STONINGTON — There are so many reasons to admire the late Beatrix Farrand.
Not only was she was the most successful female landscape architect in the early 20th century — in a field dominated by men — but she attended Harvard and Columbia, opened her own landscape design business in 1895 at the age of 23 and designed gardens for fine homes around the country including the White House, the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn., Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, Conn., and the residential courtyards at Yale.
For filmmaker Karyl Evans of North Haven, Conn., Farrand's determination was what inspired her initially. Then there were all the gorgeous gardens and all the wonderful surprises she discovered about Farrand.
Next week, Evans will show her documentary, "The Life and Gardens of Beatrix Farrand," at La Grua Center in Stonington at a program sponsored by the Stonington Garden Club. The film, the first-ever documentary about Farrand, was recently awarded the Historic Preservation Award from the Garden Club of America, according to Alejandra Welch, co-president of the Stonington Garden Club.
Evans will introduce her documentary and talk about Farrand’s gardens, then respond to questions following the film, Welch said.
"I love the tenacity of Beatrix Farrand," said Evans, "how she set out to compete in a male-dominated profession, started a professional business, and succeeded in her chosen profession against all odds."
Evans, the winner of six Emmy Awards, including for "Letter from Italy, 1944: A New American Oratorio," narrated by Meryl Streep, has spent much of the last three years researching Farrand's life and rediscovering Farrand's gardens. A Fellow at Yale, Evans has been producing and directing video projects for more than 30 years on both the East and the West coasts.
"I really appreciate her understanding of the history of garden design, her knowledge of plants, and her use of native plants," said Evans. "I especially love her espaliered trees where she trained plant material to climb up against building walls to allow more space for people to be in the garden while giving more interest to the overall experience of walking through one of her landscapes."
Evans, who is still researching Farrand, said her interest began about 10 years ago when she visited The Mount, Edith Wharton's turn-of-the-century home in Lenox, Mass. Farrand, it turns out, was a niece of Wharton.
Wharton, the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, could very well have had some influence on her niece. Farrand collaborated with her aunt on the landscape and garden design for The Mount, a National Historic Landmark and cultural center that celebrates the intellectual, artistic, and humanitarian legacy of Edith Wharton, and remains a vibrant cultural center.
Evans said as soon as she visited The Mount, she knew she had to find out more about this extraordinary woman and her gardens.
"It has been unbelievable," said Evans in a phone interview last week. "She was so talented. When you see her work, you see it is so superior."
"It's like reading great literature," she added, "when you look around, you know you are surrounded by greatness."
As for those surprises, Evans said in addition to learning that Farrand was Wharton's niece, she realized that Farrand was born into the Jones family, "the same family where the idiom 'keeping up with the Joneses' comes from."
Another article Evans discovered in her research, describes Farrand "wearing a fur coat and rubber boots on a cold winter's day in Maine, organizing 100 men who working on one of her projects."
Evans said that Farrand's gardens evolved over time.
"In general you could say that her landscape designs complemented the architecture they surrounded," she said. "Her garden rooms were more classic in style and more formal in nature immediately around buildings ... but she liked to design more naturalist gardens farther away from the buildings."
Farrand is credited with designing the campuses of Yale and Princeton using mostly trees and grass so students could use the open spaces on campus for their activities, which became the standard for campus design across the country, Evans said.
Evans, who grew up in a family with a love of science and nature, has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture with an emphasis in landscape architecture and a master’s degree in filmmaking, which made Farrand the perfect subject.
Evans said Dumbarton Oaks, in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., might be Farrand's most famous garden.
"It is magnificent and still feels relevant today," said Evans, "Next would be the Abby Aldridge Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine ... when you enter this garden it is a transcendent experience."
Evans said "The Life and Gardens of Beatrix Farrand," which has been screened for a number of garden clubs across the country and at the Beatrix Farrand Society’s annual meeting in Bar Harbor, Maine, is a survey of the highlights of 200 commissions done by Farrand over her 50 year career as a landscape architect.
"To me she is an inspiration because she was so intelligent and had to fight such prejudice to do the work she was born to do," Evans said.
For more information on Beatrix Farrand and her gardens or the film, check out BeatrixFarrandDocumentary.com.