, NY 03/15/2013 / 9:28 am

    Thanks for this piece; wonderful to see her portrait, thoughtfully done, nice to see it is at Princeton where her artistry is still greatly felt and appreciated.

  3. Stephen Plunkard 04/30/2013 / 2:09 pm

    Long overdue and well deserved recognition for Beatrix Farrand.

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