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Views of Landscape Architecture on Beatrix Farrand’s 150th Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

Her love of beauty and order is everywhere visible in what she planted for our delight.” The words honoring landscape architect Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) are engraved on a bench adjacent to the Princeton University chapel.

Reviewing the 2009 edition of Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect (The Monacelli Press $60), The New York Times Sunday Book Review alerted “English majors” to the fact that the book “does double duty as a companion” to the novels of Farrand’s aunt Edith Wharton, whose friend Henry James knew young Beatrix as “Trix.” An updated edition of Judith B. Tankard’s monograph has been released on the occasion of Farrand’s 150th birthday.

Early Farrand

Farrand was still Beatrix Jones when she sent a letter to the editor of the September 6, 1893 issue of Garden and Forest, observing how “the White Pine makes an excellent background for the Red Oak (Q. rubra), which in spring emphasizes the gray tree bearing its ‘candles,’ as the country children call the new white growth, while in the autumn the Pine retires to its place as foil for the Oak, which is first gorgeous in red and fades into brown as it prepares for winter.” Also mentioned, the “Hemlock and White Ash” are “striking together in spring or fall, and at the turn of the leaf the Scarlet Maple seems ablaze near a group of the White and Black Spruces.” Beatrix ends the paragraph with a flourish that must have impressed Aunt Edith and Mr. James: “the stately Yellow and Paper Birches are noticed in damp places, and the Pitch Pine, clinging like a limpet to an impossibly steep rock, looks like a tree on a Japanese fan.”

At 21, “Trix” clearly not only showed signs of her aunt’s literary abilities, she had the eye of a painter, and would one day envision the owner of a garden as “the leader of an orchestra” who must know “which instruments to encourage and which to restrain.” With the last analogy in mind, you could compare the Princeton campus to a symphony created and conducted by Farrand during her years (1912-1943) as the University’s landscape architect.

Her melodious handiwork included the graduate college, McCosh and Blair walks, Holder courtyard, and Prospect Gardens. An architectural tour of the campus conducted in Princeton University and Neighboring Institutions (The Campus Guide $12.55) finds the rules Farrand established for Princeton’s landscape design “as defining an element of the Princeton style as Collegiate Gothic.” Even after her relationship with the University ended, “succeeding landscape architects and gardeners followed the design and planting principles she laid down.”

Updated Features

Garden Artist, Landscape Architect concludes with a comprehensive list of Farrand’s commissions and the gardens open to the public. It also features a new preface outlining the milestones in research since the first edition’s publication, updated details about ownership and renovations of many properties, and a revised bibliography of articles and books published over the past 10 years. The new edition also contains images that reflect the current state of the gardens, including Garland Farm (Farrand’s last home and garden, which has recently been restored), and Dumbarton Oaks and Dumbarton Oaks Park (which were not included in the first edition), among others.

The High Line

Perhaps because I’ve been missing New York during the pandemic, I went straight to the section on Manhattan’s High Line in Wild: The Naturalistic Garden (Phaidon $59.95) by Noel Kingsbury, with photography by Claire Takacs. It’s painful to be feeling nostalgia for what seemed excitingly new as recently as in 2016. But it’s been three years since my last visit to the city
I love above all others.

According to Kingsbury, the High Line is composed of two communities of plant life: an open, meadow environment, and a sort of mini-woodland one, the first planted “with lots of grasses” and “perennials, which in late summer and autumn can feel quite prairie-like; the second more enclosed, as the architecture closes in and casts some shade,” with small trees like birches and dogwoods dominating, “so there is vegetation on both the tree level and on ‘the forest floor.’”

The Sunday Times Book Review calls Wild a “stunning exploration of one of the hottest trends in garden design, nature-based planting with an eco-aware approach, featuring the work of leading designers such as Sean Hogan, Piet Oudolf, and Dan Pearson.”

