How a collection of exquisite historic images was rescued from oblivion
by ELEANOR WELLER READE
BACK IN THE 1960S, THE GARDEN CLUB OF AMERICA headquarters in New York City was trying to find room to build a small kitchen. The space under consideration was a large closet stacked almost floor to ceiling with heavy golden oak card catalog files, whose drawers were filled with some 3,000 fragile, hand-painted glass lantern slides—the precursors of today’s 35-millimeter color transparencies. Originally used by GCA members for lectures on horticulture and flower arranging, the glass slides were relics of a long-gone technology, and so the decision was made to get rid of them.
Fortunately, before that occurred, Harriet Jackson Phelps, who served for many years as photographic editor of the GCA Bulletin, was able to review the files’ contents. She immediately realized that the slides were a precious and irreplaceable photographic archive of hundreds of early-20th-century American gardens. (The slides date from the 1920s and 30s.) She then asked permission to search for a permanent repository for the slides in a museum, botanical garden, or library. A year later, despite having written thousands of letters, she was unable to find a home for the entire collection, and so was forced to divide the slides into small groups and disperse them among a number of recipients, each of whom she documented carefully.
Harriet told the story of the slides in a book she wrote for the Preservation Society of Newport County, Newport in Flower, which appeared in 1979. After the book was published, she stored the boxes of records in her cottage in Camden, South Carolina, having done her best for the slide collection.
Coincidentally, I had chosen Newport in Flower to review for the GCA Bulletin, attracted by its plain pistachio-green dust jacket and odd size. For me, and eventually for many others, reading about the glass slides was a revelation. I’ve always been aware of how easy it is for a lifetime of records to vanish, and I was seized with a sense of purpose: the collection must be reassembled, not only for its historical value, but also for the beauty of the slides themselves and to honor the women who had had the foresight to commission them.
With the enthusiastic support of the GCA administration, I spent the next 12 years immersed in the project. Using Harriet’s records, I began to track down the many recipients of the slides. As it turned out, a number of the slides were no longer where Harriet had originally sent them; nevertheless, all but about 120 were eventually recovered. Even museums and botanical gardens recognized the value of reassembling the collection, and for the most part willingly returned any slides they had. At first I worked alone, but by the end of the project there was a large, loyal committee engaged in the recovery effort.
Then began the long process of making 35-millimeter copies (so that the fragile glass plates would not have to be handled) and documenting the gardens. Often the photographers and the designers of the gardens had not been identified, so I examined black-and-white photograph collections at Hofstra University and the Library of Congress and books of the period to find that information. It turned out that many of the images had been taken by some of the great photographers of the era. For example, Mattie Edwards Hewitt and Frances Benjamin Johnston did a lot of the East Coast work, and other equally famous photographers documented the South, Midwest, and West Coast. The hand-coloring was done by a number of different artists. Although all the original documentation was done by hand, eventually a computer-based archiving system was developed for the collection.
My 12 years holed up in a cellar office recovering and cataloging the glass slides culminated on the day Dillon Ripley, former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, accepted them at a party in the rotunda of the Arts and Industry Building, where the collection—now officially part of the Garden Club of America Collection in the Archives of American Gardens—is now housed. All of those present raised a glass to toast the rescue of a unique historic resource and the rekindling of interest in a fascinating chapter in 20th-century American garden history. H