University of Rochester

EVENT: Rochester's Fletcher Steele Matched Gardens to Each Client's Dreams

May 18, 2004

In gardens designed by Rochester-born Fletcher Steele, historians say his vision of the lyrical and artistic produced landscapes that bridged 19th-century formality and modernism. A biographer of Steele will describe some of his most memorable gardens and will reveal how he achieved those designs at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 10.

Robin Karson, author of the award-winning biography, Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect: An Account of the Gardenmaker's Life 1885-1971, will speak at the 32nd annual meeting and dinner of the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries, which is open to the public.

Karson, executive director of the Library of American Landscape History in Amherst, Mass., has lectured widely on Steele and on American landscape design. Her talk is titled "Dreams and Preferences: The Remarkable Gardens of Fletcher Steele."

"He was unique in his dedication to the notion that gardens can be life-altering works of art, and he was very unusual in his working methods and level of involvement with his clients," explains Karson. "Steele was interested in looking underneath the social façades of the people he worked with. He wrote about wanting to discover what the client's secret dreams were about when he was making a garden."

Steele was known to study his clients' collections and the books on their shelves. When he liked a client, as he did with the late Charlotte Whitney Allen, he delighted in the relationship and often did better work, says Karson. For Allen and her husband living on Oliver Street in Rochester, Steele produced what many consider one of the best small gardens of the 20th century. "It was very idiosyncratic. Charlotte Allen, the primary client, was widely traveled, widely read, outspoken, interested in art herself—but had no interest in flowers," says Karson, a landscape historian. In response, Steele designed a very tailored and geometric garden.

Karson also will describe the grounds of the former home of Nancy and the late Richard Turner on Stony Clover Road in Pittsford as well as other important Steele projects. Karson's book on Fletcher Steele has been newly revised and reissued by the Library of American Landscape History, and is being distributed by the University of Massachusetts Press in paperback. She is also the author of The Muses of Gwinn: Art and Nature in a Garden Designed by Warren H. Manning, Charles A. Platt, and Ellen Biddle Shipman (Sagapress, 1996), and co-editor of Pioneers of Landscape Design, published by McGraw-Hill. Karson is currently at work on A Genius of Place, a book about seven important landscapes of the first half of the 20th century.

Steele, who is considered a major landscape architect of that period, created more than 700 gardens from 1915 to 1971. He lived his early life in Pittsford, was educated at Harvard University, and established his landscaping practice in Boston. His designs are concentrated in the northeastern United States, but he worked as far west as Chicago and as far south as North Carolina. Karson has researched Steele's life at the Library of Congress, where most of his papers are held, at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and at Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester.

Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries is an association of book lovers and patrons who support the library collections as sources for significant study, research, and learning. Tickets for the dinner and talk at the Chatterbox Club in Rochester are $55. For more information and reservations, contact (585) 275-4461.