Beatrix Farrand Documentary

March 17, 2020

Text by Tovah Martin

Anne Cleves Symmes always wanted to make a film documentary of Beatrix Farrand. The trailblazing landscape gardener behind projects as diverse as the blowsy formal beds at Connecticut’s Harkness Memorial State Park, the natural plantings along the carriage roads in Maine’s Acadia National Park, and the tree-swaddled campus at New Jersey’s Princeton University fascinated Symmes, who is the education director at the Beatrix Farrand Garden Association in Hyde Park, New York.

Her filmmaker husband, Stephen Ives, agreed. But he couldn’t quite find a way into the project. With only archival stills of Farrand, who lived from 1872 to 1959, and no moving footage, the couple were at a roadblock when they attended Lynden B. Miller’s 2015 lecture “Beatrix Farrand as Mentor.” Miller—the designing dynamo responsible for restoring the derelict Conservatory Garden in Central Park as well as numerous other important projects throughout New York City and the East Coast—traced the influence and inspiration she gleaned from Farrand’s work. When Symmes and Ives left the lecture, the filmmaker turned to his wife and said something akin to, “She’s our conduit.” That’s when Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes was launched.

This is not your usual dry documentary. This is a work of art chronicling the intersection between garden history and now. We’re talking a deftly researched script tracing Farrand’s evolution from her New York City socialite roots to her courageous horticultural education shadowing Arnold Arboretum’s first director, Charles Sprague Sargent, at a time when women were emphatically not admitted into the field.

Filming for the documentary encompassed three years and features sparkling cinematography by frequent Ken Burns collaborate Buddy Squires. Narrated by Miller, the film brings Farrand’s work to life through the lens of her still-flourishing landscapes. Meanwhile, Miller explains the unique quality that allowed Farrand to shine in a domain previously dominated solely by men. Ultimately, she chalked up 200-plus important landscape commissions during her career.

“Most landscape architects focused on hardscape,” Miller explains, “but Beatrix Farrand used plants. And she was wonderful with color.” That arresting visual impact prompted Miller to follow in Farrand’s footsteps.

The film easily makes the leap between yesterday and today. But brilliantly, it also advances into the future. One of the most moving moments comes when the camera eavesdrops on Miller as she shares insights with Green Teen students. Green Teen is the program Symmes spearheaded eight years ago to expose students in Beacon, New York, public schools to the possibilities in horticultural career paths.

“The kids really get Farrand,” Symmes says. “When they learn about the barriers she was battling in a man’s world, they can relate.”

In the segment, the students walk Miller through designs they created based on Farrand’s concepts of spatial relations and color harmonies. Their insights deeply impress the seasoned landscape designer, giving her hope that another generation of talent is sprouting.

Great garden design continues to grow. Time and again, Miller has been called in to update and reinterpret, redefine plantings, and render Farrand’s gardens more relevant. Invariably, she dips into the past, bringing gardening’s roots into the here and now. As a result, we can all relate.

Editor’s note: Check for screenings of the documentary.

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