Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
In 1999, just after finishing my term as chair of the American Horticultural Society and moving to Florida, Robin Karson gave me a copy of The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman. I was surprised to find Arthur Cummer, once a prominent resident of Jacksonville, on the client list. Fascinated by the idea that Shipman may have worked on the grounds of the Cummers’ home (which had become the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens), I ordered a set of original plans from the Shipman archives at Cornell University. Comparing the dimensions of the museum’s garden against the plans, I was thrilled to discover that they matched perfectly. The next six months were spent researching the extensive plant palette described in the historic plans.
Newly discovered photos in the family archives also provided invaluable guidance in the project to restore the Italian Garden to its original condition. In addition to rebuilding brick walkways and crumbling walls, the Museum’s efforts focused on restoring the centerpiece of the garden, a large marble fountain purchased by the Cummers during a 1930 tour of Italy, the same trip that had inspired the creation of this garden. The new fountain was recast by Marble Studio Stagetti in Pietrasanta, Italy, using old photos, drawings, and molds of the original. In time, the historic garden’s beds were replanted using horticultural species that replicated as nearly as possible those in the original plans.
As the restoration of the Shipman garden progressed, our exciting discoveries gradually stimulated the rejuvenation of the entire museum grounds. Subsequent research revealed that in 1903, Ninah Cummer had commissioned the Chicago-based landscape architect Ossian Cole Simonds to lay out a landscape plan for their newly-built home, decades before Shipman’s work there. Further developments occurred in 1910 with the creation of the Wisteria Garden (now known as the English Garden), designed by the prominent Philadelphia nurserymen Thomas Meehan and Sons. Charles Beveridge, the foremost authority on Frederick Law Olmsted, visited the Cummer and confirmed that the family had hired Olmsted Brothers during two separate years, 1922 and 1931, for improvements to yet another part of the grounds.
By then landscape restoration fever had taken hold, and the staff’s attention turned to the task of unifying the disparate garden areas into a cohesive museum campus. This work was carried out over several years with assistance from the distinguished Belgian landscape architect François Goffinet. As a result of these restorations, the landscape of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens again bears the imprint of some of the country’s finest landscape architects, leading to a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. You might say that the groundbreaking book published by LALH in 1996 served as the catalyst for the preservation of all these important early twentieth-century gardens.
—Carolyn Marsh Lindsay, former president, American Horticultural Society
Postscript: The Cummer Museum gardens suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Irma in September of 2017. During the storm, the lower tier of the three formal garden spaces was submerged for more than twenty-four hours, which resulted in the uprooting of plants, a detached railing along the river, broken lighting, and salinization of the soil. Much of the physical infrastructure of the gardens was compromised, including drainage, electrical systems, fencing, and the well that services the landscape. The museum selected the award-winning landscape architecture and planning firm WLA Studio, based in Atlanta, Georgia, to guide a restoration process that incorporates principles of sustainability at every level of stewardship. When these beloved gardens are reopened to the public, they will benefit from a forward-looking maintenance and management plan that preserves the gardens’ original intent and historic character.
Read more about Shipman’s gardens in our forthcoming book Ellen Shipman and the American Garden.