After decades of neglect, an Italianate garden in Florida blooms again
by JUDITH B. TANKARD
Above left: The Italian Garden as it looked circa 1937. Above right: The garden as it looks today. Although cypresses have replaced the Chinese junipers, the overall effect is remarkably faithful to Ellen Shipman’s and Ninah Cummer’s original vision. Opposite: A view into the Italian Garden from one of the arches of the gloriette.
WITH AN IDYLLIC SETTING overlooking the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida, the grounds of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens have a fascinating history that has only recently come to light. They were once the private domain of one of Jacksonville’s most colorful personalities, Ninah Cummer, and involved a landscaping team of several prominent designers and horticulturists. The jewel is the Italian Garden, designed in 1931 by landscape architect Ellen Shipman and now being returned to its former splendor after lying dormant for many decades.
A PASSION TAKES ROOT The story begins in 1903, when Michigan lumber baron Arthur Gerrish Cummer and his young bride, Ninah May Holden, hired Ossian C. Simonds to lay out the grounds of the Cummer family’s Florida compound. Simonds, who grew up in the Midwest, was a pioneer in the relatively new field of landscape architecture. His plan for the grounds, done in a naturalistic style with little reference to Florida’s climate or native flora, entailed sweeps of trees and shrubs to enhance the stands of live oaks growing along the lush riverfront. These plantings provided the groundwork for later landscape improvements by other hands, such as Thomas Meehan and Sons, nurserymen from Philadelphia, in 1910. The Meehan firm added numerous crape myrtles, camphor trees, pomegranates, palms, Pittosporum tobira hedges, coonties, mondo grass, and other plants better suited to Florida’s climate. They also planted Ninah Cummer’s English Garden, a rectangular area with brick paths and a central sundial, with hundreds of annuals and perennials supplied from their Pennsylvania nursery. Seeking advice and plants from outside Florida was not unusual at the time, since there were few regional nurseries capable of supplying large estate gardens.
With the planting of her English Garden, Ninah’s interest in gardening began to blossom. A patron of the arts and a lover of all things Italian, she eventually became a passionate horticulturist as well, directing her boundless energy into creating gardens that outshone those of her relatives or fellow garden club members. Ninah admitted that when she first moved to Jacksonville she knew little about Florida’s horticulture, but soon became eager to learn. Where else, she wrote, “could you find a spot which was not too cold and not too warm, not too wet nor too dry, where trees were ever green, where the air was always freighted with perfume of some sweet-scented flower, where palms spread gracious fronds on every side.” Only Florida, with its glorious sunshine, could offer such an ideal climate for gardening.
As her passion for gardening intensified—her files bulged with lecture notes and clippings from Horticulture magazine—Ninah began to seek out specialized plants and encouraged local nurseries to stock varieties suited to northeast Florida. One was Glen Saint Mary Nurseries, near Jacksonville, founded by Dr. H. Harold Hume, one of the leaders of southern horticulture and the author of Gardening in the Lower South. After attending a lecture on azaleas by Dr. Hume in 1925, followed up by a visit to Charleston’s famed azalea gardens, Ninah was hooked. She immediately replaced most of the delphiniums, daylilies, irises, and other traditional perennials in her English Garden with azaleas, although experience would later prove that azaleas were not as well suited to the Florida climate as she had hoped. Every seven or eight years found her directing her gardener to lift, divide, and replant them, as they succumbed to the poorly drained, low-lying ground.
THE ITALIAN GARDEN BLOSSOMS The year 1931 found Ninah planning a new garden, one that would become the ultimate showcase for her azaleas. The site she chose was on the riverfront, where the family’s garage had formerly stood. It was partially shaded by the enormous boughs of the ancient Cummer Oak, which still forms the centerpiece of the grounds today. Upon the Cummers” return from a trip to Italy in 1930, laden with a boatload of Italian marble ornaments, Ninah bubbled up with ideas for an Italian garden similar to ones she had seen on her trip. Knowing her own limitations as a designer, she asked Ellen Shipman, the famous New York garden designer, to design her new garden, thus outsmarting her sister-in-law next door who had just hired the Olmsted firm to improve her garden.
By the 1930s, Ellen Shipman was a nationally recognized landscape architect renowned for her artistic planting style and her impressive roster of clients. Although she designed a number of gardens in the South, such as Longue Vue Gardens in New Orleans and numerous gardens in Houston, she had done little work in Florida. Shipman came armed with copious notes about plants suitable for the South, but her working knowledge of northeast Florida’s horticulture was minimal.
