Ellen Biddle Shipman Garden

Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950)

One who always loved to garden, this famous Landscape architect described her style as ‘painting the landscape with plants and flowers.’ Much of her early inspiration came from her neighbors when her husband and family moved to an up and coming artist community in Cornish New Hampshire. Among those neighbors was the prominent landscape architect, Charles Platt, who took her under his wing and offered her a chance at landscape design. During this time, landscape architecture was one of the few professions open to women. By the 1930s, she had become known as a woman pioneer in this field and called by many “the Dean of American women Landscape Architects.” Her popularity grew, as did her New York City business that employed an all-female workforce. She completed over 650 projects in her lifetime, and her designs—reflecting a unique sense of intimacy, romance and seclusion-- were favorites of well-known families such as Ford, DuPont, and Vanderbilt.  Today few of her gardens remain free and open to the public, but you can visit one right here in your Metroparks at the Manor House at Wildwood Preserve.

  • Born in 1869 in Philadelphia
  • Grew up in Southwest territory
  • Father was a career soldier
  • Educated in New Jersey at an all girl’s school
  • Finishing school in Baltimore
  • Grandmother fostered an interest in gardening
  • Contrasts between western landscapes and eastern flower gardens
  • Married an aspiring playwright, Louis Shipman
  • Moved to Cornish New Hampshire, an artist’s community 

Drafting Designs and Gardens

  • From drafting to construction drawings
  • From construction to garden designs
    • Gardens “shadow” the house
    • Relied on his axial layouts
    • Created strong visual and physical relationships
    • Develop the garden and house as one integrated unit
    • “see her before buying land or seeing an architect” 


  • “Working daily in my garden for fifteen years taught me to know plants, their habits and their needs.”
  • Developed a Colonial Revival layout
    • Quiet simplicity
    • Concept of an outdoor room (hallowed sanctuary)
    • Artists approach to planting
    • “Gardening is a renaissance of the arts” 

Landscape Architecture in the early 1900s

Upper class’s general attitude during this time period was:

  • Artistic devotion to domestic beautification is a sign of good breeding
  • Society pages fostered women’s assumed roles which became a turning point in the profession and established a role for women in Landscape Architecture

First professional training opportunities

  • Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture for women in 1901
  • Pennsylvania School for Horticulture for Women in 1910
  • Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture in 1916 

On Her Own--“Women were needed to refine the profession”

  • Moved to New York City in the late 1920’s
  • Collaborated with Jens Jenson at the Ford estate and Warren Manning at the Sieberling Estate. Both men were well known for their natural landscapes.
  • Ran an all women office for over 35 years
  • Lectures and interviews stressed the importance of women in the profession 

Professional Accomplishments

  • Considered “One of the best, if not the best, flower garden maker in America”
  • Seen as “The dean of American women Landscape Architects”
  • And “One of the leading Landscape Architects of the United States”
  • Clients such as the Fords, Astors, Du Ponts, Sieberlings, Vanderbilts and Stranahans
  • Completed over 650 projects in her career
  • Contrasted her male counterparts by striving to please her clients rather than dictate/educate
  • Her designs possessed a unique sense of intimacy, romance and sensual seclusion
  • She softened hard lines of architectural structures while her male competitors created grand European schemes 

Ellen Biddle Shipman and The Stranahans

  • Began in 1936 by assembling parcels and completing an overall plan of the property
    • Clearing wooded areas
    • Clean the Ottawa River
    • Chestnut rail fence
    • Paddocks for horses
    • Wells
    • Roadways 

Four Plans

  • Four Plans May 1936-August 1936
  • Began by developing a mental image of the garden prior to sketching
  • Typical design vocabulary:
    • Axial approach
    • Brick paths
    • Garden Walls
    • Fruit trees
    • Flanking perennial beds
    • Central fountain 

Final Plan

Contrary to her male counterparts, the horticultural interests of her clients played an enormous role in the design.

“The garden is a portrait of the person and it should express her likes and dislikes”

Manor House possesses a strong axial relationship through the length of the house, framed with archways, terminating at the rear fountain 

Planting Design

  • Borders:
    • Used to focus and narrate the experience.
    • Allowed for intimate interaction with the gardens impacting her female clients emotionally.
    • Textures strong and course, simple and sweet or intimate and formal.
    • Used bold plants such as iris and hosta as sculptural elements and old-fashioned plant varieties to feel like “grandmother’s garden.”
    • One of her secrets was that she used no more than six or eight flower types letting “each, in its season, dominate the garden.”
    • Used evergreens as backdrops 

Azalea Walk Way & Axial Layouts

  • Adjacent to pool on the east side of the oval drive
  • Helped to tie the spaces together & strengthened the relationship to the house 

Axis, Gazebos and Gates

  • Axial relationship through the length of the house, framed with archways, terminating at the rear fountain
  • Chippendale gate ties into railings on front portico of the house (standard in gardens)
  • Gazebo tied into house through Georgian ornamentation 


  • Left detailed instructions on upkeep
  • Plants vulnerable to disease, weather and time
    • Developed tree, bulb and perennial plans
  • Formal gardens promoted a retreat feel, and a connection for outdoor to indoor space
  • First use of cohesive spatial plans with each space having distinct character
  • Steps were sculptural in nature 

Touring the Garden in the 1930s

  • Pool Area
    • Italian Influence but with a Cabana 

Tree planting

  • Made home feel more Georgian Colonial time period
  • First used by Shipman at Longue Vue gardens
  • Brought the Manor House down to a human scale 

Putting Green

  • Popular with the Stranahans
  • South of Pool area
  • Adjacent to the Azalea walk 

Restoring Ellen’s Work

  • Endowment established in 1996 by the family of Alice Carson to begin work
  • Rebuild brick walls
  • Replumb fountains
  • Install new irrigation system
  • Replace some plantings
  • Premier Gardening services contracted to research plant material, install and maintain. 

Phase 2: 2008

  • Behind Garden Wall
  • Walkway to the Cabana
  • Pool Area Screening