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Dissertation: "Women as Force in Landscape Architecture, 1893-1942"
Thaisa Way, Student ASLA

School of Architecture, Art, & Planning, Cornell University
Advisors: Leonard Mirin, Daniel Krall, ASLA, and Herbert Gottfried


Narrative Summary:

Project Title: A Dissertation on “Women as Force in Landscape Architecture, 1893-1942”

Women and men from diverse backgrounds practiced the emerging profession of landscape architecture between 1893 and 1942 shaping its form and identity. Their practices reflected the multiplicity of their experiences as nurserymen, painters, engineers, gardeners, and writers. However, traditional historic narratives of designed landscapes in the United States have failed to reveal the complexity and depth of the early profession focusing instead on a narrow canon comprised of men described as if in a trajectory from Frederick Law Olmsted to Thomas Church. While these accounts are not inaccurate, they overlook a critical element in the history, namely, that women as designers, writers, and critics actively engaged in and shaped the discipline at the same time as the practice emerged as a profession. The project presented here, in the form of a dissertation, offers a reading of American landscape architectural history focused on women as “force” in the profession between 1893 and 1942, subsequently revealing a rich diversity of practices during this significant early period.

The year of 1893 saw the World’s Fair in Chicago where the work of Frederick Law Olmsted’s office was lauded as a critical success establishing landscape design as a fine art. The year was marked by the appearance of Mrs. (Marianna Griswold) Van Rensselaer’s, Art Out-of-Doors: Hints on Good Taste in Gardening. This was the first important book for the public in which the emerging profession of landscape architecture was described and defined. Her book remained a part of the education of landscape architects at Harvard and other programs well into the twentieth century. The breadth of practice Van Rensselaer described was embraced by men and women in the following decades as they actively shaped the profession of landscape architecture. Practioners came with a wide variety of backgrounds and training which in turn informed the new profession. Practice between the 1890s and the 1930s was comprised of diverse project types, from private small gardens to campus plans to large public parks to museum landscapes. The wide breadth reflected the porous nature of the profession in its early years.

However, such diverse practices were no longer evident by the mid-1940s when landscape architecture attained its status as a licensed profession. The pedagogy of design was increasingly focused on the skills associated with architecture and engineering. At the same time as landscape architecture was becoming grounded in the professional community, opportunities for women’s participation were being dramatically curtailed and design approaches limited to those within the mainstream of professionals. In 1942 the Cambridge School of Landscape Architecture and Architecture for Women was officially closed and soon thereafter the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture for Women shut down. Within a decade the breadth of opportunities for women’s education and professional participation that had been available earlier became fewer and farther between. Women almost literally dropped from the professional scene in the 1940s and 50s as did many of the practitioners who had approached design with a viewpoint different from those in leadership within the professional association. The period from 1893 to 1942 framed a dramatic growth and then decline in the diversity of practice alongside the opportunities for women in landscape architecture. It is this period that frames the research presented here.

Having established a chronological framework, a method was established. In order to create an area of speculation for this research the inquiry is grounded in the concept of constellations as developed by Martin Jay and Gwendolyn Wright. This approach encouraged a consideration of both how individuals remained distinct and how they shared the experience of being women. Jay used the term “constellation of figures to depict “a specific milieu, at once local, national, and transnational….[drawing] the term from Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno to suggest elements (or people) at once juxtaposed and changing; a definite pattern unit[ing] them but it overlaps with other patterns and has no inherent or totalizing essence.” The idea of constellations allows difference to be discussed in broader terms in order to reveal trends, biases, and influences in the cultural landscape of the profession and the society. The profession chosen by a large group of women can thus be juxtaposed with their experience as women within a specific time period and a shared geography. The shared experiences as female landscape architects are explored both in their differences and similarities to those of male landscape architects. These experiences are understood within the social traditions and structures which place men and women in distinct relationships with social and economic powers through different modes of access to education, training, and authority.

The research for this dissertation focused on two constellations, one within the other. The larger comprises a community of approximately two-hundred women who practiced design, wrote about design, or photographed landscape designs between 1893 and 1942. Building on the work of previous researchers including Catherine Brown, Dorothy May Anderson, Donna Palmer, and Charlene Brown among others, a large assortment of information about these women was collected, from the mention of a project to extensive notes and references. It included women who were members of the American Society of Landscape Architects. as well as those who chose to operate less formal practices. The variety of approaches to practice, by men and women, is impressive. This larger constellation framed the dissertation and established a foundation of descriptive materials.

As a counterpoint to this larger group, a smaller constellation comprises five landscape architects considered successful by contemporary standards. Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950), Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872-1959), Marian Cruger Coffin (1876-1957), Annette Hoyt Flanders (1887-1946), and Marjorie L. Sewell Cautley (1891-1954). The success of these women is reflected in the number of projects completed as well as the breadth of project types. They were recognized by their colleagues as evident in their election to membership in A.S.L.A.. Ellen Shipman, the only one not to become a member, was considered a ‘Dean of Women Landscape Architects’ by House and Garden. These five women represent two generations of landscape architects. Alongside the larger association of women, these practitioners constituted a professional norm and force between 1893 and 1942.

The analysis of the research was divided into three main thematic explorations. The first domain was education and training or tracing how women trained to become, and then practiced as, professional landscape architects. The dissertation argues that how women and men pursued the profession differed and that this difference was necessarily reflected in their respective practices. Thus the ways in which different programs for women’s professional training shaped practice was explored in some depth. The opportunities for women to gain professional education in agriculture colleges and then in specialized schools such as the Cambridge School shaped the evolution of women’s professional practice. In turn, professional women as employers played a critical role in both the development of the field and the training of other practitioners. Most women hired primarily women

Drawn from Gwendolyn Wright, "A Partnership: Catherine Bauer and William Wurster," in An Everyday Modernism : The Houses of William Wurster, ed. Marc Treib (San Francisco, Calif., Berkeley: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ; University of California Press, 1995).



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