Beatrix Farrand, Consulting Landscape Gardener

Beatrix Farrand, Consulting Landscape Gardener

Beatrix Farrand, one of the great landscape architects of the 20th century and a path-breaking woman in the field, came to Vassar as Consulting Landscape Gardener in 1925. She is well known for her institutional designs (unusual for a woman at the time); but her important campus work has received scant study, beyond her designs for Princeton and Yale. We undertook to study her designs for Vassar, and figure out what was realized, and what remained.

In conjunction with Art 333, a seminar on gardens and landscape, we invited an important scholar of Farrand’s work, Judith Tankard, to campus to present a Claflin lecture in Spring, 2016. During her visit, we hosted a campus walk of the areas for which Farrand contributed designs. Participants included Karen Strain Smythe and Anne Cleves Symmes of the Beatrix Farrand Garden Association, Jeff Horst (then head of Buildings and Grounds), Jason Scism (Head Gardener), Judith Tankard, and students in the seminar. At the end of the semester, the class visited Farrand’s garden at Bellefield in Hyde Park.

Between Farrand’s archives at Berkeley and a rich trove of surviving materials at Vassar, it was possible to do a fine-grained analysis of her working processes and projects for the Vassar campus; some were partially realized, with surviving traces; others remained on the drawing board. Farrand contributed planting plans for the forecourts of Main Building, and advised on the siting of the Euthenics Quad – comprising Blodgett, Cushing, Kenyon, and Wimpfheimer. Most significantly, she established an arboretum, conceiving it to comprise the entire campus: she mixed formal and informal design elements, and native and foreign species, to create a beautiful setting that would serve the instructional needs of students and faculty –a notion that has come to be central to Vassar’s identity.

Vassar was Farrand’s one opportunity to work at a women’s college, and she came to campus during a significant period for women and landscape, on the grounds and in the curriculum. Chair of Botany and pioneering ecologist Edith Roberts was fostering progressive programs in native plant ecology and landscape architecture – efforts that reformed young women’s training and career prospects, and made Vassar an early center for women and landscape. But all these projects also encountered resistance, so our narrative is one of progressive ideas, both realized and thwarted. The resulting article, published in the Journal of the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in 2019, presents a chronicle and formal analysis of Farrand’s designs within the socio-cultural context of women and landscape at Vassar in the 1920s.

Participants: Yvonne Elet, Virginia Duncan (VC ’16), Anne Cleves Symmes, Karen Smythe (VC ’82), Judith Tankard, Students in Art 333, 2016
Yvonne Elet
Dates: 2016-19