Our story for this month is about one of America’s earliest landscape architects, and major proponent of advancing careers for women, Mary Rutherfurd Jay (1872-1953). She was the daughter of Peter Augustus Jay (1841-1875) and Julia Post, and the granddaughter of Dr. John Clarkson Jay. Mary grew up at the Jay family estate in Rye, New York, about 25 miles south of Bedford House. She, her mother, and three siblings moved there in 1875 shortly after the sudden death of her father. The sprawling gardens at the Rye house awakened Mary’s artistic ambition, and greatly inspired her future career path as a landscape architect.
Mary attended MIT and was one of the first female students at Harvard University’s Bussey Institute, a world-renowned biological institution named after philanthropist Benjamin Bussey, who gave a substantial donation for the establishment of an undergraduate school for horticultural and agricultural education. Her first large scale commissioned work as a landscape architect came in 1907 for a “plaisance,” or private garden with shrubs and trees, at her sister Laura Jay Wells’ home in the affluent Round Hill neighborhood of Greenwich, Connecticut. This project helped establish Mary as a prominent, in-demand landscape architect in America.
Over the next two decades, she created garden designs for over 40 homes throughout the northeast, and as far south as Palm Beach, Florida, with famous clients such as Isaac Newtown Phelps Stokes (who wrote the famous Iconography of Manhattan Island), members of the Rockefeller family, and Remington Arms president Samuel Pryor. Her creations were diverse in both plant material, and composition, while demonstrating a vast knowledge of European garden design trends, and also those of India, Turkey, and Japan. The greatest influence on her designs was Andre Le Notre, the personal gardener of King Louis XIV, best known for designing the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Mary also contributed essays, and ideas to books and magazines on landscape architecture, such as House Beautiful and House and Garden, which were both widely circulated publications on the subject.
Mary, a pioneer who found success in a profession that was traditionally dominated by men, tried to make the field of landscape architecture accessible to more women. In 1914 she helped form the Women’s Agricultural and Horticultural Association whose mission was to mentor women who were interested in the field, and to expand access to women who did not have the formal agricultural education that she had. When the Garden Club of America was formed in 1913, Mary was frequently consulted as a judge at flower show contests and was a must-see speaker at their events throughout the years.
Mary’s volunteer work included working with shell shocked and injured soldiers in Versailles in the aftermath of World War I, as part of the American Committee for Devastated France. The committee, created by American socialite Anne Morgan, was designed to aide soldiers and residents of France who were either injured, or had their homes destroyed in the war. Mary’s role was helping the Army Garden Service, in which she commanded a unit of female volunteers who mostly instructed wounded soldiers how to raise crops by planting seeds.
After a long career, Mary wrote and published The Garden Handbook in 1931 as a summation of her methods, travels and lectures as a landscape architect. The book included descriptions and photos of historic gardens from all over the world for reference, as well as lists of blooming times for various species of flowers, shrubs, and trees. She was also an amateur family historian, writing a short volume called The Jay Family in 1935, outlining the family’s origins in La Rochelle, France, and their journey and success in America.
Mary died in New York City in 1953 at the age of 81. Her collection of image slides from her many lectures and her personal papers were donated to the University of California at Berkeley where they are available for study in the college’s archives.