Celebrating the Ladies Who Landscape

Posted on 24 May 2011

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By Joan Baum

When Cynthia Zaitzevsky, a historian specializing in architecture and landscape design, agreed to a request some years ago from Robert B. MacKay, the director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), to look into a curious set of findings he and his colleagues had come across about women landscape architects on Long Island, she didn’t imagine how time-consuming but also how rewarding the inquiry would be. Records from 1890-1940 showed that “landscape architecture was one of the first areas in the design field where women really made their mark, and that Long Island had been central to these developments,” with prominent women landscape architects laying out “half of all the gardens.”

Could one reason for this unusual concentration in the golden age of American estates have been the existence then of 1, 931 prominent garden clubs on Long Island, Dr. MacKay wondered. And what kind of women in the late 19th, early 20th century would have entered this field, clearly a male preserve, and why? Of course, an implicit contemporary question would be to ask about the significance of such scholarly findings today, a possible discussion point when Dr. Zaitzevsky, author of the handsome, oversize and generously illustrated Long Island Landscapes And The Women Who Designed Them,” addresses The Meadow Club in Southampton on May 20. Dr. Zaitevsky is also the author of numerous scholarly publications, including the award-winning Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (1982).

In a foreward to Long Island Landscapes, which came out in 2009, Dr. McKay notes that he met the author in the `70s when she was in graduate school at Harvard, and was delighted that she agreed to take on the SPLIA project. In the book’s preface, and in interview, Dr. Zaitzevsky says she was challenged trying to locate materials on some of the women where there were no extant archives, and surprised by some findings. She had expected to find commonalities — “no shrinking violets” among the 18 women featured in the book – six first-generation pioneers, 12 second-generation professionals – but she also discovered they were not as a group necessarily wealthy. Devaluation of currency created conditions in some privileged families that prompted educated and determined women to try to make their own way in the world.

Other patterns became discernible (among them, to judge from birth and death dates, longevity). The first-generation women, each given a chapter, are Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872-1959), Martha Brookes Brown Hutcheson (1871-1959), Marian Cruger Coffin (1876-1957), Ellen Biddle Shipman, Ruth Bramley Dean (1889-1932) and Annette Hoyt Flanders (1887-1946). What the women shared was having a male mentor (if this was a family member, even more to the purpose); being born into a life of privilege and therefore having had educational opportunity; and earning a reputation for producing top-quality work, on Long Island and nationally.

The first-generation women had been studied before but not from the perspective of professionals working on Long Island. Dr. Zaitzevsky also wanted to make sure readers would see the women as women, “see their faces, hear their voices,” and so she included portraits of them and relevant quotations from their writings and interviews. As part of her historian’s perspective, which took her well beyond questions of personality and gender, she also spent time looking at where they studied and compared curricula (the program at MIT differed dramatically from course work at University of Illinois at Urbana, for example). She came away from her research convinced, as was Dr. Mackay, that the “almost meteor-like entrance of women into a new profession” and the expanded opportunities to design estates on Long Island, signaled that in the development of landscape architecture, Long Island would become, as indeed it did, “a microcosm of activity for the country.”

Dr. Zaitzevsky teaches at Harvard’s Landscape Institute and continues to explore a favorite subject, American parks, with a special interest in New York State which boasts strong advocacy groups and a healthy infusion of private funding.

Not incidentally, it should be noted that the Long Island planting-plan drawings augmenting the gorgeous photos in the book are themselves works of art, part of an 18th and 19th century tradition of ink, pastel and gouache works on paper that illustrate formal garden designs, decorative arts and engineering commissions of the past.

Dr. Zaitzevsky’s lecture, “Long island Landscapes And The Women Who Designed Them,” takes place Friday, May 20; 11:30 a.m., lunch 12:30 p.m., The Meadow Club is at 555 First Neck Lane, Southampton All proceeds will benefit the Halsey House herb garden. Lecture $35, Lecture and Lunch $75. The event is being hosted by The Southampton Historical Museum. Call 283-2494 for further information.

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