Documentary filmmaker Karyl Evans, who says she “wanted to give voice to women,” found a fitting person to focus on for her latest film, The Life and Gardens of Beatrix Farrand.
Although Farrand is not a household name, she was a pioneer in her profession, the most successful female landscape architect in early-20th-century America. Fortunately, some of Farrand’s work has survived and can still be seen in Connecticut, including at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford and Yale University in New Haven.
Evans, who is based in North Haven, showed her film at the New Haven Museum in late March for an appreciative audience of about 125 people. The museum’s executive director, Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky, told the audience Evans visited more than 60 of Farrand’s gardens, from Connecticut to Maine to California. Many of them appear in the film, which was three years in the making.
Evans began her talk by noting that when she makes a documentary (her previous films include The New Haven Green: Heart of a City and History of African-Americans in Connecticut), “I have no idea what I’m going to discover. You get to discover something that nobody knows.”
Evans, an avid gardener with a degree in horticulture, got the idea for the documentary in 2005 when she met Farrand scholar Diana Balmori at a New Haven Garden Club meeting. Balmori agreed to be interviewed for the film.
The 40-minute documentary follows Farrand’s remarkable life from her childhood in an elite neighborhood of New York to her world travels during which she observed hundreds of gardens, and her years living in Maine, New Haven and California.
Farrand was born in 1872, during an age in which women were not supposed to pursue professional careers. But she had lively role models; her aunt was the novelist Edith Wharton.
Farrand’s parents divorced when she was 10, but she was surrounded by the artistic friends of her mother, Mary Cadwalader Rawle. They spent summers at a house in Bar Harbor, Maine. Landscape historian Judith Tankard says in Evans’ film that the young girl there “fell in love with the beauty of the natural world. She dug up plants in the woods and re-planted them in the yard.”
When Farrand met Charles Sprague Sargent, director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, he encouraged her to seek a career in the exclusively male world of landscape architecture. She studied with him at the arboretum.
In 1895 she hired tutors from Columbia University to learn civil engineering. Then she set up a studio in her mother’s house. She was 23.
But it was difficult for a woman to get clients. Famed public park designer Frederick Law Olmsted dismissively said Farrand was “inclined to dabble in landscape architecture.” She had to rely on her family’s connections in Maine to land her early work.
Evans says that Farrand’s talent helped her get commissions despite the sexism. “When you’re smart and really good at what you do, it carries a lot of respect.”
In the film, Evans acknowledges during her narration that Farrand’s detractors called her “reserved, stern, a perfectionist.” Asked about this after the film’s showing, Evans says, “She probably was a perfectionist. But when you read her letters, you see she was meticulously polite. There was never a cross word. There were plenty of negative things said about her but she was always above it.”
Farrand’s growing reputation enabled her to obtain work designing the outdoor spaces at Princeton University. While there she met Woodrow Wilson and his first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson. After her husband became president, she hired Farrand to design the White House’s East Colonial Garden (now the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden). She also designed the West Garden, which is now the White House Rose Garden.
In 1913, at the age of 41, she married Max Farrand, chairman of the Yale History Department, and moved to New Haven. From 1922 to 1945 she was the landscape consultant for Yale University.
In the film, Balmori says Farrand designed 75 percent of Yale’s campus during that period. Her work could be seen at the Yale Law School, Yale’s Old Campus courtyard, the Yale Divinity School, the garden of the university president, the Yale School of Medicine and at many of the gorgeous courtyards of the residential colleges.
Farrand also designed a 7-acre expanse at Yale’s Marsh Botanical Gardens. Many thousands of people came every year to admire her work there.
But when Evans is asked what remains of Farrand’s achievements at Yale, she replies, “It’s almost all gone. And there’s almost nothing of it left at Marsh. You can see the moats she created around the residential colleges if you walk down the sidewalks of Elm Street.”
During the public-question session at the museum, Evans remarked that there appears to be no acknowledgment, no signposts of Farrand’s contributions, anywhere on the Yale campus. “It would be nice somehow for this woman to be commemorated in some way. I hope something is done.” She thinks her film might help make this happen.
The latter part of the documentary recounts Farrand’s difficult transition in California after her husband was named director of the Huntington Library there. Often she took trains across the country to get back to her work. When he retired they returned to Maine, where she continued her projects.
Here in Connecticut we can see Farrand’s work at Harkness Memorial State Park and at the Hill-Stead Museum, with its sunken garden.
“Harkness is the most spectacular,” Evans says. “It has the largest garden she ever created in Connecticut. It’s breathtaking and overlooks Long Island Sound.”
But Evans adds, “So few people know about her. She’s almost lost to time.” Evans believes that in part through her filmmaking, “People are beginning to recognize her again.”
Evans’ film is scheduled to be screened three times in early May, in New York City, Bristol, Rhode Island, and at the Branford Garden Club on May 3 at 1 p.m. For more information on future screenings or to purchase the DVD ($25), go to beatrixfarranddocumentary.com.