The Little-Known Women Behind Some Well-Known Landscapes

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This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, which focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux and André Le Nôtre are names nearly as well known as their famous landscapes — Central Park for Olmsted and Vaux, and Versailles for Le Nôtre, the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France.

But what about the women? They have played major roles in a diverse array of landscapes in the United States: Marjorie Sewell Cautley, the landscape architect of Radburn in Fair Lawn, N.J., a New Deal-era planned suburban community based on safety and access to shared parks and open spaces that became a model for projects around the world; Clermont Lee, whose designs revitalized the public squares and gardens of the Historic District in Savannah, Ga.; and Genevieve Gillette, the force behind the multimillion dollar funding for Michigan State Parks, one of the nation’s most robust public systems.

“Women have literally shaped the American landscape and continue to today,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, “but their names and contributions are largely unknown.” For example, Ruth Shellhorn, who created the private gardens of many Hollywood moguls and worked directly with Walt Disney on his park in California, “has been overshadowed,” Mr. Birnbaum said. “At Disneyland today, there’s no recognition of her work.”

ImageMs. Shellhorn at Disneyland, supervising construction. 
Credit…via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The exhibition highlights the stories of the lives of 12 designers and 12 sites (two have multiple locations) that represent a diversity of geography and approach. All properties are at risk — from threats including insufficient funding, deferred maintenance and even demolition — but most are still publicly accessible.

“We’re trying to elevate what these trailblazing women have brought to the table,” Mr. Birnbaum said.

But that recognition has been an uphill battle.

Over all, landscape architecture as a profession is often judged by a different standard than building architecture and other art forms, and parks and gardens are frequently considered natural — grown organically —- but not designed. “When people see a landscape like Central Park, they often think it was an act of God,” Mr. Birnbaum said. “The hand of the landscape architect is often invisible.”

Women have faced further challenges. In the 1800s and 1900s women excelled in garden clubs, civic improvement initiatives and as columnists for their local papers. Landscape architects, though, were also active, said Thaïsa Way, landscape historian at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. “The profession had women early on — before law, medicine and architecture — but there were few women at the big firms, and the ones who were there were pretty invisible,” said Dr. Way, author of “Unbounded Practices: Women, Landscape Architecture, and Early Twentieth Century Design.”

There were exceptions. Beatrix Farrand, the only woman founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (started in 1899), was celebrated for her private estate gardens and design work on campuses like those of Yale and Princeton. In contrast Annette McCrea, who also was active in the late 1800s, designed the landscapes around train stations in small towns throughout the Midwest for four of the major railroad companies at that time, but those sites and documentation about her work are long gone, said Dr. Way.

“One hundred years later,” Dumbarton Oaks, Farrand’s Country Place Era-style garden in Washington, D.C., “is still a stunning work of art,” Dr. Way said. However, Dumbarton Oaks Park, a 27-acre nature-focused public space, originally part of 53-acre Bliss estate, is threatened by storm water runoff problems and funding issues.

Credit…via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Ms. Danadjieva, an 89-year-old Bulgarian, led many urban design and city planning projects with Lawrence Halprin & Associates, including large-scale ones in the 1970s like the Ira Keller Fountain in Portland, Ore., and Freeway Park, perched above Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle.

“The great majority of people never heard her name, but she is one of the unsung heroes,” said Gina Ford, a landscape architect and co-founder of Agency Landscape + Planning. “She really gave shape and form and design expression to those incredible spaces.”

Thomas Polk Park, in Charlotte, N. C., an urban pocket park and fountain, was one of Ms. Danadjieva’s first solo commission;Ms. Ford called it a masterwork of water feature design that is singular in this country.

“It’s just a magnificent monument, a powerful cascade of water, steps, stones, plants, and greenery, sculptural and beautiful,” she said. “All you hear is the rush of the water. When you see people walking by, they are just drawn to it. It has this kind of presence in the city center.”

Ms. Ford said her firm would update the site, which had fallen into disrepair, “but will recognize its history and beauty.”

Because of the growing presence in landscape architecture programs of women, who now outnumber men, but who remain underrepresented in the profession, Ms. Ford co-founded WxLA, a coalition to assist the next generation of women in the work force. “The fact that, over all, women have not been acknowledged as leaders in landscape design makes their work even more precious.”

A smaller location featured is the Lynchburg, Va., home and garden of the Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer, who created and nurtured the garden from the time she moved there in 1903 with her husband Edward, until her death in 1975 at age 93.

“One of the unique things about my grandparents’ garden is the history, the stories,” said Shaun Spencer-Hester, the site’s executive director and curator. Her grandfather, a carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, salvaged items along his mail route that he would turn into arbors, pergolas and benches. The property was a popular gathering spot for leading Harlem Renaissance figures, including Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois, Spencer’s editor, who called it “the shrine.”

Credit…via Anne Spencer House Garden Museum

Guests would stay at the house because the area’s segregated hotels wouldn’t accept people of color, Ms. Spencer-Hester said, although it was not listed in the “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guide first published in the 1930s to help African-Americans travel safely. “It started out as a straight out-of-the-back-door vegetable garden to feed their family and grew into a lush flower garden and a refuge for people.”

After Spencer’s death, the garden became severely overgrown. Though funding remains a concern, it was reconstructed by local garden club volunteers who worked from period photos and other documents.

Other sites have not been as fortunate.

Clermont Lee, one of the first women licensed to practice landscape architecture in Georgia, was successful in modernizing some of Savannah’s historic squares, originally built in the 1700s, by rounding their corners to ease traffic flow before they were demolished or roads were built through them.

But her viewing garden for the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, home of the founder of the Girl Scouts, didn’t have such a positive fate. Earlier this year, “this important, pioneering woman landscape architect’s garden was destroyed,” Mr. Birnbaum said.

“This renovation is a continuation of ongoing efforts to make the site fully accessible for programming and tours,” the Girl Scouts of the USA said in a statement.

“Conservation is more challenging with landscapes than buildings,” said Dr. Way of Dumbarton Oaks. “You’re working with incredibly dynamic material that’s growing and changing every day.” But the work is incredibly important, especially during the pandemic when shared public outdoor spaces have become increasingly popular, she said. “Understanding the history, and being stewards of our public lands are more critical than ever.”

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