Rose and I recently went out for our first movie in a long time. We picked a good one. “Gardens are good for the soul…They make you feel like your city or community care about you,” Lynden Miller, says at the outset of Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes. Miller, an award-winning public garden designer, is featured in the story of America’s first female landscape architect, in a beautiful hour-long conversation.
Should you watch the documentary?
Yes, you should. Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes is essential viewing for anyone interested in American garden history and garden making. The documentary looks at two undaunted artists, sensitive designers and experienced landscape gardeners—Farrand and Miller—who prevailed against sexism and snobbism.
Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, in collaboration with Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, hosted the theatre showing. The movie was produced by Insignia Films and directed by Stephen Ives.
I first met Lynden Miller at the 1985 Perennial Plant Symposium. These were the early days of a perennial plant wave that had begun sweeping the United States a few years earlier. Adrian and Allen Bloom were on the program. So were Allan Armitage and Allen Bush. I must have looked nervous. Lynden Miller and Fred and Mary Ann McGourty took me under their wings with advice and encouragement. I was a 34-year-old nurseryman, scared to death. It was hard to imagine standing up in front of hundreds of rabid, perennial zealots and talking about my tiny Holbrook Farm and Nursery. Lynden and the McGourtys sat in the front row for my talk and told me, beforehand, to look and speak directly to them. They smiled throughout. The audience applauded. I have never forgotten Lynden’s kindness, nor McGourtys’.
Lynden spoke the next year. Authors Fred McGourty and Pamela Harper, along with German nurserywoman Countess Helen von Stein- Zeppelin, were on the program also. Lynden’s talk, “Perennials in Urban Areas,” focused on a remarkable transformation of the formal Conservatory Garden at the north end of New York’s Central Park that she had begun a few years earlier. The Conservatory Garden opened in 1937, but by the early 1980s, with the city in economic and cultural crisis, the garden had become worn down by drugs, vandals. and occasional voodoo rituals.
Lynden and I kept in touch after I moved to Louisville and joined the Olmsted Parks Conservancy board in the late 1990s. I was then working for Jelitto Perennial Seeds but was interested in the preservation and protection of Louisville’s impressive network of 17 Olmsted-designed parks and nearly 15 miles of parkways. Lynden schooled me on park complexities and implicit political struggles, lessons she had learned nurturing the Conservatory Garden, Robert F. Wagner Park in Battery Park City, Bryant Park and other public spaces.
She would be embarrassed at any suggestion that she also be called a star, but she is one. “I believe in the promise of beautiful landscapes to make people’s lives better. No one believed that more than my heroine Beatrix Farrand,” Miller says.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Beatrix Farrand was born to money in New York in 1872. Her mother and father, Mary and Frederic Rhinelander Jones, according to Miller, were so “wealthy and high on the social ladder that striving members of the gilded age of New York society were said to be keeping up with the Joneses.” Few could claim to come from five generations of garden lovers. Summers at Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine were a privilege she didn’t take for granted. Here young Beatrix began her lifelong love for wildflowers.
Farrand proved herself time and time again.
Landscape design was not a profession open to women in the late 19th and early 20thcentury. Farrand, as a 20-year-old, found a mentor. Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, took her under his wing and taught her design methods, giving her free rein on the arboretum’s extensive collection of trees and shrubs. Farrand recalled: “My friends looked upon my studies as mild mania, but they have learned now to regard them seriously.” As Farrand’s career grew, Frederick Law Olmsted dismissed her as a “dabbler.” Farrand was the only female among the 11 original founders of the American Society of Landscape architects in 1899.
Although her patrons were the rich and famous, she was an early advocate for public spaces. Her work on John D. Rockefeller’s massive project, that became Maine’s Acadia National Park, is testament to her sensitivity of the natural ecology and attention to construction detail. No substantial repairs, in nearly one hundred years, have been required on the approximately 50 scenic miles of packed gravel roads.
My familiarity with Farrand’s work has come, primarily, from visits to Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks on nearly every visit to Aunt Rose, who lived a short walk away.
The magic of Farrand and Miller
There is a personal coincidence between Beatrix Farrand’s Dumbarton Oaks and Lynden Miller’s makeover of Central Park’s Conservatory Garden. Lynden spent happy childhood days wandering around Dumbarton Oaks, but during the documentary I realized these are two of very few gardens anywhere that pull off a rare magic trick, more often encountered in nature.
I garden for those rare moments that combine beauty, curiosity and awareness with a random and unpredictable, explosive calming, that may last for only a few moments but will sidetrack every distraction around me.
These designs are inspired, the horticulture is terrific, but most important, the gardens exist because Beatrix Farrand and Lynden Miller ignored everyone who said they were wasting their time.
Photos, except where noted, provided by Bullfrog Films.
Individuals can stream the film from OVID.tv at https://www.ovid.tv/videos/beatrix-farrand-s-american-landscapes
BEATRIX FARRAND is available for in-person or virtual community screenings from Amazon Prime or from Bullfrog Communities at https://www.bullfrogcommunities.com/beatrixfarrandsamericanlandscapes
Allen, with this piece, you took me on a lovely journey where I met artistic generous souls and creative spaces that I am inspired to further explore. Thanks for opening this window. Carol
I love the expression “explosive calming” – you’ll nailed that fleeting but beautiful feeling. Thank you for a great post – I’ll be watching this one soon. – MW
I visited Dumbarton Oaks last time I was in DC, partly to see the beauty and originality of the garden and also to pay my respects to their fellowship program that has made valuable contributions to horticultural history and design.
Your beautiful and thoughtful description on the history of these women in American Horticulture is wonderful. Would love to see this documentary. Decades of strollers and gardeners have appreciated their beautiful naturalistic designs probably without giving any thought to how they came about.
What a lovely tribute and an appreciated recommendation for the film. Reading it was calming. I look forward to the film. Thank you.
Fabulous, informative and so well-written. Kudos, Allen.
I too was at that movie that night and thought it was outstanding ! I knew nothing about her and came away with great admiration ! I even asked The Speed Art Museum if they could bring it back again . They are working on it but also informed me that it can be purchased online.
Thank you for bringing this remarkable woman to our attention. Embarrassing that l’d never heard of her. Ms.Miller is very impressive too!! We streamed the movie and learned a lot. Well done.
Did you mean Maine’s Acadia National Park not forest? The carriage roads I know are in the park. It truly is a remarkable place. Unfortunately, it is being “loved” to death by too many visitors who go to only the highlights and leave trash, etc. It’s a dilemma in many national parks. The Thuya Gardens and the Asticou Azalea Garden are also lovely places to visit. It’s sad that Ms. Farrand dismantled her garden and home, Reef Point but many of the plants were transferred to Asticou and Thuya so a little bit lives on in descendants of those plants. Change is one thing we can always count on in gardens.