Pioneering garden designer Ellen Shipman impacted WNY

Shipman gardens at Graycliff in Derby NY
Ellen Biddle Shipman Photo courtesy Graycliff
portrait of garden designer Ellen Biddle Shipman
Ellen Shipman in the early 1920s at her home in New York City. Photo courtesy Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

by Connie Oswald Stofko

She was known as the greatest garden maker in America.

Ellen Biddle Shipman “trained herself in her own garden for 15 years, which so many of us can identify with,” said Rebecca Allan, garden designer.

By 1910, Shipman was becoming prominent as a landscape designer—in a field dominated by men—and made an impact throughout her 40-year career.

“She broke barriers to become a successful garden designer,” Allan said, “and she was a mentor to a younger generation of female horticulturists.”

“She was a divorcee with three kids who had to create her own career,” said Patricia O’Donnell, Landscape Architect and founder of Heritage Landscapes LLC. Shipman was a pioneering woman in landscape design—and business. “She was a very interesting lady.”

And, of course, there were her gardens, where she used native plants in her “painterly” designs. Many of her gardens have been lost, but Shipman’s designs are being revitalized at Graycliff in Derby.

Find out more about Shipman during an event organized by Graycliff.

Evening devoted to Ellen Shipman

“Orchestrating the Landscape: Ellen Shipman’s WNY Gardens” will be held by Graycliff at 5 p.m. Thursday, May 11.

This special evening will take place at the elegant Twentieth Century Club of Buffalo, 595 Delaware Ave., Buffalo. The club is one of the oldest private women’s clubs in the United States.

The event will feature two lectures.

Rebecca Allan, painter, garden designer and founder of Painterly Gardens in the Bronx, will speak on Shipman’s work in Western New York.

Patricia M. O’Donnell, PLA, FASLA, AICP, will speak on the genius of Shipman. O’Donnell, a Buffalo native, worked with Graycliff in 2008, creating the report for the revitalization of Shipman’s gardens.

Tickets include a cocktail reception with hors d’oeuvres and cash bar. Get tickets here.

garden designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman in Buffalo New York
This private garden in Buffalo designed by Ellen Shipman in Buffalo was recently revitalized by Rebecca Allan, garden designer. It is still a private garden. Photo courtesy Rebecca Allan

Shipman gardens in WNY & beyond

Shipman collaborated with some of America’s most prominent architects at the time, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Platt and Warren Manning.

Graycliff’s landscape was designed by Wright, but owner Isabelle Martin wanted more gardens than he could give her, O’Donnell said, “so she called in the best garden maker in the country—Ellen Biddle Shipman.”

Shipman was known for her painterly approach to garden design. She used her artistic talent to put color and textures together with a sequence of blooms throughout the season.

“She promoted the kind of garden we all still want,” O’Donnell said.

Shipman jammed a lot of plants into the gardens to get that succession of blooms, and it took a lot of hands to keep it looking wonderful.

“Her approach was very heavy maintenance,” O’Donnell said.

Shipman designed more than 600 gardens across the United States, primarily private gardens, Allan said. At the time that Shipman worked on the Graycliff gardens, Graycliff was the summer home of Darwin and Isabelle Martin.

In Western New York, Shipman also designed a garden in Chautauqua for Mina Miller Edison, wife of the inventor Thomas Edison. That garden was recently replanted according to her 1922 plans and offers public tours. A Shipman-designed garden on Oakland Place in Buffalo has been revitalized by Allan; that is still a private garden.

“It’s almost like there’s a little trail of her gardens that we’re literally digging up,” Allan said.

Revitalizing these historic gardens is an idea that grew out of Earth Day, O’Donnell said. People became aware of natural areas in other parts of the world, “then thought, ‘Wait! We have those areas right here! The parks!'” she said.

Visionary people looked at preserving the Olmsted Park System in Buffalo. Created in 1869, it was the first park system in the United States. As a graduate student in 1979, O’Donnell made the first inventory of the parks.

The Olmsted Parks are “an incredible legacy,” O’Donnell said. “Saving unique gardens are part of the same idea.”

Drawing by Ellen Biddle Shipman for member of Knox Family
Ellen Shipman designed gardens for well-to-do families. This drawing is for a garden vignette for Marjorie Knox Campbell and her husband Hazard Campbell, circa 1931. Photo courtesy Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

3 Comments on “Pioneering garden designer Ellen Shipman impacted WNY

  1. It would be spectacular to restore the EBS gardens in WNY, including that at Ess Kay (Knox) Farm in East Aurora.

    Imagine the garden tourism that could result (on top of WNY’s already-vibrant garden tourism).

  2. Thank you for communicating this interesting treasure for those of us unaware of Ellen Shipman! I definitely want to see these places and attend the lecture.

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