In her lifetime, Beatrix Farrand would design more than 200 private and public gardens—always with her distinct eye for intricate detail and perfection in execution, and in spite of numerous gender-based barriers to her own success.
Credited with creating an American impressionistic style that was decades ahead of her time, Farrand’s aesthetic made marks not only in her day, but on most modern gardens. She championed the use of native plants, an idea that was not of her era, and later in life founded an organization and school of landscape study in Bar Harbor, Maine, which declared its main objective was “to improve one’s life through the beauty of the natural world.”
Born into a wealthy New York family, Farrand showed an affinity for gardening as a young girl during visits to her grandparents’ estate in Maine. Due to fortuitous family connections, she was able to study under Charles Sprague Sargent at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum; from there, she meticulously observed the gardens of Europe during an intensive four-month educational trip abroad.
Combining these experiences with private tutoring by the Architectural and Landscape Design faculty of Columbia, which would not admit Farrand into its male-only classrooms, she educated herself as professionally as any man—and by her late twenties, she established her own landscape gardening business. In 1899, she was invited to be the only woman among the founding group of the American Society of Landscape Architects, a testament to her talent and influence.
Farrand’s cousin, New York State Senator Thomas Newbold, and his wife, Sarah, employed Farrand to create a private spring and fall seasonal family garden upon remodeling their home in Hyde Park, New York. Her garden, implemented in 1912, served the families who lived there until the early 1970s, when the entire property was donated to the National Park Service and became part of the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. In disrepair for lack of funding and dedicated care, it was rediscovered in the early 1990s, when the non-profit Beatrix Farrand Garden Association was established to restore and maintain the earliest existing Farrand-designed garden at Bellefield Mansion.
It is hard to imagine what it was like for Farrand to work in a male-dominated industry, running her business as a landscape gardener for many years before she even had the right to vote. Because of her gender, she was ineligible for formalized university training, inviting routine scrutiny that her male counterparts weren’t subject to endure, and she was forced to prove her ability through near perfect execution to obtain recognition for her genius talents. While Farrand’s gardens in Hyde Park, New York; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Maine; large portions of the Princeton and Yale campuses; and Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C., one of the great gardens of the world, are still in place, most have been lost to time.
Although Farrand created gardens for the rich and powerful—including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., J.P. Morgan and President Woodrow Wilson—she was also an early advocate for the value of public gardens, and she believed strongly in the power of the natural world to make people’s lives better. And despite the benefit of societal privilege, which provided her with educational and landscape opportunities that otherwise were impossible, it is her brilliance and innovation that has rightfully secured her place in history.
Farrand’s goal to create places where nature can improve one’s life is as timely and valuable today as it was in her day. The Beatrix Farrand Garden at the Bellefield Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is free to the public and open every day from dawn to dusk.
In celebration of Beatrix Farrand’s pioneering spirit and legacy, theBeatrix Farrand Garden Association will host the world premiere of the documentary film Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes on March 15 at The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The upcoming Hudson Valley debut of the film, on June 1 and 2 at the Beatrix Farrand Garden, will include an educational symposium. Learn more here.