When the sweep of wisteria tracing the Old Quadrangle walls of the Graduate College or on the archway between Henry and Foulke halls lifts your spirits, when jasmine perfumes your walk near McCosh Infirmary or you feel welcomed by the dome-shaped yews coming up from the Dinky station, you have Beatrix Jones Farrand to thank.
Making the campus her canvas, Farrand, Princeton's first consulting landscape architect, created a living artwork using vines, the solidity of trees and the impact of concentrated color as her palette. From 1912 to 1943, Farrand coaxed, dictated, and oversaw the shaping of the University's grounds - from the Graduate College to the main campus, where she favored the sugar maple, the sweet gum, the beech and the tulip poplar.
Later she would go on to transform a dozen campuses, including Yale and the University of Chicago; assist in plantings at the White House; design library grounds for J. Pierpont Morgan in New York and the Huntington in California, embellish private residences, and create her masterpiece - the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C.
Farrand preferred to be called a "landscape gardener" - not an architect - since gardening was an acceptable activity for a woman of her time. She grew up in the Gilded Age society, nurtured by such extraordinary people as her paternal aunt, the novelists Edith Wharton (also an avid gardener) and Henry James, who called young Beatrix "Trix," and was one of several writers in her mother's social circle.
The only woman among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Farrand acknowledged she had an eye for landscaping the way a musician must have an ear for music. That intuition, together with disciplined study, social position and independent income helped the reserved young woman forge her way. There were no schools of landscape architecture. Instead, Farrand served an apprenticeship with Charles Sprague Sargent, founder of Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum, learning botanical names and how to fit a plan to the grounds rather than the other way around. She capped her education with studies of great landscape paintings and several grand tours of Europe's great gardens.
When she was barely 20, Farrand started her business from a room in her mother's New York City brownstone, designing gardens for fashionable residences, including those of John D. Rockefeller and Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge. At the height of her career, she had three offices, in New York, Connecticut (later California) and Maine.
Unlike landscape painting, a living landscape - affected by seasons and the passage of time - requires constant attention. Farrand maintained an ongoing relationship with many clients in order to supervise the changes in her evolving canvas. Several times yearly, she strode through the Princeton Campus looking at every tree and bush and giving specific instructions for pruning, planting and cultivation.
During a dinner engagement in 1913 with the president of Yale, Farrand met her future husband, Max Farrand of the Princeton Class of 1892, then chairman of Yale's history department. On hearing about the rumored romance, Max's sister-in-law went to Princeton to get an undetected look at the landscape gardener in action. After watching "Trix" direct the workmen, she went home to report, "If that lady really wants Max, she'll get him." The couple married that year.
On the Princeton campus, Farrand used native plants and trees, choosing varieties that bloom in spring or fall when the university is in session. She believed in offering the eye beautiful vistas on which to gaze. She explained in the Princeton Alumni Weekly: "We all know that education is by no means a mere matter of books, and that the aesthetic environment contributes as much to growth as facts assembled from a printed page."
Princeton is a very different place from the contained campus Farrand knew, yet her artistry endures. When the yews on Blair Walk failed, they were replaced and remain pruned in the haystack shape Farrand envisioned. The roses at the Graduate College's Wyman House are those Farrand planted, and her concept of that garden, after years of neglect, was restored in the 1970s. A few of the weeping forsythia espaliered on Holder Hall still bloom each spring as do her massed dogwoods at the Graduate College.
"I have all her plans, the articles she wrote," says James Consolloy, Princeton's grounds manager. "She used plantings that could stand the test of time. Every new building we have on campus today has its own architect - and I tell each one of them to read Beatrix Farrand."
Farrand herself, if she walked back on campus, could sit and contemplate her living canvas from the ivy-shaded curved bench installed in her honor next to the University Chapel. The inscription reads: "Her love of beauty and order is everywhere visible in what she planted for our delight."
This profile of Beatrix Farrand, authored by Maria LoBiondo, first appeared in Princeton: With One Accord, Fall 1998.