Groundbreaking at theNew York Botanical Gardens


By Sarah Rafson Botanical gardens aren't all about whimsey, fancy and flower-sniffing, it turns out. The New York Botanical Gardens throws some grit into the story of their elegant heritage by highlighting some determined and talented women who pioneered as landscape architects and designers of the grounds. Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and The Women Who Designed Them is an exhibition and interactive experience on view this summer through September 7 (UPDATE: CLOSING SOON!) that brings the history of women as pioneers in the landscape movement to the forefront, profiling six figures at the turn of the century who through design, photography and patronage shaped the Victorian landscape as we (sometimes nostalgically) know it today.

Beatrix Farrand's preparatory sketch for the Moon Gate wall at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine. Beatrix Jones Farrand Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

The exhibition is more than just a good historical lesson, and excellent Sunday excursion from the city, but a great example of public programming that expands conventional images of women and gardens. Not women in pastels painted wandering through a Renoir painting, not keepers and caretakers, but women who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable during their era and built enduring legacies. Beatrix Farrand was certainly a highlight in this regard; curators were sure to include anecdotal information about Farrand's discomfort with the effect of "Mrs." on her professional brand as she became the only woman and founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, eventually designing over 110 gardens throughout the Northeastern U.S. during her career.

Thank you, then, to the New York Botanical Gardens for presenting a public program that extolls the value of landscape architecture and the design professions to an unwitting public, and for reminding those of us already in the professions that we have great paths to follow.