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Secret Gardens of Westchester

Ellen Biddle Shipman ( 1869-1950) at Home on Beekman Place in the 1920s
Garden designer Ellen Biddle Shipman ( 1869-1950) at home on Beekman Place in the 1920’s. (Photo courtesy Nancy Streeter via Judith Tankard.)

Exhausted weekend gardeners take heart! As we plant like crazy trying to create beautiful flower beds and backyard vistas, remember the pioneering garden designers of the past. Like the famous Ellen Biddle Shipman who created not one, but fifty gardens in Westchester alone!

The New York Botanical Garden is currently showcasing Shipman’s work as part of a new exhibit on great American gardens designed by women in the early decades of the twentieth century, including those created by Shipman. Her client list included wealthy east coast families like the Astors, but she also did many small private gardens. She opened her landscape design firm at the age of 51 after her husband left her and her three children. The firm was located on Beekman Place in Manhattan, in a building that is still standing. (It recently sold for more than $10 million.)

In the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s Shipman worked on gardens in Rye, Mamaroneck, Irvington, Peekskill, Katonah, and Bedford Hills, as well as Brewster and Garrison, where her daughter lived. (Reader alert: if you know where any of these mystery gardens are now, please let us in on the secret.)

According to garden historian Judith Tankard, most of Shipman’s local gardens would have totally disappeared. But the 100-acre estate overlooking the Hudson River called Cat Rock, near Garrison, still exists and has been somewhat restored. Its owners, several generations of the Osborn family, hired Shipman in in 1919.

Heirloom hydrangeas at Cat Rock in Garrison, NY.
Heirloom hydrangeas at Cat Rock in Garrison, NY.

It is said that Cat Rock’s name came about as the result of frequent wildcat sightings on the property as far back as the 18th century. Mrs. Osborn who was descended from Supreme Court Justice John Jay and was the great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, was an accomplished artist who worked with Shipman transforming the property to take advantage of its breathtaking views.

Around 2007, visitors say, the garden was being renovated  by current family members . They reportedly saw Shipman’s original blueprints and were able to cultivate some of the older heirloom plants that have endured over the last century, such as hydrangeas. But the property is private so it’s hard to tell what’s there now.

"Groundbreakers" exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden.
“Groundbreakers” exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden.

Shipman seems to have been way ahead of her times. She hired only women–in those days they probably couldn’t get jobs in male-dominated firms. And she took on all sorts of projects — new gardens as well as re-versioned ones — racking up many more commissions than her colleagues. In fact, over the course of her career, she designed an estimated 600 gardens located  all across the country!

By the 1930’s Shipman was generally considered  the “dean of women landscape architects” despite competition from two other contemporary women designers, Beatrice Farrand and Marion Coffin. Although all three women had New York City offices, it seems that they didn’t connect with each other at all.

The work of all three women is featured in the current exhibition called “Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them, ” which runs until September 7.

Joyce Newman
Joyce Newman
Joyce H. Newman is an Emmy Award-winning environmental journalist, educator, and gardener. She holds a Certificate in Horticulture from The New York Botanical Garden, and is a tour guide there.
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