High Line, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA. Designer: James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scoficio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf. (Phaidon/Photography by Claire Takacs)

Blooming New York

Charles Waldheim’s Landscape as Urbanism (Princeton University Press $29.95) offers more on the background of the High Line, although it would be worth recommending if only for the epigraph it leads with, from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “There are, in fact, no cities any more. It goes on like a forest.” That fascinating, all too telling metaphor dates from 1955, when Times Square was still a paradise of movie palaces with giant billboards, and the old Pennsylvania Station was untouched. According to Waldheim, New York has been “among the most important venues for the development of landscape urbanist practices,” which began with the election of Michael Bloomberg in 2002. That’s when the city began “a decade of landscape-driven urban development projects of international significance.”

After mentioning the “remediation and reconstruction” of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, “a heavily programmed urban space” with a park “intended to accommodate ongoing development around the perimeter of its site, while absorbing increasing demands for recreation and tourism,” Waldheim moves on to the High Line, which he calls “a more boutique and pedestrian scale of landscape architecture,” made possible by a community organization’s opposition to a plan to abolish “the abandoned elevated freight railway cutting through Manhattan’s lower west side meat-packing district.” The Friends of the High Line funded an international design competition for the site’s redevelopment as an elevated landscape promenade, reminiscent of Paris’s Promenade Plantée.

30 by 30

In Meaghan Kombol’s 30:30 Landscape Architecture (Phaidon $75), 30 of the most renowned landscape architects explore the work of 30 of the world’s top emerging architects. Architecture Today calls 30:30 “a tantalizing glimpse of where the profession may be heading in the future…. Kombol introduces several subtle departures from the standard format that makes this book an altogether more interesting read.”

Along with Catherine Mosbach, George Hargreaves, Martha Schwartz, and Adrian Geuze, 30:30 includes the next generation of designers working in Chile, Mexico, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Spain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

“The Spirit of Place”

Recommended by a colleague, Page Dickey’s book, Gardens in the Spirit of Place (Stewart, Tabor & Chang $35), with photography by John M. Hall, echoes Alexander Pope’s “Consult the genius of the place in all,” whether the subject is an eastern woodland garden on Mount Desert Island in Maine, a Wisconsin farmland garden on Lake Pewaukee, or a garden planted in gravel in Palo Alto, California. The first sentence of Wayne Winterrowd’s foreword expresses the spirit of the book: “When Page Dickey enters a garden, she presents the same enthusiasm she must have felt when, as a child, she made her own first garden out of pebbles and wildflowers in a secret clearing in the woods.”

The Farrand Courtyard

In 2019, Princeton University named the courtyard framed by Henry, Foulke, Laughlin, and 1901 halls — one of the landscapes Farrand helped design — the Beatrice Farrand Courtyard in her honor. The plaque notes that she was the only woman among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

The 150th anniversary of Farrand’s birth and the 110th anniversary of her garden at Bellefield was celebrated in June in Hyde Park, N.Y., with a chamber music concert by the Garden String Quartet. Another birthday celebration took place at Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, on June 26, and featured an appearance by Judith B. Tankard, author of Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect.

A Wharton Landscape

Curious to see how Farrand’s Aunt Edith handled landscapes in her fiction, I sampled Wharton’s Summer (1917), which opens with a view of “the pastures and larchwoods” surrounding a village that “lies high and in the open, and lacks the lavish shade of the more protected New England villages. The clump of weeping-willows about the duck pond, and the Norway spruces in front of the Hatchard gate, cast almost the only roadside shadow between lawyer Royall’s house and the point where, at the other end of the village, the road rises above the church and skirts the black hemlock wall enclosing the cemetery.”

Wharton actually published numerous non-fiction works in the same subject area as her niece, including Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) and Italian Backgrounds (1905). Carmen Pearson’s edition of The Collected Writings of Beatrix Farrand (University Press of New England), which begins with the 21-year-old’s letter to Garden and Forest, was published in 2009 and is available at the Princeton Public Library. Two out of print copies listed on amazon are going for $200 and $281.

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