By Lynden B. Miller, Public Garden Designer
Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) was America’s finest landscape garden designer. Her most extensive project, Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C., has been described as ranking with “the greatest gardens in the world.”1 Her career and her work continue to be an inspiration today. She has long been a role model for many women in the landscape design field who have followed her.
Though she came from a privileged background where women seldom worked, Mrs. Farrand was the ultimate professional. During her long career, she created 200 projects, both public and private. Self-taught, she educated her eye to great landscape design as a young woman through travel abroad, making cogent observations in her journals. Later she apprenticed with Charles Sprague Sargent at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and learned about everything she could about plants, a subject that remained her passion for the rest of her life. Though she was one of the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, she always called herself a “Landscape Gardener.”
Mrs. Farrand made gardens for the rich and famous, many of whom were social acquaintances, and a number of these gardens still exist and are open to the public, such as Bellefield in Hyde Park, NY; Eolia (now Harkness State Park) near New London; several splendid gardens on Mt. Desert Island in Maine; and landscapes at Princeton, Yale, and the University of Chicago.
Mrs. Farrand described her profession as that of a “painter built on the substructure of an engineer.”2 She emphasized in many writings that “the garden-maker must know intimately the forms and texture as well as the colour of all the plants he uses; for plants are to the gardener what his palette is to a painter.”3
The work for which she is most famous is Dumbarton Oaks, which she once described as “the best and most deeply-felt work of a fifty year practice.”4 Designed on 53 steeply-sloping acres in Washington, D.C. as a series of garden rooms with beautiful plantings for a private client, she worked actively on this project from 1921 until the late 1940s. The garden was given to Harvard University in November of 1940 and eventually opened to the public.
One of the reasons why Dumbarton Oaks is so universally admired is that it was conceived and produced as a work of art, based on a wide knowledge of historic garden design but combining this knowledge in a unique way. In the many different garden “rooms,” Mrs. Farrand never used plants as incidentals or add-ons but always for their own intrinsic design value as architectural and sculptural elements. Regrettably, this is something very rarely seen in the landscape architecture profession at the present time.
Plants were used to screen or enclose areas, to frame views as well as to enhance the qualities of each particular garden room. The gardens were designed for different seasons, especially emphasizing the use of plants for winter. To further enhance her artistic creation, she also designed elegant garden furniture, pots, and gates for each section.
Her great legacy along with the magnificent gardens she designed at Dumbarton Oaks is The Plant Book, which she wrote for Harvard beginning in 1940, when they received the garden from the owners. A unique creation in the history of the landscape design, this very important book describes in great detail her design thinking for each area and then her recommendations for future maintenance. In it, she demonstrates the important role of plants in the creation and future life of the garden. After it was written, this amazing document languished forgotten for 40 years in a box in the basement at Dumbarton Oaks until it was rediscovered and published in 1980. Finally it could be used as was originally intended. As a professional public garden designer, I feel strongly that the present day landscape architecture profession would be greatly enhanced if all practitioners were required to read and absorb the lessons in this book.
Mrs. Farrand spent many years developing her own gardens and horticultural library at Reef Point in Bar Harbor, Maine, hoping they would eventually become a public garden and educational center. When it became clear after the Great Fire of 1947 that the town of Bar Harbor was not willing to support the creation of this advanced educational idea, in 1955 Mrs. Farrand had her house and its gardens destroyed. Fortunately, many of the plants were saved and used in two lovely public gardens in Northeast Harbor, Maine, for us all to continue to enjoy. Beatrix Farrand died in 1959 at her last garden, Garland House, in Bar Harbor.
What makes Mrs. Farrand’s work so remarkable—particularly at Dumbarton Oaks—is that the beauty of this unique place is based on a combination of things: an understanding of landscape history; its splendid design; the proportions and the rhythms of the plantings; and her mastery of structures and materials. She remains a great inspiration to us all.
1. Jane Brown, Beatrix: The Gardening Life of Beatrix Jones Farrand 1872-1959 (New York: Viking Adult, 1955), 198.
2. Beatrix Farrand, “The Garden as a Picture (1907),” in The Collected Writings of Beatrix Farrand, ed. Carmen Pearson (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England: 2009), 75.
3. Beatrix Farrand, “Vocations for the Trained Woman (1910),” in The Collected Writings of Beatrix Farrand, ed. Carmen Pearson (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England: 2009), 92.
4. Diana Balmori, “Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks: The Design Process of a Garden,” in Beatrix Farrand: Fifty Years of American Landscape Architecture, Dumbarton Oaks, ed. Diane Kostial McGuire and Lois Fern (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1982), 103.
This post was written for Lynden B. Miller’s presentation of “Portraits in Design: Beatrix Farrand as Mentor.”