A woman with an impressive list of firsts, Beatrix Jones Farrand left her enduring style and artistry on four Connecticut gardens—only a fraction of the renowned spaces she created in America. Farrand is regarded as one of the foremost women in landscape architecture, a term she didn’t care to use, preferring “landscape gardener” as her identifier.
Farrand excelled in a predominantly male-dominated industry, an achievement even more impressive because she had no formal academic training in this profession. Her artistic talent flourished and bloomed under the tutelage of Charles Sprague Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and grew even more through her visits abroad in 1895 to study the finest gardens in Europe. Farrand’s admiration for such notables as Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson further fueled her desire to create the most beautiful gardens possible.
What were some of those “firsts” in Beatrix Farrand’s life? At the age of 26, Farrand was the only woman founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects; she was the first-ever salaried Consulting Landscape Gardener at Yale University in New Haven, a position she held for 22 years. Additionally, she won the New York Botanical Garden Distinguished Service Award in 1952, and held honorary degrees from Yale University and Smith College. She was inducted posthumously into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014.
Farrand became one of the most sought-after designers of her time. She designed more than 200 gardens, including the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at New York Botanical Gardens; Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.; the Beatrix Farrand Garden Bellefield in Hyde Park, New York; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine; and, the gardens and Marsh Botanical Garden at Yale University in New Haven. She designed gardens for First Ladies, and Washington National Cathedral, as well as for dozens of private estates throughout the country.
Working with native plants and the natural conditions of the garden, Farrand created exquisite designs that endured for decades. But as society grew and tastes changed, the inevitable decline of the formal garden came about. Such was the case with her four gardens in Connecticut; but the perseverance of conservationists, historians, and avid gardeners have brought each one back to life. From crumbling foundations and sad expanses of weeds, the two Farrand gardens of Eolia Mansion at Harkness Memorial Park, and the sunken gardens at Hill-Stead Museum and Promisek (Three Rivers Farm) are in their glory again. Additionally, all the garden landscaping for Yale University in New Haven is the vision of Beatrix Farrand.
Eolia at Harkness Memorial State Park, Waterford
Edward S. Harkness met Farrand through her husband, Max, chairman of the Yale history department and a chairman of Harkness’s family foundation, the Commonwealth Fund. In 1918, Harkness and his wife, Mary, commissioned Farrand to design a garden—or rather, redesign a turf tennis court—to showcase their collection of Asian sculpture at Eolia, their magnificent Renaissance Revival mansion on Long Island Sound. The result was so spectacular that the Harknesses commissioned the redesign of yet another garden on the west side of the mansion. This garden expanse originates at an Italianate teahouse and pergola swathed in wisteria, sweeps down pathways past billowing flowers and foliage, then through the stone wall to green lawn and on to the sea.
When Eolia was willed to the state in 1950, the gardens fell into depression. No funds were available to maintain them and, by 1980, they were no longer recognizable. To the rescue in 1992, the Friends of Harkness Memorial State Park and the state set about retrieving this priceless treasure. The story of this resurrection is on the park website, but the interesting point is the reconstruction of Farrand’s original design and plantings—“a real piece of detective work,” as described in a printed interview by Susan Whalen of DEEP. Today, the Farrand gardens at Eolia are a magnificent sight to behold, especially when knowing a little about the woman who designed them.
Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington
In the gently rolling countryside of Farmington, Farrand’s touch graces a Mt. Vernon-inspired farmhouse once owned by Theodate Pope Riddle, the first woman architect to be licensed in both Connecticut and New York. Around 1912, Riddle asked Farrand for a redesign of the sunken garden on the property, but then Riddle never acted on it. In 1946, she passed on and the property became a museum—still without a garden.
Thirty-eight years later, two local garden clubs moved forward with plans to recreate the gardens at the museum. Through what can only be considered serendipity, someone on the board found a notation about the Farrand garden plan being part of an archive at the University of California at Berkley. The group sent for the plans and constructed the sunken garden according to Farrand—who never saw the actual garden.
Promisek at Three Rivers Farm, Bridgewater
At the confluence of the Housatonic, Shepaug, and Pook rivers, another of Beatrix Farrand’s gardens graces the former Three Rivers Farm, once the estate of a noted New York neurologist and poet, Dr. Frederick Peterson. The elegant walled garden was designed in 1921 and reflected the style and beauty of Farrand’s work at that time—the peak of her popularity. As with so many large estates, the property passed to family, then other owners until it became impossible to maintain and fell into ruin.
In 1977, on the verge of being subdivided into 70 building sites, the property was rescued by a group of Bridgewater residents with the intention of creating a charitable land preserve. Through the next 20 years, the land and buildings would be restored, and Beatrix Farrand’s beautiful garden design would be resurrected following her actual plans, which are now archived at the University of California at Berkley. Today, Promisek is a place of peace and serenity, and Farrand’s garden is a central part of the experience.
Visit Connecticut’s Beatrix Farrand gardens:
Eolia at Harkness Memorial State Park
Open year round; mansion tours in summer months
275 Great Neck Road
Waterford, CT 06385
Open year round
35 Mountain Road
Farmington, CT 06032
Open on Connecticut Historic Gardens Day (6/24/18); following Sunday concerts; by private appointment.
694 Skyline Ridge Road
Bridgewater, CT 06752