Home and Garden: Best Landscaping Pioneer
Long forgotten, the late Ellen Louise Payson of Portland is reclaiming a place in the pantheon of great landscape architects.
The dry remains of Ellen Louise Payson’s once fertile career as a landscape architect reside for posterity in file drawers on the balcony of the Fogler Library Special Collections room on the campus of the University of Maine in Orono. The 525 drawings, plans, diagrams, blueprints, and photographs detail some seventy Payson projects, largely executed during the 1920s and 1930s in the most affluent communities of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut — as well as a handful in Maine, Massachusetts, and Missouri. Discovered in a box beneath a bed in her Portland home after she died in 1977, the large, yellowed, transparent sheets of vellum are elaborate schema that suggest an artist painting with flowers, applying a palette of phlox, delphinium, astilbe, hollyhocks, irises, crocuses, jonquils, and roses to neatly circumscribed borders of walks, drives, and walls.
Spreading the plans out on library tables and reading the careful, skillful way Payson laid out her borders — how she penned in each little bed of flowers with their Latin names — you get a sense of a woman who saw the grounds of mansions as canvases on which to create. While it is hard to imagine the natural beauty of these long ago gardens from the colorless drawings and planting plans, it is harder still to assess the importance of a landscape designer whose work has mostly vanished, or, where it still exists, graces the private domains of the privileged few. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.
The name Louise Payson is nowhere near as well-known today as it was prior to World War II, but over the past decade scholars have begun to debate her place in the annals of American landscape architecture. Opportunities for women to distinguish themselves professionally were relatively limited in the first half of the twentieth century, but, in addition to teaching and nursing, one of the fields open to women was landscape architecture. Many of the best-known women in landscape design were the daughters of prominent families whose exposure to upper class tastes, ability to travel, and entrée to society suited them especially well to designing the lavish grounds and gardens of aristocratic estates.
Beatrix Jones Farrand, a Bar Harbor summer resident celebrated for her Rockefeller gardens on Mount Desert Island and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., was by far the most famous of these designing women. Still, Louise Payson, born into one of Portland’s wealthiest families, was also regarded in her time as one of America’s preeminent landscape and garden designers. In 1933, when she was just thirty-nine, House & Garden named her to its Hall of Fame along with five other women whose esteem has wilted with time — Agnes Selkirk Clark, Annette Hoyt Flanders, Rose Greely, Romney Spring, and Ellen Biddle Shipman.
House & Garden cited Payson “for the soundness with which she applies to her gardens the principles of landscaping and architecture learned at Lowthorpe and Columbia and for the sympathetic feeling for varying material which her work always shows.”
Like Farrand, Louise Payson was known for her complex and detailed use of plant materials and for her hardscapes of walls and terraces. And while male landscape designers often distinguished themselves more on the drawing board than in the garden, Payson, like many in the sorority of designers who flourished during the so-called golden age of female landscape architecture between 1890 and 1940, was also a gardener who enjoyed getting her hands dirty. Being a Maine woman with roots in a state beloved by well-heeled rusticators may have given her the earthiness that defined her reputation.
Ellen Louise Payson was born in Portland in 1894. Her father, Edgar Robinson Payson, owned the Portland Water Company. When his business was acquired by the Portland Water District, he joined his brothers Charles and Herbert in the family investment banking firm.
As a girl, Louise Payson attended the Waynflete School in Portland and the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts. Because her mother died when she was only four, Louise was largely raised by her Aunt Jeannette Payson and her aunt’s companion, Annie Oakes Huntington, a botanist with an expertise in trees.
Perhaps influenced by Huntington’s botanical interests, Payson enrolled at the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening and Horticulture for Women — a professional school created on an old estate in Groton, Massachusetts because Harvard’s landscape program did not yet admit women. Upon graduation from Lowthorpe in 1916, Payson went to work for her Lowthorpe mentor, landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman, a Philadelphia woman with offices in Cornish, New Hampshire, and New York City. Shipman hired only Lowthorpe grads, making her studio on Beekman Place in Manhattan an all-female firm.
In 1927, Payson, who had risen to become second-in-command, left Shipman’s employ to open an all-women landscape practice of her own on East 48th Street. Among her major commissions were the grounds of the Manhasset, New York, estate of her cousin Charles Shipman Payson and his wife Joan Whitney Payson, owner of the New York Mets; the John P. Kane mansion in Locust Valley, New York; the Maynard S. Bird estate in Fairfield, Connecticut; and, closer to home, the Ogunquit summer cottage of Miss Judith Oliver.
Elizabeth Igleheart, a landscape historian with the National Park Service who wrote the Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Maine entry on Payson, believes Payson’s gardens qualify her as “a major player in a very small pantheon of women designers in that era.”
“Payson’s design work,” says Igleheart, “was very much influenced by Ellen Biddle Shipman — small scale, enclosed gardens of herbaceous materials primarily. She was a very competent garden designer who worked very much in the style of Ellen Shipman, even to the point of how she organized her drawings.”
As her archives in Orono show, Payson, like Shipman, distinguished herself by including three-dimensional renderings of garden elements on her plans to show clients what they would look like. And, ever the green thumb, Payson also adopted Shipman’s habit of including horticultural notes on her plans, explaining how to maintain the gardens so they would have the proper look.
