Women, Garden Designers, and Landscape Architects

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer
Mariana Griswold Van Renssalaer

Mariana Griswold Van Renssalaer, an important American architectural critic and historian of the late nineteenth century, considered Landscape Architecture to be the first great American art. In her three-part article, "Landscape Gardening," published in American Architect and Building News, Mariana articulated the supreme importance of landscape design in America:
Some of the Fine Arts appeal to the ear, others to the eye. The latter are the Arts of Design, and they are usually named as three-- Architecture, Sculpture and Painting. A man who practices one of these in any of its branches is an artist; other men who work with forms and colors are at best but artisans. This is a popular belief. But in fact there is a fourth art which has a right to be rated with the others, which is as fine as the finest, and which demands as much of its professors in the way of creative power and executive skill as the most difficult. This is the art whose purpose it is to create beautiful compositions upon the surface of the ground.

Whether or not landscape architecture was the first great American art, Van Renssalaer herself was a role model by being a professional woman writing about architecture.

In the Gilded Age, professions in America were forming up for the first time. And because gardening was an "appropriate" hobby for women of the elite classes and an expected activity for middle-class women, the profession of landscape architecture was a seemingly acceptable role for a woman.

At first, gardening was a hobby considered "suitable" for women to be involved with. Women are more "like" nature and the connection to gardening was a natural one. In this way, the stereotypes of what were "acceptable" womens' activities actually "worked" for women in getting them into certain professions in society. Beatrix Farrand stands as the first woman to become a professional landscape architect thereby paving the way for other women to enter the profession as well.

In her work Made From This Earth,Vera Norwood states, "In the early nineteenth century, class divisions developed around what sort of work women did in the garden." The increasing urbanization affected the numbers of women who were actual "gardeners."
In 1869, Catherine Beecher's book The American Woman's Home outlined middle-class "gardening" values for American women. Beecher provided specific information that the middle-class wife should be able to not only use a spade but also able to graft trees. Illustrated concept of gardening as a middle-class endeavor

The garden literature of the nineteenth century was divided by class. In other words, only the women who had the leisure, the means, and the education wrote these garden books. Middle-class women purchased gardening manuals that the upper-class women were writing. Norwood further explicates that the intended audience for these garden books were middle class women. These manuals of gardening suggested:

How they (middle-class suburbanites)might adapt garden styles of wealthy country places to their smaller plots on the urban fringe. Finally, believing that a woman who gardened demonstrated feminine civility, influential garden writers wrote books showing how to accommodate the dominant style to the cramped outdoor spaces of suburban and urban working-class homes.

Though the dominant stereotype in the nineteenth century assumed that only wealthy women with lots of leisure time were the gardeners, this stereotype proved inaccurate. Women from all social classes were gardeners.

Mentors, Schools and Social Connections

Before there were established schools of architecture for women, these women worked under mentors. Like Beatrix Farrand had Charles Sprague Sargent, Ellen Biddle Shipman worked under the architect Charles Platt. Others like Marian Coffin had favorable social connections. Coffin designed the Winterthur estate for the du Pont family.

Three schools of landscape architecture for women started up in the early 1900s. The Cambridge School, the Lowthorpe School, and the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture opened as a response to the demand by women for proper training. The Cambridge School was founded in 1915 by Henry Atherton Frost in Cambridge, Massachusetts.In Groton, Massachusetts in 1901, Mrs. Edward Gilchrist Low started the Lowthorpe School. And in 1910, Jane Haines began the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

Although gardening for women began as an "appropriate" hobby, pioneers like Beatrix Farrand established it as a profession for women.