Between March and September 1931, the two women labored over the scheme for the new garden. Two dozen plans, construction drawings, and sketches by Shipman attest to a variety of ideas and a battle of wills. Ninah’s husband, who footed the bill, was near exasperation as the costs mounted. One of Shipman’s schemes called for five pools, a fountain, and elaborate steps, but the design that was finally settled on reduced the pools to three. Inspired by the famed water garden at the Villa Gamberaia in Tuscany, which both Ninah and Ellen had visited, the Italian Garden was designed expressly to display Ninah’s horticultural skills and dazzling collection of garden ornaments. When the garden was finally completed, Ninah was so pleased with the result that she worked a painstakingly detailed petit point embroidery picture of it that can be viewed in the Cummer Museum today.
Shipman’s masterful plan tied the new garden to the existing English Garden, both of which overlooked the river and were separated by Arthur Cummer’s putting green. (Shipman’s suggestions for reworking other areas of the property, including plantings around the house, the greenhouse, and the new garage, were dispensed with for budgetary reasons.) The heart of Shipman’s design are the two long reflecting pools (53 feet by 10 feet) flanked by densely planted flower beds, with a deep green, ficus-covered gloriette at the riverfront. This apse-shaped feature, adapted from the high clipped hedge at the Villa Gamberaia, echoed the wisteria-covered rough cypress pergola in the English Garden across the green. Shipman designed the garden to be enjoyed from several vantage points: the house terrace and lawn, the riverfront looking back at the house through the live oaks, and across to the English Garden. From an elevated bench, surrounded by greenery, one could view the length of the Italian Garden, with its carefully orchestrated planting scheme ranging from pale-toned azaleas in the foreground to brighter-toned annuals in the distance spotlighted against the green gloriette overlooking the river.
Left and center: The English Garden has its charms as well. In spring, wisteria cloaks a brick-and-timber pergola, while a marble lion-one of Ninah Cummer’s Italian treasures-wears a robe of white azaleas. Right: A glimpse of the newly restored Verona marble fountain-the focal point of the Italian Garden.
It was the English Garden, with its clipped boxwood hedges and profusion of flowers—and created almost 20 years before the Italian Garden—that awakened Ninah Cummer’s passion for horticulture.
With her expert knowledge of planting combinations, Shipman crafted layered plantings, starting with the live oak canopy that cast dappled shade over the garden. Ornamental shrubs and small trees provided screening around the garden’s edges, yet more shrubs in the flower borders exerted appeal at eye level, and low-growing masses of perennials and annuals expertly arranged for color and texture brightened the ground. Climbers on the walls, fragrant roses drooping over the edges of the pools, and regularly spaced standards of roses, camellias, and wisteria increased the lushness of the picture. Among the drifts of flowers, clipped evergreens and tubs of small trees (typical of Italianate gardens of the era) served to strengthen the garden’s architectural framework.
In deference to her client’s preference for azaleas, the flower borders surrounding the pools were planted with drifts of white, pink, and salmon azaleas on a ground of jasmine, tradescantia, Carolina jessamine, liriope, lippa, and Lantana montevidensis. These groupings were arranged to form mirror plantings on both the inside and outside beds. Standards of oleanders and wisterias added height and textural contrast to the planting scheme. For even more vertical emphasis, Shipman specified conical Irish yews at each of the four corners; the outer edges of the borders were to be edged in low Taxus cuspidata var. nana or Cephalotaxus harringtonii var. drupacea.
Ninah Cummer’s first reaction to Shipman’s proposed planting scheme may have been one of dismay at such a frothy confection. That, plus the lack of availability of some of the specified plants, explains why Ninah modified some of Shipman’s recommendations. Fastigiate Chinese junipers (Juniperus chinensis ‘Japonica’), supplied by Glen Saint Mary Nurseries, were substituted for the yews, for example, and ancillary players, such as the roses cascading over the pool and the oleander and wisteria standards, do not appear in Ninah’s petit point or period photographs of the garden. As the garden matured, Ninah continued to add and subtract plants. Being an enthusiastic plant lover, she was more interested in planting novelties than maintaining a static composition. Luckily, she did not alter Shipman’s elegant framework, which survives in near-original condition 70 years after its installation—a rarity among Shipman’s projects.
After Ninah Cummer’s death in 1958, her house was demolished to make way for a museum to house the Cummers” art collection. By 1959 the Italian Garden had faded to a mere shadow of its glorious earlier years, with institutionally clipped evergreens and a paucity of flowers. Shipman’s role as the garden’s designer was forgotten until 1998, when her original planting plans were discovered. Shortly thereafter the museum mounted a rehabilitation effort, with the replanting of hundreds of azaleas and other plants listed in Ninah’s records as well as some of Shipman’s original suggestions. Some of the Italian ornaments that initially inspired the garden were also refurbished, including the three-tiered Verona marble fountain, which had all but disintegrated. The garden that has blossomed forth is testimony to the collaboration and energy of these two remarkable, strong-willed women.
If You Go The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is located at 829 Riverside Avenue, Jacksonville, Florida, and is open every day of the year. For more information, telephone 904-356-6857 or visit www.cummer.org.