“Cut back aguilegas [probably meaning aquilegias, or columbine] after flowering to allow Japanese anemones to develop. Cut back oriental poppies as soon as leaves begin to turn yellow and stake Gypsophila paniculata [baby’s-breath] to lean forward and cover space occupied by poppies.”
Between 1927 and 1941, Payson’s firm thrived on creating elegant little gardens for the gentry of the Northeast, but, after World War II, it was almost as though Louise Payson had fallen off the Earth.
“Why did Louise Payson slip into obscurity?” asks Elizabeth Igleheart rhetorically. “Because she stopped practicing after the war and came back to Maine.”
In truth, Payson’s retirement to Maine was longer than her career in New York. She closed her New York office in 1941 at the outbreak of World War II and moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where she did her part for the war effort by working in the Eastern Aircraft plant. In 1944, she volunteered as a relief worker in Lisbon, Portugal, reportedly using some of her inheritance to help pay for refugees to flee to America.
At war’s end, Payson came home to Maine, moving into the family home at 83 Carroll Street in Portland where she lived with her brother Robert Payson, a retired investment banker. In 1953, she purchased a hundred-acre farm on Inkhorn Brook in South Windham in order to have a place to garden.
Though her commercial career effectively ended after the war, Payson continued her design and garden work in Maine, often providing plans and plantings for friends and family members. The landscaping she created for her cousin Margaret Payson’s Heron House and the Robinson family property at Waites Landing on Falmouth Foreside exists to this day. Rather than charging for her services, Payson asked her Maine clients to make contributions to some of the local organizations she supported, among them the Colonial Dames, Victoria Mansion, Longfellow Garden Club, Maine Audubon Society, and the Sweetser School.
Late in life, Louise Payson spent much of her time tending the extensive vegetable and flower gardens she planted on her Windham farm, chief among them a sunken garden planted in an old stone cellar hole. A tan, feisty woman with unruly gray hair, Miss Payson favored jeans and khakis, checkered shirts, Bean boots, and garden hats for her farm chores — and just about everything else she did. And it was this down-to-earth Mainer, not the accomplished New York landscape architect of the 1930s, who is remembered now by those who knew her.
To her nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews, she was just Aunt Louise. They knew she was a master gardener, quick with a sharp rebuke for missteps in the garden (“If you want to prune it that way, you’ll kill it.”), but her illustrious past was lost even on her family.
“My family is scientific and medically inclined,” explains Dr. Hugh Robinson, Payson’s nephew. “Louise was inclined towards the arts. We didn’t appreciate her talents.”
In June 1977, while on a Mediterranean cruise with a relative, Louise Payson suffered a heart attack at sea and died at the age of eighty-two. Her death was everywhere described as “unexpected” as she remained vigorous and active until the end. It was not until Dr. Robinson and his wife, Patricia, donated Payson’s papers to the University of Maine twenty-two years later that the landscape architecture profession began to rediscover her.
In October 2007, at the twelfth National Conference on Planning History, Daniel Krall, an associate professor in the department of landscape architecture at Cornell University, delivered a paper on Payson entitled “The Making of a Landscape Architect.”
“Almost forgotten today,” declared Krall, “Louise Payson should be remembered as one of the outstanding group of women landscape architects who created designs of superb quality and unmatched beauty in the early decades of the twentieth century.”
“The unique thing regarding Louise Payson as a female landscape architect,” says Daniel Krall, “was that she was influenced entirely by women, in her upbringing, her early influences, her academic work, and then in her professional work. I know of no other individual in the group of female designers who shared so many female influences.”
The great irony is that the golden age of women landscape architects passed after World War II because of coeducation. When Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) began admitting women, the Lowthorpe School closed and the all-women Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture merged with Rhode Island School of Design.
“After the war, women were admitted to the Harvard GSD,” explains historian Elizabeth Igleheart. “They didn’t have the single-sex education opportunities anymore, and they didn’t have the mentoring of women like Ellen Shipman.”
As to why the fame of Beatrix Farrand lived on while the name of Louise Payson was forgotten, Igleheart suggests, “It is a matter of scale that separates Farrand from Payson.”
Farrand not only created more than twice as many gardens (two hundred) as Payson (seventy) over a much longer career, she was also, unlike Payson, an influential teacher. And she designed many large public projects, among them the planting scheme for the carriage roads in Acadia National Park and the landscaping of the Princeton and Yale campuses. Louise Payson worked at a much more intimate scale, mostly for private clients.
Living in Maine may also have limited Payson’s reputation, contributing in its remoteness to her low profile after World War II. “A lot of people were doing work on high-end estates, but they were from Boston and New York,” says Yarmouth landscape architect David Melchert, who was instrumental in the Payson papers coming to Orono. “She was in Maine. She was a true Mainer, both culturally and within the field of landscape design.”
So it is fitting that Louise Payson’s name lives on in Maine, not only in the University of Maine’s Special Collections department, but also in the Ellen Louise Payson Landscape Horticulture Scholarship given each year at the Bangor Garden Show in April.
And there is one other measure of Payson’s local renown — her signature golden chain trees. Payson liked to place a golden chain (laburnum) in the corner of a yard where its brilliant yellow flowers might burst forth over a fence or wall. Elizabeth Igleheart says she sees golden chain all over Falmouth Foreside in the spring and thinks of Louise Payson whenever she does. That’s enough immortality for any landscape architect or gardener.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem